Belfast Telegraph

Injection of young blood needed to boost ageing Northern Ireland squad

By Stuart McKinley

U21s: N Ireland 0 Denmark 3: The Russians are coming. And by the time they roll up at Windsor Park on the road to Brazil 2014 Nigel Worthington — or whoever may be in charge of Northern Ireland by then — will be looking for reinforcements.

Money can’t buy you international footballers. You have to grown your own and that’s what the under-17, under-19 and under-21 competitions are all about.

Unfortunately Northern Ireland’s results at under-21 level bear a striking resemblance to those the senior team has recorded of late. A lucky draw in the Faroe Islands before a 4-0 win at home and then a 1-0 defeat against Serbia.

Yesterday Steve Beaglehole’s youngsters went down 3-0 against Denmark at the Oval. Even though the Danes played the entire second-half with 10 men after Northern Ireland captain Chris Hegarty got a slap in the face from Mathias Jorgensen the result wasn’t the most concerning thing.

Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley and Grant McCann will all be 32 by the time the World Cup qualifying series starts in 12 months’ time, while David Healy have hit 33.

Their time isn’t up yet, but it’s getting close and finding replacements is going to be very difficult.

The drip feed from the under-21s is merely a trickle.

Glance down the list of clubs and it looks quite good. Rangers, Manchester United, Werder Bremen, Newcastle United. Then you see that both goalkeepers are unattached and Sean McCashin is part of the Glen Hoddle Academy - which is essentially the same thing.

Yes, Worthington did have three under-21 players with his senior team in Estonia and half a dozen others weren’t available for various reasons, but few, if any, are ready to make the step up on a regular basis.

Look at the current senior team. Hughes bypassed the under-21s. Healy only appeared a few times before he was fast-tracked and as soon as Chris Baird and Steve Davis broke into their respective first-teams senior international football followed.

That’s just not going to happen again in the short-term.

More often than not by the time players reach the under-21 team you already know who is going to progress to the senior ranks and which players will meet the end of their international careers at that stage.

Shane Ferguson and Oliver Norwood, who was Northern Ireland’s best player against the Danes, are certs — no rocket science needed there. The jury is very much out on the rest. Even Liam Boyce, who is one of four others who have already won senior caps.

It will always be the same though. While England have brought Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley through at the same time, the Northern Ireland production line will chuck out players much less frequently. If one player was to emerge every year we’d probably be happy enough.

Finding four to replace the thirtysomethings in one go? Even the bigger nations would struggle to do that.

Belfast Telegraph


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