Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland U21 coach Robinson goes with youth as he looks to future

By Stuart McKinley

Stephen Robinson has revealed that he and Michael O’Neill have agreed change in approach for Northern Ireland at under-21 international level.

Robinson’s team takes on Belgium this evening in only the second game in their 2015 European Championship qualifying series, but the focus is already on 2016 and beyond.

The seven competitive matches that the under-21 youngsters will play over the next year will be used to give the squad more experience at a higher level.

The short term aim is to make the under-21 team more competitive, with the longer term ambition being that by the time the players reach the senior squad they will be better equipped to make the step up.

“We are here with a much younger squad than we have had in the past, which is something that Michael and I have decided to do,” said Robinson.

“We have Liam Donnelly, who at 17 is still eligible for the two under-21 campaigns after this and Dominic Ball is in the same situation.

“There are 10 of the squad who can still play in the next campaign and I don’t think Northern Ireland have ever given players that kind of experience before.

“We have decided to take a long term view. There are players who we don’t think will progress to the senior squad, the others we are trying to push through.

“We can’t dictate what happens to players at club level, so we want to give them as many opportunities as possible and it should also make us more competitive at this level over the next few years.

“Out of 44 players available to us, two played first-team football at their clubs last weekend — and that was with Southend United and Accrington Stanley — so we have to try to do something about it.”

Robinson isn’t completely ignoring the more experienced players available to him.

He has three players with senior caps in his squad, Adam Thompson, Carl Winchester and Josh Carson, with the latter poised to join up with the manager who gave him his Northern Ireland debut.

Carson was released by Ipswich Town last week and he has been offered a deal by Nigel Worthington to take him to York City.

He also trained with Hibernian during the summer who are also interested, but York appears to be the four-times capped winger’s preferred option.

Those three players will also be key against Belgium, who are regarded as being just as strong at under-21 as they are at senior level.

“We are coming up against a team that is regarded as the best in Europe at this level and the players should be relishing the challenge,” said Robinson.

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