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Jordan Jones can prove his worth to Northern Ireland for Euro 2020 play-off, says Michael O'Neill

 

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Welcome return: Jordan Jones is back in the Northern Ireland squad

Welcome return: Jordan Jones is back in the Northern Ireland squad

Feeling good: Michael O’Neill happy to see NI players shine

Feeling good: Michael O’Neill happy to see NI players shine

Welcome return: Jordan Jones is back in the Northern Ireland squad

Jordan Jones might only have played 102 minutes of football this year but Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill is keen to give the Rangers winger every opportunity to prove his worth ahead of the Euro 2020 play-offs.

The 25-year-old has been sidelined for much of the season, missing Northern Ireland's final four qualification group matches, due to a knee injury sustained in the process of a tackle on Celtic's Moritz Bauer at the start of September.

Despite returning to fitness over the Scottish Premiership's winter break, he has made just a single start and three substitute appearances for the Gers since.

Given his impressive performances in his nine international caps to date, O'Neill is keen to ensure he gives the winger every chance to stake his claim for a starting spot when the squad meets up to prepare for the crunch semi-final clash in Bosnia on March 26.

"It has been a difficult season for Jordan," said O'Neill, when he announced his squad on Tuesday.

"But he came off the bench on Sunday and I thought he played well. He has been training with the first team but just not had that opportunity to make the impact.

"It is a 26-man squad and I think it is important that he is involved in the squad so we can assess him between the Monday and Thursday to see where he is at (ahead of the game).

"A fit and hungry Jordan Jones is a player who gives us something. He has proven that already in the short time he has played international football."

The manager was left to rue a lack of options after the qualifying group stages fizzled out through injuries and players not getting enough game time for their clubs was a particular concern.

But now he is buoyed by having an almost full squad, with the only exception being Corry Evans, a long-term absentee with a facial injury, sustained in January.

The return of Rangers' Jordan Jones and Conor Washington of Hearts offers options after long-term injuries made them unavailable for the autumn campaign, and their inclusion will bolster a squad showing encouraging club form and stacking up much-needed first-team appearances.

"This season has been good," said O'Neill, who has been combining his role with managing Championship side Stoke City. "We have players such as (Craig) Cathcart and (Jonny) Evans who are having very good seasons.

"Jamal Lewis is back in the (Norwich) team having been out for a period and Steven Davis is playing a lot of games for Rangers.

"Corry (Evans) was playing until the injury, while George Saville and Paddy McNair are playing consistently (for Middlesbrough), as is Stuart Dallas (Leeds).

"So a lot of what we would regard as our starting players are playing consistently.

"The front players are playing as well and scoring a few goals, so coming into this game there is probably a higher percentage of the squad playing more regularly than what we had in the past."

O'Neill was encouraged by seeing three of his players - Kyle Lafferty, Washington and Paddy McNair - on the scoresheet last weekend.

He added: "Kyle has had to be patient. I think the weekend was his first (Sunderland) start and it was good to see him get the two goals.

"It was a blow losing Conor when we did in the qualification campaign coming after he played so well against Germany.

"It would have been a good option for us, particularly in both games against the Netherlands, but the hamstring injury kept him out for four months.

"He has made an impact since coming back and scored in the derby win over Hibs and scored again at the weekend.

"When you have been out for the first half of the season, hopefully that translates into a bit of freshness."

Steven Davis is just two appearances away from equalling Pat Jennings' caps record.

The midfielder will play his 118th game for his country against Bosnia and victory there will see him go level with the legendary goalkeeper against either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland in the play-off decider at Windsor Park.

The 35-year-old has already played 45 games for club and country this season but O'Neill has no concerns.

"He is a Rangers player and I know how important he is in their team," he continued.

"Steven will look at this game and the significance of getting to a major tournament. He has only done it once in his career. He captained us to Euro 2016 and is desperate to get the opportunity to play at another major finals.

"Players recover well now as well, and he has played in big European games for Rangers so the experience is there, and we will wrap him in cotton wool before the game."

One of the few drawbacks for O'Neill is the absence of Evans.who has undergone successful surgery, but his recovery will take time.

"I saw him recently when we (Stoke) played Blackburn, he is on the mend," said O'Neill.

"The operation has been a big success but unfortunately, obviously, this game has come too quickly for him."

Belfast Telegraph