Gavin Whyte has what it takes to become new Northern Ireland star: O'Neill
When Gavin Whyte first trained with the Northern Ireland senior squad in Panama during the summer, Michael O'Neill felt it was perhaps too much for him.
The Northern Ireland boss said yesterday that in Central America, Whyte was "a little bit timid" and "a little bit light".
Not any more. Having landed his dream move to England with Oxford United from Crusaders in July, Whyte has moved up the gears, so much so that O'Neill is ready to give the 21-year-old his first cap against Israel tonight in the friendly at Windsor Park.
- Read more: Lafferty misses training and Whyte considered for debut: Michael O'Neill discusses Northern Ireland changes for Israel friendly
- Read more: More of Northern Ireland's U21 players can follow Peacock-Farrell to senior side: Baraclough
Whyte, in fine scoring form for Oxford, also has the seal of approval from the Northern Ireland players, with experienced defender Jonny Evans stating that his ability and attitude has come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of months.
Impressive in training before Saturday's Nations League defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Whyte is loving mixing with international greats like Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty and Evans, and they are enjoying having him around too.
"In the one or two training sessions before the Bosnia game you could see he's got a real intelligence, and he's already scored goals for Oxford since going there," said Leicester City defender Evans.
"He's had to bide his time and was maybe in and out at the start, but he's scoring goals, playing well and straight away you can see the difference in his attitude and the belief in his game.
"Hopefully he can keep improving, he's definitely got the ability and, as Michael said, he's pushing for a spot in the team."
O'Neill's take was equally positive. He said: "Gavin's trained really well. Really well. Far better than he did in the summer. I already see a lot of development with him going into full-time football and where he is now.
"Whether he gets the opportunity against Israel, we'll see, but I do feel we have another player now who very soon is going to be a full international player.
"It's noticeable in training where when he came in the summer he looked just a little bit timid, a little bit light. He doesn't look like that now, he looks sharp, real quality, and it's been a real bonus having him in."
O'Neill will shuffle his pack for the Israel game, though insists changes won't be wholesale as he wants to put out a "team that's cohesive and as strong as possible".
Unavailable tonight are the injured Josh Magennis and Gareth McAuley, who has returned to new club Rangers in a bid to increase his fitness. Lafferty sat out training yesterday as a precaution due to a tight Achilles.
That could mean starts for both Will Grigg and Liam Boyce, who made an impact coming off the bench at the weekend, while it would be a surprise if Paddy McNair, Corry Evans and Jordan Jones weren't involved.
Trevor Carson or Michael McGovern look set to play in goal. O'Neill was quick to point out, however, if Bailey Peacock-Farrell is not included it has nothing to do with the 2-1 loss to Bosnia, when the Leeds youngster was unfortunately involved in a mix-up for the decisive goal.
"If I do make a change (in goal) it will not be related to performance, it's related to people getting the opportunity to play," said O'Neill.
"Trevor has been playing for Motherwell and Michael played in the cup for Norwich, so we'll look at that situation.
"It was good to get Bailey on the pitch. He will be disappointed obviously with the nature of the second goal and how that came about, but one thing I've noticed is he's already left it behind. He's not the type of guy who is going to dwell on things.
"He seems to have a really good mentality for the game. He's in a situation at his club where he's being pushed every day, and that's good for us."
Meanwhile, Israel manager Andi Herzog, who celebrated his 50th birthday yesterday, was full of praise for O'Neill last night.
"I want to give a big compliment to Michael O'Neill for what he's been doing for the last couple of years," he said.
"It's been really, really impressive and this will be a good test for us because our next game is at home against Scotland (in the Uefa Nations League)."