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Northern Ireland squad: Mark Sykes named in 26-man panel for Euro 2020 play-offs

 

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Mark Sykes is back in the Northern Ireland squad.

Mark Sykes is back in the Northern Ireland squad.

PMAKER

Mark Sykes is back in the Northern Ireland squad.

Mark Sykes is one of three players Michael O'Neill has brought back into his Northern Ireland squad for this month's Euro 2020 play-offs.

The Oxford United midfielder is rewarded for a string of impressive performance at club level, including his starring role as his League One side took Newcastle United to extra-time in the FA Cup last month.

Sykes is still awaiting his senior international debut but his former Glenavon team-mate Sammy Clingan, who made 39 appearances for Northern Ireland, recently backed the 22-year-old to force his way back into O'Neill's squad for the crucial semi-final clash in Bosnia and a potential final at home to either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland.

"He's a young player that we've had around the squad," said O'Neill. "He's still finding his feet in English football after his move from Glenavon but I think he's made a big impression. Since the start of the season, he's been excellent at Oxford. We've had a lot of good reports on him. I know that he played particularly well against Newcastle and Steve Harper (Northern Ireland and Newcastle United coach) alluded to that. "

Sykes is one of two uncapped players in the 26-man panel, with Aberdeen winger Matthew Kennedy holding his place.

Also returning are Hearts striker Conor Washington, fresh from scoring twice in the Scottish Premiership last week, and Rangers' wide-man Jordan Jones, who is back from a knee injury.

Linfield striker Shayne Lavery drops out, as does midfielder Corry Evans, who continues his return to fitness following surgery on frontal lobe and eye socket fractures in January.

There is an increasing danger that the play-off semi-final in Bosnia on March 26 will be played behind closed doors after ticket sales were postponed, the country's first ban on mass gatherings was issued - albeit in Sarajevo rather than Zenica, where the game is due to take place - and the nation's domestic football was ordered to play the next two rounds of fixtures without supporters.

O'Neill, however, says his side won't be sidetracked from the task at hand.

"It's not really my concern," the boss said. "Having been involved in international football for eight years I know you can have the best preparation in the world going into a game, but ultimately it's what happens in the week going into a game that matters most, whether down to player availability or whatever situation you're faced with.

"This is another situation that's not really in our control, so dwelling on it too much is not really beneficial. From our point of view the most important thing is our preparation, how we prepare to make sure we're ready to play on the Thursday night."

The winners will of the tie will host either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia in the play-off final on Tuesday, March 31.

Northern Ireland squad for Euro 2020 play-offs

Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Trevor Carson

Defenders: Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart, Conor McLaughlin, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith, Tom Flanagan, Ciaron Brown

Midfielders: Steven Davis, Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas, Shane Ferguson, Paddy McNair, George Saville, Jordan Jones, Gavin Whyte, Jordan Thompson, Liam Donnelly, Matthew Kennedy, Mark Sykes

Forwards: Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, Liam Boyce, Conor Washington

Belfast Telegraph