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Norman Whiteside: Northern Ireland’s young guns must come of age and follow example of Steven Davis and Jonny Evans

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Norman Whiteside is keen to see what Northern Ireland's youngsters are made of

Norman Whiteside is keen to see what Northern Ireland's youngsters are made of

Norman Whiteside is keen to see what Northern Ireland's youngsters are made of

Norman Whiteside insists that the youngsters in the Northern Ireland squad should use the forthcoming Nations League matches as a “growing up” exercise and learn from the nation’s big hitters Steven Davis and Jonny Evans.

Ian Baraclough’s 28-strong panel for tomorrow’s match against Greece in Belfast, home and away ties versus Cyprus and a trip to Kosovo is a mixture of experienced and proven men like captain Davis and vice-captain Evans and promising boys such as Charlie McCann, Brodie Spencer and Shea Charles, who are in the senior set-up for the first time.

Throw in Conor Bradley, Trai Hume, Paddy Lane and Alfie McCalmont and there is a youthful feel to the squad with a host of regulars missing.

Whiteside knows better than most about bursting onto the international scene. The Windsor Park icon made his Northern Ireland debut aged just 17 years and 41 days on the biggest stage of all — at the World Cup finals in 1982.

Forty years on, the ex-Manchester United star still holds the record as the youngest player to play in the tournament. He went on to earn 38 caps, scoring nine goals and becoming a superhero to the fans before injury cut short his outstanding career at 26.

The Shankill Road native may live near Manchester with wife Denise but he still keeps a close eye on all things Northern Ireland and is keen to see the national team shine.

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Norman Whiteside during his Northern Ireland playing days

Norman Whiteside during his Northern Ireland playing days

Norman Whiteside during his Northern Ireland playing days

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, promoting Northern Ireland’s new television deal with Premier Sports, Whiteside said: “These games will be good to see how the youngsters cope. This group of Nations League matches can be used as a growing up process for them.

“There are a lot of kids in the squad and they will want to show the manager what they are all about. What they should also do is watch and learn from senior players like Steven Davis and Jonny Evans who know what is required at international level.”

Whiteside has much respect for 37-year-old Rangers midfielder Davis, who tomorrow should win his 135th cap, and Leicester City defender Evans (34) on 94 appearances for his country.

“Steven’s record speaks for itself. He has 134 caps which is remarkable. I played with big Pat Jennings and I thought no one would ever beat his record of 119,” said Whiteside.

“Goalkeepers can go on forever but for a midfielder to beat Pat’s record is amazing really.

“I think Steven was underestimated throughout his career, even by myself. The closer he got to his 100th appearance the more I started taking notice of what he was achieving. At that stage I saw people writing him off a little bit, wondering how much he had left, and he has gone on to win another 34 caps with more to come which tells you a lot about his fitness and his character.

“People write you off when you are 31 or 32 and he is 37 and still going strong so he clearly looks after himself.

“Having watched him in more detail in recent years I’ve found what a great passer of the ball he is. Steven doesn’t give the ball away and he keeps people in the game, supporting team-mates wherever that is required. He reads the game very well which I admire.

“The number of caps he has tells you how much he wants to represent his country. He’s the one that would go away to Albania in a friendly mid-season which speaks volumes.

“Jonny Evans is another player who has been brilliant for Northern Ireland. I played with Jonny’s dad Jackie in the schoolboys years ago. Jonny is a very important player. Him and Steven Davis are the backbone of the team.

“Jonny was at Manchester United and since leaving Old Trafford he has excelled and it’s been the same for Northern Ireland.

“Had he been allowed to stay at United he would probably have been in the team all the time now but he has done well elsewhere and is a key player for Leicester.”

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Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis with boss Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis with boss Ian Baraclough

Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis with boss Ian Baraclough

Whiteside also rates Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas and hopes he makes a strong return after sustaining a serious injury in April. Northern Ireland boss Baraclough, who replaced Michael O’Neill as boss in 2020, will wish the same.

World Cup record breaker Whiteside added: “Michael set the standards qualifying for Euro 2016. I was at the Euros doing TV work and remember after losing the first game 1-0 to Poland he made five changes. That was a big call and it worked out because we beat Ukraine 2-0 and ended up reaching the knockout stages.

“He did a brilliant job and to be honest I don’t think we have reached that level since.

“It’s Ian’s job to build it back up. He is bringing in a lot of young players and the good thing about that is with him having worked at Under-21 level he will know about these kids coming through and who can step up to the mark.

“If Ian does well with Northern Ireland, clubs might take a look at him. Some managers prefer the day to day role and this job might be a stepping stone for Ian. International football can give you that but it can also destroy you if results go against you.”

Norman Whiteside was promoting Premier Sports’ live coverage of all Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland matches in the Uefa Nations League, starting with Northern Ireland v Greece (tomorrow, 7.45pm) and Armenia v Republic of Ireland (Saturday, 2pm). Premier Sports is available from just £9.99 per month and is available on Sky, Virgin TV, Premier Player and on Amazon Prime as an add-on subscription.


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