Belfast Telegraph

Kyle Lafferty expected to play against Luxembourg as Northern Ireland U21s players could make first step up

Leeds United's Alfie McCalmont, midfielder Kyle McClean, Hearts full-back Bobby Burns and Cardiff City defender Ciaron Brown all trained with the senior squad

Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Kyle Lafferty is in line to feature for Northern Ireland against Luxembourg tomorrow evening, while some young players are set to be handed their first taste of senior international action.

Lafferty was called into the squad on Wednesday morning after being sent off during his debut for Sarpsborg 08 on Sunday.

Despite the fact that he won't link up with the panel until the day of the friendly at Windsor Park, Michael O'Neill says the forward will be given an opportunity to prove his worth ahead of Monday's Euro 2020 qualifier at home to Germany.

O'Neill has already lost Paul Smyth from his original panel, with Linfield striker Shayne Lavery called in as replacement, and Liam Boyce is struggling with a hamstring injury sustained last weekend.

"We're trying to nurse a few people through these games," explained O'Neill, who has named Corry Evans as captain for the friendly. "We've lost players and the key is to keep ourselves as strong as possible.

"Kyle, having played 67 minutes at the weekend, is in a little bit better shape. We can give him some more minutes tomorrow night and then see where he is at. We have an injury doubt with Liam Boyce and Will Grigg was unavailable for personal reasons.

"(Lafferty) wasn't in the original squad because he didn't have a club. It's impossible to ask a player to come and play international football without having a club. It's a risk to them in terms of the chance of getting an injury and trying to get a contract.

"We have to remember where Kyle is. The last time he started a club game was against Cowdenbeath (for Rangers) in January. He played for us in the two games in March and contributed a lot for the 65 minutes he had in his legs. He's not going to be what he has the potential to be but he can contribute. We'll see how long that is when we make our decision on the team."

Lafferty was not present at training on Wednesday, when some of Ian Baraclough's Under 21 panel stepped up to join the senior squad.

Leeds United's Alfie McCalmont, former Glenavon full-back Bobby Burns, Cardiff City's Ciaron Brown and former Linfield midfielder Kyle McClean, who has recently left St Johnstone, all trained with O'Neill's squad on Wednesday and the manager said that they could be handed their first spots in a senior international match-day squad tomorrow.

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Bobby Burns trained with the Northern Ireland senior squad last Wednesday.

"There's an possibility that some of those young lads could be involved tomorrow on the bench," he said, also warning that young players won't simply be gifted senior caps.

"We won't just give them game-time for the sake of giving it to them. Have they earned it? Mark (Sykes) is not playing at Oxford so he's a late call-up. He did well with us in the summer. Shayne (Lavery)'s done great for Linfield and he's a player we know well.

"It's an opportunity but the objective is to get a good performance and try and get a good result. The players that need that little bit of fitness or game-time, they'll get that. It will be an opportunity for the supporters to see some of the potential players that are coming through and hopefully that will be exciting."

The opportunity to welcome the group of up-and-coming young players into the squad was a welcome one for O'Neill, who is keen to establish that pathway through the Northern Ireland set-up.

"It's the one thing I would love to change about international football," he said. "In the past, the Under 21 team would travel with the senior team and would play the night before. I think, for a smaller nation, that's really beneficial.

"This is the first time since Ian (Baralough - U21 manager) has come in that we've had the opportunity to do this. It keeps the quality in the group and it lets us see them. From Ian's group in the last campaign, 10 of those players have been in the squad now. Hopefully that sends a message to young players that the pathway to play international football is very quick with Northern Ireland."

O'Neill also confirmed that the goalkeeper who starts against Luxembourg will also be handed a the number one jersey against Germany. With Trevor Carson, Bailey Peacock-Farrell nor Michael McGovern playing a single minute of senior club action this season, O'Neill will be forced to pick an out-of-practice stopper.

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