Gavin Whyte will keep on right path, insists Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill has backed Gavin Whyte to learn and move on from the lewd behaviour which saw him receive a police caution.
Northern Ireland manager O'Neill was critical of Whyte after his behaviour on a drunken night out in Belfast was seen by millions on social media.
The 23-year-old, who left Crusaders to join League One side Oxford United in the summer, feared the incident would wreck his career but he has vowed to put the episode behind him.
O'Neill included Whyte - who won the George Best Breakthrough Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards - in his squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers at home to Estonia and Belarus next week.
The gifted winger, who scored with his first touch on his senior debut in the 3-0 friendly win over Israel in September, is aiming to hit the headlines for the right reasons and O'Neill hopes the man from the Markets can weave his magic again.
"I was delighted with his contribution in the games for us and a lot of things have changed in his life in a short space of time, but he's a player who is focused after adapting very quickly to the professional game," said O'Neill.
"That's testament to us because a lot of our lads need time to adapt in English or Scottish football, but he hasn't needed that time. With every squad, Gavin will become a more important player for us."
O’Neill added: “Gavin’s career has developed very quickly. He has started 27 or 28 league games and made about five substitute appearances, he has got off to a great start with the goals in the early period.
“He’s still a big player for them and the reports have always been really positive in terms of the level of his performance.”
Another former Irish League hero hoping to deliver on the big stage is Paul Smyth, who returns to the senior squad after sealing a loan deal to Accrington Stanley from Queens Park Rangers.
“For the younger lads it’s always important to get game time,” added O’Neill.
“Paul was frustrated at QPR but he has been excellent for Accrington and he just needs to play. He’s a diminutive little player, and sometimes that goes against him, but he has a huge heart and appetite for the game. He had a number of clubs interested in him so he thought long and hard about his loan move.
“The young boys are not ready to come in and be starting players but they can come in and energise the squad. We will need them to come through quickly and Paul has that potential along with Gavin Whyte, Jordan Thompson and Daniel Ballard.
“We want them to feature in the team, not just the squad.”
While Whyte and Smyth are among the young guns hoping to fire for Northern Ireland, O’Neill still has faith in his elder statesmen, Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes, despite their lack of game time with Rangers and Hearts.
The experienced duo may be in the autumn of their careers, but still have the appetite to deliver on the international stage and could feature against Estonia and Belarus in the opening Euro 2020 qualifiers.
“That will be their decision,” said O’Neill when asked about the players’ retirement plans.
“The discussions I’ve had with the players are we will take it on a game by game basis. It took Gareth a while to get his right club but he would admit he hasn’t played as much as he would have liked at Rangers.
“Aaron has been a squad player at Hearts but we still need the players involved. We need the lads to help the younger players. We aren’t leaving anyone out to include these players. There is no natural successor for that position. Hopefully Daniel will be able to develop.
“Aaron and Gareth still have a lot to offer in terms of the preparation of the squad. Gareth is still keen to play, he has a hamstring issue we will monitor, but if we have to turn to the players their experience will make a difference. I’m sure they are still capable of doing a job for us.
“I am frustrated for Gareth because it’s nice to move to a big club at this stage of his career. With injuries it has been stop-start but I’m sure Steven Gerrard still believes Gareth can do a job.
“These things are outside my control but the enthusiasm from Aaron and Gareth is the same as ever.”