Belfast Telegraph

How Northern Ireland's Central American tour will bear fruit for years to come, explains O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill hopes yesterday's draw with Panama is just the start of adding strength in depth to his Northern Ireland squad.

O'Neill played four Under-21 internationals - Paul Smyth, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery - during the second half in Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

All four players, with Peacock-Farrell, Thompson and Lavery making their debuts, acquitted themselves well, linking up with the senior and experienced internationals.

O'Neill is without 10 regular Northern Ireland players on this tour and is using the two games against Panama and Costa Rica to integrate the young guns into his squad so that he can reap the benefits in future.

"To come here after two training sessions, a long flight, long travel, to play how we did and to come out and make sure we weren't beaten is very commendable," stated O'Neill.

"The main thing for us is we benefited four years ago from coming on a tour (to South America) like this. I think already we've benefited again.

"The big thing is, does it deepen our pool of players? Yeah, I think it does. And that's very important.

"The senior boys have been great. It was great to see Jonny Evans out there. We played him in midfield and again he showed he can play there and I'm delighted with everyone.

"It provides options for us and that's what we need. At times we've not had those options and it's been our downfall. Slowly but surely I think we're starting to see more options coming through."

Northern Ireland last night flew into San Jose for their second match of the tour against Costa Rica, and O'Neill is hoping it will be a little cooler than the 30 degrees of Panama City - although the match on Sunday kicks off at 11am (7pm BST).

"I think Panama is as severe as I've known it," admitted O'Neill. "The humidity is the thing. For the players to keep going is phenomenal really. We've had a lot of players that haven't played a lot of football this season as well.

"It's good for the players to have that experience and there's a real togetherness in the team to make sure that we got the result we did.

"Now we have Costa Rica and an 11 o'clock kick-off, which is going to be interesting! We believe that the humidity isn't as bad in Costa Rica, so we'll see."

For Panama, they now play Norway before travelling to Russia for the World Cup finals.

Panama, after their opener against formidable Belgium, will play England in their second group game on June 24 and O'Neill hopes they enjoy the experience of competing with Gareth Southgate's men on the big stage, but can't see a shock taking place.

O'Neill added: "The tournament's going to be tough for Panama, there's no doubt about it, they're in a tough group but their achievement is in getting there.

"They've everything to gain from being there - they should be very proud and good luck to them. But I think England will be too strong to be honest."

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