Belfast Telegraph

Former Glenavon star Mark Sykes earns first call-up as Northern Ireland squad announced for Euro 2020 double header

Mark Sykes netted the winning goal for Northern Ireland U21s against Slovakia at Windsor Park last year.
Mark Sykes netted the winning goal for Northern Ireland U21s against Slovakia at Windsor Park last year.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes has been called up to the Northern Ireland senior squad for the first time.

The 21-year-old has made a flying start to his professional career by making nine League One appearances since his January switch from Glenavon.

He has been involved in the Northern Ireland training camps in Manchester and has done enough to earn a place in the panel for the Euro 2020 qualifiers in Estonia (June 8) and Belarus (June 11).

"Mark’s had a good start since he came across in January," O'Neill said, as quoted in the Oxford Mail.

“Sometimes lads find it a wee bit more difficult to adapt, but in the starts he’s had at Oxford he’s played very well.

“You can see it already and I’ve been impressed with him. He’s a very natural footballer. It’s nice to see a young player like that who has come out of the Irish League and make an impact. He certainly has a great future ahead of him.”

Sykes is the second former Glenavon player to be called up by O'Neill this season after Hearts full-back Bobby Burns was brought into the senior squad in November. There is no place for Burns in this panel, despite enjoying a run in the Hearts team at the end of the season.

Neither is there a spot for Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson, who trained with the squad last week on his return from a deep vein thrombosis diagnosis last year.

Sykes could, however, make his NI debut alongside his club-mate Gavin Whyte, who holds his place in the squad.

Also included are Aaron Hughes, who is set to retire after Hearts this morning confirmed his departure from the club, and Conor Washington, who is without a club after his release from Sheffield United.

Arsenal defender Daniel Ballard holds his place, having signed a new professional contract at the Emirates last week.

Up front, Rangers striker Kyle Lafferty is included ahead of a rumoured transfer to Cyprus.

“When you look at the strikers, Kyle is the most experienced, Josh (Magennis) has scored in the last game but Liam (Boyce) is coming in off the best season," said O'Neill.

Hearts defender Michael Smith comes back in but Aberdeen's Niall McGinn misses out through an ankle ligament injury.

Northern Ireland are sitting top of Group C after their opening home victories over Estonia and Belarus but O'Neill knows that two more positive results are required to tee up an exciting end to the campaign with fixtures against Germany and the Netherlands.

"It will be brilliant if we can come away with six points but we shouldn't take it for granted that it's going to be easy to do that," he said.

"We won the two games at home but we had to go right to the end to do that. These games are obviouly tougher away from home and particularly in June.

"I think it's a huge ask to get six points but that's what we're aiming for because then we face the bigger teams in the strongest position we can be in.

"There's a real focus on that first game because if you can win that then it leads into a positivity into the second game."

Northern Ireland squad in full

Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Conor Hazard

Defenders: Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Conor McLaughlin, Paddy McNair, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith, Tom Flanagan, Daniel Ballard

Midfielders: Steven Davis, Corry Evans, Shane Ferguson, Stuart Dallas, George Saville, Jordan Jones, Gavin Whyte, Jordan Thompson, Mark Sykes

Forwards: Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington, Liam Boyce, Paul Smyth

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