Belfast Telegraph

How Shayne Lavery and Liam Donnelly's Northern Ireland cameos provided optimism for big international futures

Shayne Lavery and Liam Donnelly impressed as substitutes for Northern Ireland against Luxembourg.
Shayne Lavery and Liam Donnelly impressed as substitutes for Northern Ireland against Luxembourg.
Luxembourg's Chris Philipps (left) and Northern Ireland's Liam Donnelly shake hands after the International Friendly match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday September 5, 2019. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only, No commercial use without prior permission.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 05th September 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Shayne Lavery during Thursday nights International Friendly against Luxembourg at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Former Northern Ireland U21 captain Liam Donnelly is still a leading figure for the nation's younger players.
Shayne Lavery has a shot against Luxembourg.
Pacemaker Press 5/09/19 Northern Ireland v Luxembourg International Friendly Northern Ireland's Shayne Lavery and Luxembourg's Laurent Jans during this evening's game at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Running out on to the pitch, ball under your arm, as an enthusiastic child, you never pretend you're making your second appearance for your country.

Debut? Absolutely. That's the dream, the landmark, the culmination of a lifetime of dedication.

The headlines, as such, at Windsor Park on Thursday night went to the trio stepping into the senior set-up for the very first time; Ciaron Brown, Ethan Galbraith and Alfie McCalmont all togging out for Michael O'Neill's team for the first time.

Yet for two of the other second half substitutes, cap number two just might bring more long-lasting significance than their first.

Linfield striker Shayne Lavery and Motherwell midfielder Liam Donnelly were both brought on to make their home debuts and double their senior international appearance tallies.

For Donnelly, 23, it's been a five-year wait to add to his debut in Chile, while Lavery's bow arrived in summer 2018 in Panama.

Those friendly appearances provided a tantalising taster of the big-time that never really promised to immediately satisfy the hunger for more.

This time, with their respective club careers finally taking shape, their second sampling of international football might just turn into a longer-lasting feast.

Lavery, 20, has scored five goals since joining Linfield in the summer while Donnelly, incredibly, has already amassed eight in his new midfield role at Motherwell.

Taking to the pitch midway through the second half on Thursday, both made a telling difference for their country.

Stepping into what had been a labouring, uninspiring Northern Ireland performance, Lavery was the man that provided the immediate spark with his direct running and quick feet, on several occasions tying Luxembourg defenders in knots, just as he did to Qarabag during Linfield's Europa League run last month.

"That's what the gaffer (Michael O'Neill) said to me - just get at them and play my own game," he said, admitting he will take confidence from being able to cause those problems on the international stage. "That's what I like doing - getting the ball and taking them on one v one. I did that a few times. I really enjoyed it."

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Shayne Lavery has a shot against Luxembourg.

Behind him, Donnelly brought a purposeful drive through the middle of midfield. The Motherwell man seemed intent on being the one to set Lavery galloping at a taken-aback defence, while he was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions himself, the first from a well-weighted Lavery cross and the second when he seized on a fumbled ball in the box, only to see his goalbound effort rebound off a prostrate defender.

"I don't know how I didn't score," he laughed. "Was it the defender or the keeper kept it out? Between the two of them I don't know how it didn't go in. I was gutted.  It gives you a buzz, a good lift. I'm quite happy with how I did as well so that gives you a bit of confidence going into training."

The duo, of course, know each other's games so well after the UEFA U21 Euro campaign that fell agonisingly short last year.

"Shayne's a wee pitbull," said Donnelly. "You just know when he's going through and there's a defender chasing, you know he's coming out with it. He's been unbelievable with a great start to the season. Hopefully he can continue that. He's been good in training too.

"He makes it easy for you. He's busy, he makes loads of runs. He's a hard-working lad. He's always there to give the ball to."

While they may only have shared a little over 20 minutes on the pitch, their link-up play provided enough promise to suggest there is an already-established chemistry there, ready to be mined over the next decade, should their careers continue their current trajectories.

"Liam can have a massive impact for Northern Ireland," predicted Lavery, each more keen to talk up the other than himself. "I've never seen him give a bad performance. It's always a solid seven or eight out of 10 or above that. He's a great player and was a great leader and captain for us last year. He's still someone we can look up to."

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Former Northern Ireland U21 captain Liam Donnelly is still a leading figure for the nation's younger players.

It's all, as Donnelly points out, down to the work of Ian Baraclough and his Under 21 staff, who have sent as many as 10 players through to the senior squad in the last couple of years.

"It's built a platform for the guys to come up and do well with the senior squad too," says Donnelly.

The stage has been set, now Lavery and Donnelly, after potentially significant second caps, can rightfully audition for the leading roles.

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