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Full Time

Northern Ireland U21s can put on a show that Spain will remember, says Donnelly

N Ireland vs Spain; UEFA U21 Qualifier; Shamrock Park, Tonight, 7.45pm

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland Under-21 skipper Liam Donnelly has urged his team-mates to put in a performance to savour and impress the watching senior boss Michael O'Neill against Spain at Shamrock Park tonight.

Victory over the Spanish will see the Northern Ireland youngsters go top of their European Championship qualifying group and put themselves in a strong position to qualify for next year's finals.

It's a massive ask, though, because Spain have won all four of their games to date and will be littered with talented players who have already performed in La Liga including Real Madrid trio Jesus Vallejo, Dani Ceballos and Borja Mayoral.

Hartlepool defender Donnelly smiles when asked about taking on the boys from the Bernabeu. Nothing much fazes the ex-Fulham ace who has one senior international appearance to his name, not even Spain's future superstars.

Now 22, the Dungannon native has been in the Under-21 squad since he was 16 and has come through a spell when the side couldn't buy a win to now when they are in contention to qualify for a tournament.

"They have a good squad with good players playing at a high level but we will still approach the match looking to win it," says Donnelly.

"We'll have a game plan. I don't think it will suit us if we sit back and try and defend so we will go out and try and get in their faces and put a bit of pressure on them. Having the home crowd behind us will be massive.

"This is the best Under-21 squad that I have played in. We have had a good campaign so far but we want to kick on and if we can beat Spain it would be a huge confidence boost for us.

"It's good that Michael will be there watching as it will be a chance for the lads to show what they can do in a big game in front of him.

"Hopefully at the end of this campaign some of the boys can progress and make the senior squad," he added.

Donnelly is just three caps shy of equalling the record of Northern Ireland Under-21 appearances currently held by former Liverpool player Sean Friars, who played 21 times between 1998 and 2001.

He will play a key role tonight as should Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson, currently on loan at Livingston.

Donnelly said: "We are sitting in a good spot in second and these two games coming up are the biggest in the campaign.

"It would be huge for us as a nation to qualify for an Under-21 tournament as we haven't done it before. They have ability and they aren't playing for Spain Under-21s for nothing, but we have good players too and have to show that during the game."

Thompson, who played for the Rangers first team under Mark Warburton, said: "I've been sent out to get games before the end of the season. My contract with Rangers is up at the end of the season and hopefully there will be another one on the table as I'd really like to stay."

NORTHERN IRELAND U21 SQUAD TO FACE SPAIN: Conor Mitchell (Burnley), Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Leeds), Cameron Dummigan (Oldham), Conor McDermott (Derry City), Josh Doherty (Crawley), Bobby Burns (Glenavon), Liam Donnelly (Hartlepool), Ryan Johnson (Nuneaton Town, on loan from Stevenage), Ben Hall (Notts County), Chris Paul (QPR), Mark McKee (Stevenage), Dale Gorman (Stevenage), Jordan Thompson (Livingston, on loan from Rangers), Kyle McClean (St Johnstone), Mark Sykes (Glenavon), Ciaron Harkin (Coleraine), Jamie McDonagh (Derry City), Gavin Whyte (Crusaders), Paul Smyth (QPR), Jamie McGonigle (Coleraine), Shayne Lavery (Everton), Ben Kennedy (Stevenage)

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