Belfast Telegraph

How Northern Ireland's game time dilemma has worsened ahead of Euro 2020 qualifiers

Michael O’Neill (Tim Goode/PA)
Michael O’Neill (Tim Goode/PA)

By Paul Ferguson in the Sunday Life

In recent years, Northern Ireland have become accustomed to playing through their perennial problem.

A testament to manager Michael O’Neill and his players, that despite it being a serious inconvenience, they continue to produce high-level performances in international matches.

O’Neill knows the issue, which he inherited just like every Northern Ireland manager since Billy Bingham, will never go away but continually hopes there might be a slight improvement, especially when players move clubs.

Yet, since Northern Ireland’s last international — a 2-1 defeat by Austria on November 18, it’s actually been exacerbated with key players in the squad failing to gain valuable game time with their clubs.

After losing all four games in their Nations League adventure in agonising fashion last autumn, along with a draw against the Republic despite dominating in Dublin, O’Neill could have done without such a cruel twist ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The trio at Rangers — skipper Steven Davis, striker Kyle Lafferty and vastly experienced defender Gareth McAuley — were all supposed to light up Ibrox yet have hardly kicked a ball in earnest during the last six weeks.

Goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, after being between the sticks for the first half of the season, has lost his place at Leeds United to former Real Madrid stopper Kiko Casillo and, if he stays at Elland Road,  it appears must be content with his place on the bench for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, with Trevor Carson out indefinitely as he recovers from a blood clot and Michael McGovern playing back-up to Tim Krul at Norwich City, 21 year-old Conor Hazard is the only keeper making regular appearances and that is in the depths of the Scottish Championship with Partick Thistle as he is out on loan from Celtic.

The right back slot is of serious concern as Michael Smyth is ruled out with a thigh injury, veteran Aaron Hughes hasn’t played for Hearts since the middle of December, Conor McLaughlin is just back from a quad issue and Paddy McNair, the makeshift wing back, now only features for Middlesbrough from the bench. Northern Ireland’s most impressive player during the autumn series, Stuart Dallas, has fought back from injury and therefore he has been limited to cameos from the bench for Leeds, while Jonny Evans, such a rock for the men in green at the back, is only now assured of a regular place in the Leicester team with Brendan Rodgers in charge.

As O’Neill prepares to name his squad on Tuesday morning to kick off their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign against Estonia and Belarus later this month, Northern Ireland will once have to tackle their own hardship as well as the opposition, but then again, have the men in green known anything else?

Under O’Neill’s direction, apart from a few blips, they have always produced — especially in front of a capacity crowd at Windsor Park, which is expected for the games against Estonia on Thursday March 21 and Belarus three days later.

And this could be an opportune time for the young guns to overshadow their more established team-mates.

This time last year, winger Gavin Whyte was starring for Crusaders, yet 12 months on and having signed for League One outfit Oxford United, he has seen more club action than many of his international team-mates — apart from Ollie Norwood. It will be interesting to see whether O’Neill includes an Oxford double as Mark Sykes, since his move from Glenavon in January, has suddenly been starting for the U’s.

Starlet Jamal Lewis, at left back, has been a revelation as Norwich City push for automatic promotion to the Premier League while Rangers-bound Jordan Jones is still terrorising full backs with his pace and trickery in a Kilmarnock shirt.

O’Neill will be pleased that reliable centre back Craig Cathcart has been at the heart of Watford’s incredible surge up the Premier League this season, Tom Flanagan has been solid in Sunderland’s back-line and versatile Shane Ferguson continues to enjoy a starting role in Millwall’s midfield.

Sadly for Northern Ireland, it has come to the point where a player starting or lasting an entire 90 minutes at their club is to be applauded. How O’Neill would dearly love his Rangers triumvirate to be playing more regularly but it appears, despite the fanfare when Davis moved back to Glasgow on loan from Southampton in January, that he, alongside Lafferty and McAuley, are not in the immediate thoughts of manager Steven Gerrard.

Davis is such a talented player that he will  still be an influential presence in Northern Ireland’s midfield, but boss O’Neill will expect Norwood, George Saville and Corry Evans to take some of the workload of their skipper.

In attack, it is another dilemma for O’Neill as there are no stand-out performers so Lafferty, Liam Boyce, Will Grigg and Josh Magennis will battle it out while Kyle Vassell, Conor Washington and Jamie Ward are expected to miss the games through injury.

O’Neill has faced adversity throughout his tenure and he, along with his players, have always come out fighting.

With European heavyweights Germany and the Netherlands, coming up in this Euro 2020 campaign, Northern Ireland know a successful start in their four games against Estonia and Belarus are crucial if they are to play a significant role in this qualifying group.

And in doing so, the players can show the club managers what they are missing.

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