Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill losing numbers game

By Patrick Nixon

Every time Michael O'Neill assembles his squad before a tough international test, he plays the numbers game.

And, as any Northern Ireland manager will tell you, it's a tough gig. The international boss has a dwindling number of players to select from.

It has never been more difficult for our gifted young players to make the breakthrough in the professional game.

They have always had to sacrifice more than boys in England because they needed to leave their families and take that leap of faith.

And now the influx of foreign talent into the cross-channel game has made their dreams of hitting the big time even tougher to realise.

O'Neill was angry at the number of withdrawals which disrupted his plans ahead of the South American tour because it leaves others vulnerable to a mauling like the one his side experienced in the 6-0 thrashing against Holland in 2012.

The former Shamrock Rovers boss needs all the support he can get from his troops – particularly as the player pool is diminishing.

Yes, there are plenty of players with international aspirations but how many of them are playing at a level which will see them step onto the international stage with ease?

As he reflects on the performances of his men in the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay and this morning's test against Chile, O'Neill knows he must soldier on with a depleted army.

"We're weaker resource wise than we've ever been," he said.

"We have around 50 players in the professional game, and that's from the Premiership to the second division and the SPL.

"That's what we have to choose from, players in League One and League Two... in all honesty, it's a big ask to expect them to go and play against the top players playing international football.

"Realistically to be competitive at international level you probably need 30 players playing in the top two leagues, the Premiership and the Championship.

"Obviously we don't have that at the minute. Without being disrespectful to our players, our best players are defenders."

O'Neill cuts a frustrated figure as English clubs continue to bring in foreign talent and neglect home grown prospects.

"If England can't develop their own players because of the Premier League, what chance do our kids have?" he asked. "They're already going into an environment that doesn't lead to any progression.

"Before you play first team games all you have is potential.

"If you don't get the opportunity to play first team games how do you ever realise that potential? That is part of the problem."

But against Uruguay, the supposed lambs to the slaughter stood up to the challenge and some have caught the manager's eye.

Both Uruguay and Chile are hoping to make a big impact at the World Cup in Brazil so these clashes were always going to give O'Neill a deeper understanding of his own resources.

"For some of our players, playing in front of a 60,000, partisan crowd, against a team that is going to the World Cup, it's a huge experience that most of our lads haven't had before," he added.

"Guys like Steven Davis, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Roy Carroll gave us valuable experience though."

Skipper Davis led by example against Uruguay, producing one of his finest performances in a Northern Ireland jersey.

"Steven is in a better position than ever in terms of where he's at in his career as a player," added O'Neill. "I think the year he played under Mauricio Pochettino (at Southampton) has been a huge help to him.

"I think his fitness levels are higher than ever, his work off the ball is higher than it's been and it's more clever than it's been in terms of how he's developed tactically in the last 12 months.

"His consistent performances for Southampton in the second part of the season showed in the game against Uruguay."

Michael O’Neill’s professional options

Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern (Falkirk), Alan Mannus (St Johnstone), Roy Carroll (Olympiakos)*, Trevor Carson (Bury)

Defenders: Jonny Evans (Manchester United), Aaron Hughes (QPR)*, Daniel Lafferty (Burnley), Lee Hodson (Milton Keynes Dons), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town), Luke McCullough (Doncaster Rovers), Ryan McLaughlin (Liverpool), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Rory McKeown (Kilmarnock), Ryan McGivern (Hibernian), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool), Rory McArdle (Bradford City), Alex Bruce (Hull City), Liam Donnelly (Fulham), Michael Duff (Burnley), Andrew Mitchell (Annan Athletic).

Midfielders: Steven Davis (Southampton), Chris Baird (Burnley), Sammy Clingan (Kilmarnock), Chris Brunt (West Brom), Paddy McCourt (Barnsley)*, Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Oliver Norwood (Huddersfield Town), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United — Birmingham City on loan), Dean Shiels (Rangers), Paul Paton (Dundee United), Ben Reeves (Milton Keynes Dons), Michael O'Connor (Rotherham United)*, Grant McCann (Peterborough United), Josh Carson (York City), Jonny Steele (New York Red Bulls), Jeff Hughes (Fleetwood Town), Robbie Weir (Burton Albion), Greg Tempest (Notts County), Carl Winchester (Oldham Athletic), Johnny Gorman (Leyton Orient)*.

Forwards: Martin Paterson (Huddersfield Town — Bristol City on loan), Kyle Lafferty (Palermo), Jamie Ward (Derby County), Josh Magennis (Aberdeen, St Mirren on loan)*, Billy McKay (Inverness), James Gray (Accrington Stanley), Will Grigg (Brentford), Andrew Little (Rangers)*, Josh McQuoid (Bournemouth — Peterborough on loan), Billy Kee (Burton), Adam McGurk (Burton).

*denotes players who have not yet signed a contract for any club next season.

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