Michael O'Neill: Why summer football would be a great move for Irish League
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has backed the introduction of summer football to make Irish League football stronger.
The Northern Ireland Football League is consulting with Danske Bank Premiership clubs over a possible calender switch which would see competitive action over the summer when the clubs face formidable challenges in European competition.
Northern Ireland have sank to 52nd out of 55 nations in the Uefa Co-efficient list and there is real danger a Europa League place could be lost along with the £200,000 that comes with it.
O'Neill has met with representatives from the top flight clubs and argued in favour of a summer switch but some clubs and supporters remain to be convinced on the issue.
The Irish League plays an important role in the development of young players and seven members of O'Neill's squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus began their careers in the domestic game - Gareth McAuley, Gavin Whyte, Stuart Dallas, Mark Sykes, Paul Smyth, Liam Boyce and Michael Smith.
While clubs fear losing a cash windfall from Uefa, O'Neill's primary goal is to see the standard of the Irish League continue to improve and he believes a switch, incorporating the summer months, would create a more professional environment.
"We need the level of our domestic game to be higher," argued O'Neill who guided Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League group stages in 2011. "My personal opinion is by changing the season you have a better chance of improving the domestic game.
"The European football is a factor but my main feeling is the game will become more professional with respect to how players train and prepare for games and it will become better if you change the season."
In another recognition of the Irish League's production line, O'Neill yesterday called Sykes into his international squad for the first time.
Former Glenavon midfielder Sykes made the move to Oxford United in January and steps up to the senior squad after making 11 appearances for the Under-21s and impressing at a training camp in Manchester.
“Mark Sykes, Gavin Whyte and Stuart Dallas all came through the Irish League,” added O’Neill.
“Gavin is a recent example and the transition to become a senior international player is very quick now.
“The Irish League is more vital to us than ever because we need it to develop more players so the late developers, players like Liam Boyce, can get a move.
“One of the first games I went to was a League Cup final when Stuart Dallas played for Crusaders at Ballymena and he went to Brentford just after that. That has been the players’ pathway and we need more players to come out of the Irish League.”
O’Neill has seen Sykes sparkle for the Under-21s and he’s confident he can make the senior breakthrough.
“He showed up really well in the training camps,” he added.
“He’s only made around eight to 10 starts for Oxford and a few other appearances but he has shown up well and it’s nice to have eight of our previous Under-21 team in our squad.
“We still have a core group of experienced players, 14 of whom were at the Euros, but the squad has become significantly younger in the last 12 months and we are asking players to step up a little bit quicker than we would like.
“But the players have shown up well and this is all part of their development. If needed, they must perform on the pitch.”
O’Neill’s side face Estonia on June 8 and play Belarus three days later.
And in another reference to summer football, he couldn’t resist drawing a comparison.
“Both Estonia and Belarus play in a summer season which is a brilliant decision by them! Their domestic players will have an easier transition,” he said.
Northern Ireland are top of Group C after beating both of their upcoming opponents at home in their opening two qualifiers in March. They will travel to Austria at the weekend in preparation for the matches in Tallinn and Borisov.
“It would be brilliant if we could take six points from the games but we can never take anything for granted,” added O’Neill.
“It won’t be easy, we won the two games at home but we had to go right to the end to do that.
“These games are always tougher away from home and particularly in June, it’s a huge task to get six points, but we’re aiming for that to leave us in the strongest position we can be in ahead of facing the bigger teams.
“There’s a real focus on the first game because if you can win that there’s a natural positivity going into the second game.”
As well as Sykes, the only other player in the squad without a cap is Arsenal’s young gun Daniel Ballard.
“Daniel is showing up really well in training,” said O’Neill.
“You are looking at a boy who was playing with the Under-19s only a year ago. He’s playing regularly with Arsenal’s Under-23s this season and he’s on course for possibly a loan move.
“We have great servants in our squad but they won’t go on forever. We have Tom Flanagan at Sunderland and Daniel so that’s a position we aren’t particularly strong in other than Jonny (Evans) and Craig (Cathcart). You need to push these young guys through in an environment where they can play at senior international level.”
Veteran defender Aaron Hughes was included in the squad on the same day his release from Hearts was announced.
Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn is missing after suffering ankle ligament damage last month.
There is no place for Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson, who had been called up for the training camp after recovering from deep vein thrombosis.
Sheffield United midfielder Oliver Norwood is missing again.