Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's key players must get more club football, insists Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during the Nations League match at The Grbavica Stadium, Sarajevo.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill during the Nations League match at The Grbavica Stadium, Sarajevo.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill says his key international stars must start to get more minutes on the pitch in club football.

His side suffered their third UEFA Nations League defeat from three games on Monday evening, this one a 2-0 loss at the hands of Bosnia & Herzegovinia thanks to an Edin Dzeko brace.

In O'Neill's starting line-up were Jonny Evans, Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Paddy McNair, who have a combined total of three league starts for their clubs this season.

It's been a common theme for Northern Ireland managers over the years - even record goal-scorer David Healy struggled for club form - but it's one that O'Neill does not intend to embrace.

"One of the things that's hurting us, we've got players who aren't playing club football," he told Sky Sports.

"You look at Steven Davis and Jonny Evans who are big players for us. They haven't played a lot of club football in the last month. We've got to address that."

Northern Ireland have now gone six away matches without a single goal, but they had their chances in Sarajevo, striking the woodwork three times.

"Bosnia had chances as well but we had chances at critical times in the game," said O'Neill. "We should be ahead 1-0 or arguably 2-0. George (Saville)'s chance that he screws wide is a really good chance and then he hits the post.

"Then you're punished for a mistake. A young player (Jamal Lewis) makes a wrong decision in the wrong area of the pitch and that's why Dzeko is the player that he is, he punishes you.

"We had a great chance to go level, we don't take it when young Gavin hits the post and ultimately then we're punished again when we're pushing forward.

"Then late on, we hit the post for the third time, which maybe would have given us something to go for in the last minutes.

"We're creating chances. I think when we look back, we'll scratch our heads to think why we've got no points at this stage of the competition."

Northern Ireland finished the match with three players under the age of 23 on the pitch in the form of Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jamal Lewis and Gavin Whyte and it's the transition of the squad that O'Neill again wanted to focus on.

"The reality of the situation is that we have no points in this competition to date but I think when we look at the games, we've introduced introduced a lot of new players into the team," he said.

"We're going to have experiences like this. They're not going to come in and be able to play international football.

"It's a steep learning curve for us. There are aspects of the game that were positive, there were also negatives. I thought we played really well for the first 25 minutes but the goal really knocked us, to be honest and it took us until half-time to recover.

"We've just got to persevere and allow the team time to develop."

Northern Ireland's next game is a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on November 15, followed by their final UEFA Nations League group game at home to Austria three days later.

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