Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v South Korea: Let's show we should be off to Russia: Michael O'Neill

 

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill is understandably keen to move on from the World Cup play-off heartbreak but it's going to take him a little longer to shake off that ghost.

During yesterday's press conference at Windsor Park ahead of today's clash with South Korea he couldn't resist pointing out that their opponents were going to Russia this summer, his boys weren't, and wouldn't it be nice to beat a team making plans for the global showpiece.

Without a doubt, that play-off defeat to Switzerland still rankles, but when the friendly fire gets under way this afternoon at 2pm it will feel like a new dawn has arrived.

This squad, which has been freshened up by young talent, will either challenge for a major tournament again or become a fading force.

O'Neill had genuine fears for the future as some of his senior players considered retirement, but only Chris Brunt is contemplating jumping ship and the manager is confident the stunning progress achieved in recent times isn't about to go up in smoke.

South Korea will be formidable opponents, particularly as their players want to impress ahead of a World Cup appearance, and O'Neill needs his men to show they have what it takes to shine in the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifiers.

"We are looking for a good performance and to get the disappointment of Switzerland out of the way," said O'Neill who rejected an approach from Scotland and opted to sign a new deal until 2024.

"We will play in front of a good crowd against a very strong team. They are not a European team and they have a lot of good attributes.

"They are going to Russia, they finished second in their group behind Iran and they have a squad of players with a massive bonus in front of them, so they will be highly motivated for this game. They will look at selection options for the World Cup but they are technically gifted players and it's all part of the learning curve for our players, particularly the new ones to the squad. We have nine games between now and next March and they are vital going into the next qualifying campaign.

"Of course, no one wants to go back. That's the message we've hammered home.

"We have a limited resource of players and we have to give them time - we can't expect them to suddenly come in and just be established international players. Look, there may be times in these next nine games where we have little setbacks, but the key is to get experience into the team.

"The balance of the team I have in my head, half of it is relatively inexperienced and the other half has good experience at this level. It's a combination of the two really.

"We want players to come through, we want them to play for as long as possible as well. Obviously it's a huge boost to have Gareth (McAuley) and Aaron (Hughes) available to us and the likes of Chris (Brunt) who is obviously deciding his future. It would be a great boost for us if he decided to play on. The squad is good, it's fresh, the likes of (Paddy) McNair being back in, hungry to do well. There are a lot of positives."

In response to a question from a visiting journalist, O'Neill added: "South Korea are very creative and expansive, so for us it's a good challenge. They are going to the World Cup and we felt we should have been going to Russia, so it would be nice to beat a team going to the finals."

The impressive performances of Northern Ireland's Under-21 side have also given O'Neill fresh optimism. He is unable to turn to his skipper Steven Davis and other experienced players Niall McGinn, Kyle Lafferty and Stuart Dallas, but the door has opened for Queens Park Rangers hotshot Paul Smyth and 19-year-old Everton striker Shayne Lavery. The Under-21s face Iceland in Coleraine on Monday but Smyth is suspended for that qualifier.

"I've watched Paul since he made his debut at QPR," added O'Neill. "I watched him recently against Nottingham Forest and we saw him in at least one or two other games, so we have kept an eye on him consistently.

"We know Paul anyway; we had him with us in France and we've had him up with the senior squad before.

"Shayne is a player I've known since he came in to the Under-17s. He's an interesting player because he's come late.

"He didn't come in at 15; he suddenly arrived at Under-17s and I thought he was excellent when I saw him at the Under-17 tournament.

"He's had a little bit of a difficult year at Everton with his progression, and injuries have held him back a bit, but he is a player we have great hopes for.

"I think he has all the attributes to be a really good Northern Ireland centre forward.

"His work-rate is terrific. Shayne is 19, and not that close to Everton's first-team at this minute in time, but he has that willingness to work for the team and he has great quality as well," added O'Neill.

The superstar in Shin Tae-yong's South Korea side is undoubtedly Tottenham forward Son Heung-min, who has scored seven times in his past five club appearances.

O'Neill feels he will provide a challenge similar to the ones the likes of Edinson Cavani and Alexis Sanchez have previously given his players.

"He's a top player, he's a top Premier League player," O'Neill admitted.

"I'd imagine if he became available you'd have a lot of clubs around Europe that would be very keen to have him in their squad.

"It's a great challenge for us to play against him."

Niall McGinn, who had an ill-fated spell in South Korea, should have been able to assist O'Neill with his preparations this week but, when asked how useful he was by a visiting journalist, O'Neill joked: "We hoped Niall would give us some information, but he gave us absolutely nothing. He was useless - absolutely useless! So I don't know what Niall did for six months in South Korea - but it wasn't football related!"

No words of wisdom from McGinn then, but the meticulous O'Neill is pretty good when it comes to homework and remembering key details.

Some nightmares are hard to forget too.

Northern Ireland vs South Korea

International Friendly

Windsor Park, Today, 2pm

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