Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland players must work their way up to the Premier League, says O'Neill

Estonia v N Ireland, Uefa Euro 2020 Qualifying Group C, Le Coq Arena, Tallinn, Saturday, 5.00pm

Missing elite: There are only five Premier League players in Michael O’Neill’s Euro Qualifiers squad
Missing elite: There are only five Premier League players in Michael O’Neill’s Euro Qualifiers squad
Daniel Ballard

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has admitted it's now a huge challenge for Northern Ireland players to reach the promised land of the Premier League and he believes the best route to that elite level of the game is to progress through the divisions in England.

It could be argued that, due the vast amount of money swirling around Premier League clubs and their worldwide recruitment approach, it has never been harder for Northern Irish players to establish themselves in England's top flight.

Even England manager Gareth Southgate sounded a severe warning recently, highlighting the numbers of English players in Premier League teams have fallen so low that future international managers could have as little as 15 per cent of the top-flight to choose from.

Southgate said there was a "big danger" that the trend of falling numbers threatened the future of the national team unless clubs change their approach.

The England boss stated: "The big concern for me is this graph continues to fall away and that we end up in 10 years' time with an England manager who has got 15 per cent of the league.

"And why wouldn't that happen, because it has dropped 15 per cent in the last seven or eight years, so there's no sign of that being arrested because more money is coming in. That is a big danger for us."

Of O'Neill's 27-man squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus this month, only five are from the Premier League, and that includes uncapped youngster Daniel Ballard at Arsenal.

Jonny Evans at Leicester City and Watford defender Craig Cathart are the shining lights, while Norwich stopper Michael McGovern is struggling to feature for the first team.

Jamal Lewis makes the step up with Norwich, along with Ollie Norwood at Sheffield United, who sits out these games through injury.

While many Irish players -north and south - are enticed to England at a young age by Premier League giants, O'Neill admits it can be a long and treacherous road to the top.

"We have two players, Jonny and Craig, who play in the Premier League," reflects O'Neill ahead of Saturday's game in Estonia.

"Steven (Davis) has moved back to Rangers. We have Michael (McGovern) at Norwich, though he hasn't played, and young Jamal (Lewis) who steps into the Premier League as well as Ollie Norwood with Sheffield United.

"Going forward, it's probably a more realistic way for our players to get there, by being promoted from the Championship as opposed to being signed by a Premier League club. We can only develop the players as best we can. We had a very strong Under-16 group that won the Victory Shield. A lot of the players are going to high calibre clubs in England but that doesn't necessarily mean they will end up playing for those clubs in the Premier League.

"It is a challenge but we are not alone. I think the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales to a lesser extent and England all face that challenge."

The FA is pursuing a Brexit deal with the Premier League which will reduce the number of non-homegrown players in the 25-man team squads to 13, from 17, the current quota.

In return, when it comes to foreign nationals, the current European Union work permits will be extended worldwide. So far, the two bodies have not been able to reach an agreement.

Despite boasting a lack of talent from the Premier League, Northern Ireland have been able to punch above their weight and O'Neill says that will always be their goal.

"We have proven ourselves to be successful within our expectations, which are different for Gareth (Southgate) and England," added O'Neill, whose side are in Austria preparing for the matches in Tallinn and in Borisov against Belarus on June 11.

"We compete at international level with a squad predominantly made up of players from the Championship, League One and Scotland.

"We have five from the Premier League if you include young Daniel at Arsenal, seven from the Championship, six from League One and five from Scotland.

"That's the level of our players, but when they come to play for Northern Ireland they can play above the level they are perceived to be at.

"Look at Conor McLaughlin who played at the Euros while at Fleetwood Town.

"Any Northern Ireland manager will have to deal with these matters going forward."

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