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NI winning battle to keep top young players: Nicholl

 

By Graham Luney

Jimmy Nicholl believes Northern Ireland will hold onto their best young players rather than see them switch to the Republic of Ireland.

Fifa's eligibility rules allow young players from Northern Ireland to turn out for the Republic unless they have made a competitive appearance for the north.

The Irish FA have needed to raise their game when it comes to persuading players from a nationalist background not to jump ship, and Nicholl, who is Michael O'Neill's number two with the Northern Ireland side, says he's confident emerging talent will appreciate a welcoming environment and opportunity to taste success.

O'Neill, whose side take on the Republic in a friendly at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (7.45pm), steered Northern Ireland to the knockout stages of Euro 2016 and the play-offs for a 2018 World Cup spot.

"Undoubtedly," said legend Nicholl when asked if we were winning the battle to convince players to stay with Northern Ireland.

"We are convincing more players to stick with us. In the 1980s, under Billy Bingham, we didn't have that issue but were still successful.

"Players didn't have the choice then, but if they did they would have played with Northern Ireland because of the success the senior team enjoyed.

"After that, when big Jack (Charlton) came in, the Republic became more appealing. Players want to play in major tournaments. We are now at the stage with Michael's commitment to giving youth a chance that more players will look at Northern Ireland and see there is something exciting happening.

"There's a lot of money in football, particularly in the Premier League, but players want to achieve things, too. There must come a time when players want to show their grandchildren medals and look back on great international memories."

Nicholl added: “At international level you’d love to say you have played at the Euros or a World Cup. I think Northern Ireland, with Michael in charge, are in a healthy position to hold onto the young players who have a choice.

“The Under-21s have also been exceptional and very unlucky not to qualify for the Euro finals.”

Nicholl, who was appointed O’Neill’s number two in March 2015, played at two World Cups and won 73 caps. The former Manchester United and Rangers ace is now relishing this clash with the Republic, an international friendly with a genuine edge.

“I played against the Republic in the late 70s and 80s,” he added. “I remember the first one at Lansdowne Road at the height of the Troubles and it was a bit tense. I must have been playing at centre-half. I thought I beat the offside trap but the whistle had gone, though I didn’t know.

“I’ve got the keeper to beat to put Northern Ireland 1-0 up and there was a deafening silence. It wasn’t to be, but it finished 0-0 and we got through it okay, but it was tense.

“Another time we lost 3-0 when I was assistant manager with Billy Bingham. It’s a competitive derby and both managers will want to win the game to see some progress.

“Both managers know a win can inject some confidence going into the Nations League games.”

Nicholl missed the two Nations League defeats to Austria and Bosnia as he was recovering from hip surgery.

And he’s still not convinced of the value of the new competition, one which has brought Northern Ireland very little good fortune.

“I thought the biggest problem was not getting a break in front of goal,” he added.

“The goals will come. Michael can see we have young players who are learning all the time against good teams. Our possession stats have been good.”

“We are all still getting used to the Nations League and you ask yourself just how important are the matches?

“I’ve been watching the other games and I find it incredible that Alex McLeish has been getting slaughtered as the Scotland manager. The Nations League will be a bad thing in my eyes if it’s going to put managers out of a job before the Euro qualifiers even start.

• Northern Ireland Under-19 striker Liam Smyth has signed his first professional contract with League Two outfit Stevenage.

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