Motherwell star Liam Donnelly is finally fulfilling his potential, says Northern Ireland boss
No Kyle Lafferty, no Gareth McAuley, no Oliver Norwood and no Shayne Lavery. When Michael O'Neill announced his latest Northern Ireland squad yesterday the notable absentees were always going to take up plenty of time during his media briefing at Windsor Park.
The Northern Ireland boss answered every question posed about those not on his 25 man list with clarity.
True to form though, like every successful manager, O'Neill preferred discussing those who would be involved in next month's friendly at home to Luxembourg and the eagerly awaited Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany at Windsor Park.
Like Motherwell's Liam Donnelly for example. The record appearance holder for the Northern Ireland Under-21 side won his first senior cap in 2014. He is set to double that tally in September.
O'Neill has watched Donnelly in the Scottish Premiership this season and was taken with his strong performance against Celtic, albeit in a 5-2 defeat, crediting Motherwell manager Stephen Robinson with re-invigorating the career of the former Dungannon Swifts ace.
"Liam has started the season brilliantly. It's been a change of position for him, and he's actually playing as a holding midfield player, but he has still managed to get a few goals including a very good one against Celtic," said O'Neill.
"He was excellent in the Celtic game and did really well against Olivier Ntcham and Scott Brown in midfield. He really impressed me and also looks as if he is enjoying his football and playing with confidence.
"There was always a good player in Liam but Liam had to find that player. He is finally fulfilling his potential and playing very well at Motherwell.
"Stephen Robinson has played a big part in that. Liam didn't have a great season last time but he has come back with a new lease of life this season and deserves his place in the international squad."
Also included is uncapped 29-year-old Ross County defender Callum Morris. Born in England, Morris was in the Republic of Ireland youth set-up before switching allegiance to Northern Ireland.
"Callum is an experienced player who has fitted well into or squad previously," said O'Neill.
"I saw him playing for Ross County recently against Hearts and he kept Conor Washington quiet that day. He did well in the game and we are not blessed with many options in that position."
The reason for that is youngster Daniel Ballard is injured and veteran McAuley, at the age of 39, has yet to find a new club after leaving Rangers.
Former Ibrox team-mate Kyle Lafferty, despite his move to Norwegian outfit Sarpsborg 08, has not had enough game time under his belt to be involved. Throw in Norwood making himself unavailable after retiring from international duty and that means the manager is without three big name players for the Germany match.
O'Neill said: "They are players who have been influential but the squad evolves all the time. Age and club situations catch up with players. I have a team already in my head who I will play and, if I'm honest, none of those three would have been in it."
On Sheffield United hero Norwood, who O'Neill said had made a 'huge mistake' when quitting Northern Ireland at the age of 28, the manager added: "Ollie has made his decision. If you look at it, Ollie hasn't been with us since last October. It's not as if it's just in this campaign that he has made that decision.
"My statement was pretty clear. I think he made the wrong decision, and I still feel that, but ultimately, as I've always said, international football is a choice and Ollie has made the decision not to play it, so there's very little I can do about that.
"We have played 26 competitive games in the last two campaigns and Ollie started every game, so it can't be about selection, so his reasons are his reasons.
"I tried everything, as I have done with other players who contemplated retirement, but Ollie has decided his club career takes priority and he has the right to make that decision."