Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland set to land two new players, confirms Michael O'Neill

By Paul Ferguson in the Sunday Life

Michael O’Neill has admitted he is closing in on two new players for Northern Ireland.

Fresh from Northern Ireland’s impressive 3-0 win over Israel last Tuesday night, O’Neill, along with Head Scout Andy Cousins, have identified the talent they want to bring into the squad and are hoping to secure their commitment soon.

“We have one or two players that we are working on behind the scenes who hopefully can come in and strengthen the team,” concedes O’Neill.

“The amount of work we do behind the scenes, with Andy Cousins, is phenomenal, you would not believe where we are potentially looking, to try and strengthen the squad — and at a young age as well.

“Everyone else is doing it, I think it’s something we haven’t done enough of in the past. At the end of the day you have two routes to strengthen your squad, you either bring players through or you find players with a bloodline.

“Now, when a George Saville drops into your lap, brilliant, because straight away you’ve got an international player, and it has been brilliant for him, he’s now got a great move (Millwall to Middlesbrough) out of it as well.

“We are constantly looking. Three years ago I sat with Bailey (Peacock-Farrell) in a hotel in Manchester, he just looked like a young kid and I thought, ‘I might never play this kid’, but Andy and (goalkeeping coach) Maik Taylor put a lot of work into that and suddenly we’ve now got a young goalkeeper playing in the Championship for Leeds United and that’s what you have to do.

“You can’t just wait and as soon as they reach a level reach out to them, that’s not the time for it, you have to put the work in before that, and hopefully we will continue to reap the rewards.”

During the recent games against Bosnia and Israel, O’Neill used eight players — Peacock-Farrell, Lewis, Ollie Norwood, Saville, Jamie Ward, Will Grigg, Conor Washington and Jones — who are all English-born but qualify through their parents/grandparents coming from Northern Ireland.

These players have greatly strengthened his panel and are considered a necessity for progression in tandem with Northern Ireland-born players, and O’Neill is pleased that the relentless hard work he and his team have put in over the years is paying off.

In the UK, Northern Ireland, outside of England, is suddenly an attractive proposition for those players with a choice through bloodline but O’Neill insists the real graft starts long before they make it into their club’s first team — as was the case with Peacock-Farrell, who of course turned down England in favour of the men in green just a few weeks ago.

O’Neill states: “I just want to see the squad improve, the team improve and I’m not setting any unrealistic goals.  We are where we are now, we’ve been consistently ranked between 20-30 (in the FIFA listings) for a period of time and it’s no longer a case of a few good results and we’ve dropped away. We got to that position in the world and we were able to stay there.

“We would obviously like to improve on that, and that comes with winning games but I just think, from a holistic point of view, I just see more and more young players on the periphery, hopefully coming in and realising that Northern Ireland is a great option."

Closer to home, the Irish League is not being ignored and O’Neill has long held the opinion he would prefer the Danske Bank Premiership to act as a stepping stone to ambitions across the water with a major focus on youth.

With Whyte, former Glenavon full-back Bobby Burns and Coleraine’s Brad Lyons moving from the Irish League to the professional game in recent months, and Lurgan Blue Mark Sykes set to follow suit with Coleraine’s Jamie McGonigle also attracting interest, O’Neill is encouraged that these players are grasping their opportunities.

“In terms of my long-term contract, one of the things I wanted to see from the Association was that we develop the game in Northern Ireland and I would like to help develop the domestic game.

“Ahead of the internationals, I went to the Crusaders/Coleraine match on the Monday night. I saw young Jamie McGonigle score two, but is he a player who will get an opportunity in England or Scotland as well? That’s what we want. We want those players to come in and get those opportunities.

“The game is in a good place. Certainly at international level, we’re working very hard with the U19s and U17s, Stephen Frail (coach) is working very hard alongside us. Getting results at that level can prove difficult but overall there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes and we’ve got good people in the right places.”

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