Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill: My sleepless nights over Northern Ireland lack of young talent

Michael O'Neill has admitted he's having sleepless nights as Northern Ireland boss but it has nothing to do with his next job in the game.

The former Shamrock Rovers chief is being heavily linked with the Leicester City job following the departure of Claudio Ranieri and it's unlikely he would turn down an offer from a Premier League side.

But while his name is mentioned in connection with club vacancies and the 47-year-old is continually grilled on the issue by the media, O'Neill knows he can't stop the speculation so he lets it wash off him.

What is a more pressing matter for him and a reason to break out in a cold sweat is a glance at the production line for the international side.

A golden generation of Northern Ireland players have tasted extraordinary success and back to back major tournaments is a real possibility but O'Neill admits he's deeply concerned at the lack of talented young players progressing through the ranks.

This World Cup qualifying campaign, which will hopefully end in Russia next year, is likely to be the last one for several players including Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Aaron Hughes and Jamie Ward so who is ready to answer their country's call?

The Euro 2016 heroics which culminated in a last 16 appearance in France last summer should inspire young players who 'dare to dream' but it's becoming harder for our gifted youngsters to make the breakthrough in England and Scotland.

"If there's one thing that gives me sleepless nights it's the search for younger players," confessed O'Neill at yesterday's official launch of the Irish FA's new Education and Heritage Centre at Windsor Park.

"For me to watch a young player on the periphery of my squad I have to go to League One or League Two. I've watched Ryan McLaughlin at Oldham, Liam Donnelly at Hartlepool and that's a huge jump to ask those players to come from that level of football and to play at international level.

"We do not have enough young players playing first team football higher than League One level. We can't expect our players to go on forever and we will lose a few after this campaign. There will be a transition after that but you can only pick what you have and we have worked very hard at under-age levels to find players as well, we've tried to use the eligibility side and Stephen Frail has worked hard with the under-17s and 19s. I think it's harder now for our young players to get across the water to top clubs as well."

O'Neill's words should ring more than a few alarm bells with the Green and White Army. On top of the fear that Northern Ireland may not be able to sustain their stunning form on the international stage there is also the possibility that the manager will walk away from a project he feels he can develop no further.

There could be another huge rebuilding process on the horizon and the timing will be right for a new man, with fresh hunger and energy, to take over the controls.

But unless the Foxes step up their interest in O'Neill he's focusing on steering his country to Russia and like a cagey opening batsman, he knocked away the questions with aplomb.

"If West Brom, Southampton or Watford are playing Leicester I will be there watching one of my players," he joked after being asked if he was going to City.

"No, I am here in Belfast and looking forward to the game in a couple of weeks.

"There are no contacts that I am aware of but that's a question for Patrick (Nelson, Irish FA chief-executive). There's speculation and that's the nature of it.

"Clubs will always draw up lists of managers that they maybe think are worth considering. To be honest I'm not sure whether I'm on that list or not but at the end of the day if you're linked to jobs it means you are doing a decent job in the one that you are in. I just want to make sure that we continue the progress here we have been making."

Northern Ireland fans can also be certain that shrewd operator O'Neill will not just accept any offer that is put on the table. He's well aware of the dangers that accompany club management.

"It's a natural thing to have that fear when you're going into the club environment, which is totally different, it's week to week there's pressure to get results, the tenure is much shorter," he added.

"You have to fit in with possibly a structure at a club where you are not necessarily signing the players. It's something you have to consider closely before you take any position.

"International football is a very different challenge, you have to maximise the resources you have and you might not have players available.

"When you have a small pool of players like we have it presents challenges but there will come a time it will be right for me and Northern Ireland that we part company but at this moment in time I'm not actively looking to get involved in club football."

Northern Ireland fans will never forget the Michael O'Neill chapter and they're hoping there are more pages to turn.

Belfast Telegraph

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