Belfast Telegraph

Donnelly and Lavery in frame for NI's Luxembourg test


Liam Donnelly
Liam Donnelly

By Graham Luney

Liam Donnelly and Shayne Lavery have both played themselves into Michael O'Neill's thoughts ahead of the friendly against Luxembourg at Windsor Park next month.

The clash on Thursday, September 5, is a key warm-up fixture before the crucial home clash with Germany in the Euro 2020 qualifiers four days later.

Donnelly and Lavery have made sensational starts to the season with Motherwell and Linfield respectively, leaving them well placed to make O'Neill's panel for the Luxembourg game.

Donnelly is Northern Ireland's record Under-21 cap holder having made 24 appearances, but his only senior outing was against Chile in 2014.

Lavery is also expected to add to his one senior cap gained in a friendly against Panama in May last year.

Another fresh face in O'Neill's squad could be Northern Ireland Under-21 international Alfie McCalmont, who came off the bench to make his first-team debut for Leeds United in their 3-0 Carabao Cup success this week.

The highly-regarded 19-year-old midfielder played the final 20 minutes of Leeds' first-round success at Salford City.

One player who could be left out of O'Neill's squad for the Luxembourg game is striker Kyle Lafferty, who has not yet found a club after his release from Rangers.

Lafferty is thought to be keen on a return to Italian side Palermo, who were demoted to Serie D earlier this summer for financial irregularities.

O'Neill has always maintained a players' club career will shape their international fortunes and it appears likely that Lafferty is in danger of dropping out of the squad.

Donnelly's inclusion will not surprise his club boss Stephen Robinson, who has tipped the former Dungannon Swifts youngster to receive a recall.

The Fir Park manager said: "Liam is probably knocking on the Northern Ireland squad again if he continues in this form."

The 23-year-old former Hartlepool and Crawley ace has hit six goals in his first five starts for the Steelmen, including a brace during Saturday’s 5-2 defeat to Celtic.

Robinson added: “Michael O’Neill was at the game on Saturday.

“Michael doesn’t miss much. Northern Ireland only has a small pool to pick from and if Liam continues to play games, I feel he’ll continue to improve.

“He’s not played a large amount of games in the centre of midfield so he will continue to get better and I’m sure he will be on Michael’s radar for a call-up.

“He’s already had that taste of international action.

“His career lost its way a little bit and he didn’t get the game time that he needed.

“This move was to revive his career and we spoke to him about that.

“We told him this could be the last chance saloon.

“We’ve given him the platform and he’s certainly taken his opportunity so far.”

Robinson admits he has had to take extra care with him ahead of tonight’s Betfred Cup second round clash with Hearts.

“I’d no doubts about Liam because I’ve worked with him since he was 14 years of age,” said Robinson, who will be without the suspended Jake Carroll and injured Casper Sloth for the all-Ladbrokes Premiership showdown.

“I’d no doubts about his quality or the fact he could play in midfield either.

“Keeping him fit, though, was always the hardest bit.

“He’s turned up in great condition, he’s got his act together.

“He’s not trained this week because of a niggle but will be back out today.

“That was more about us taking the foot off the gas with him a little bit but we’re confident he’ll be fit to play against Hearts.”

O’Neill has also been impressed with Lavery’s energetic and effective performances for Linfield, who have moved within one tie of reaching the Europa League group stages.

Speaking after the Blues’ triumph over FK Sutjeska, O’Neill commented: “I have to say I thought Shayne Lavery had an excellent game and I was delighted to see them make it through to the play-off round.”

Lafferty will need to get his club future resolved quickly if he hopes to feature in Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 battles with Germany and Holland.

The Fermanagh man, who is 32 next month, netted six goals in 30 appearances after rejoining Rangers from Scottish Premiership rivals Hearts.

O’Neill didn’t start him in either of the Group C victories in Estonia or Belarus this summer, though he was a late substitute in the latter encounter when Paddy McNair netted in the dying moments.

The striker is understood to be considering a return to Italy, saying: “I would love to come back to Palermo, I remain tied to those colours, I carry them in my heart and I would still want to represent them.”

Lafferty scored 11 goals for Palermo in the 2013-14 season, but was then sold to Norwich City with the club having concerns over his off-pitch lifestyle.

It’s unclear if Palermo would be able to come up with a financial package to re-sign the former Norwich City and Burnley man.

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