Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's new stars like Peacock-Farrell, Jones and Lewis must keep getting better: O'Neill

Northern Ireland's Michael ONeill addresses the media ahead of the game against Belarus.
Northern Ireland's Michael ONeill addresses the media ahead of the game against Belarus.
Pacemaker Belfast 23-3-19 Northern Ireland v Belarus - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill during today's press conference at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Pacemaker Belfast 23-3-19 Northern Ireland v Belarus - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill during today's training session at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Pacemaker Belfast 23-3-19 Northern Ireland v Belarus - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's Bailey Peacock-Farrell during today's training session at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Pacemaker Belfast 23-3-19 Northern Ireland v Belarus - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's Jordan Jones and Paul Smyth during today's training session at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Pacemaker Belfast 23-3-19 Northern Ireland v Belarus - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill during today's training session at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Pacemaker Belfast 23-3-19 Northern Ireland v Belarus - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans during today's training session at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
23rd March 2019 Northern Irelands Steven Davis and Niall McGinn pictured during training at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park,Belfast ahead of Sunday night's UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying match against Belarus Mandatory Credit © Presseye/Stephen Hamilton
23rd March 2019 Northern Irelands Liam Boyce pictured during training at the National Football Stadium, Windsor Park,Belfast ahead of Sunday night's UEFA EURO 2020 qualifying match against Belarus Mandatory Credit © Presseye/Stephen Hamilton
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has laid down a challenge to his budding international stars; keep getting better.

As many as five of the starting XI that eased past Estonia on Thursday evening were 25 or under, with goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Jamal Lewis and Jordan Jones all still in single-figures in terms of their caps.

In fact, for Farrell and Lewis, this was the first taste of proper competitive action, having come into the squad after the play-off pain in the World Cup qualifying campaign. So that made Thursday's game extra significant.

"For any of the young players it is," said O'Neill. "The younger ones that have come in since the World Cup hadn't played a qualification game yet. The Nations League was in its infancy so the significance of those games - they didn't have the same intensity or significance as a qualifier

"For the likes of Jordan, Jamal and Bailey, playing in that game was a big thing, there's no doubt about that, and they came through it. To have won it and the clean sheet was very important for Bailey as well, those things all help you as an international player when you go through that experience.

"The key for them is to build on that."

While Peacock-Farrell made a momentous one-on-one save to protect Northern Ireland's 1-0 lead minutes before Steven Davis doubled the scores on Thursday and Jamal Lewis continued his lively displays at left-back, it was Kilmarnock's Rangers-bound winger Jones that stood out.

"Jordan did very well," said O'Neill. "He was very positive. Great cross for the goal. He has to adapt his game a bit from what he does with his club. He's moving to a big club in the summer and that's a difficult situation for a young player to deal with, when he's in that situation. I think he enjoyed being away and that showed in his performance."

Their next chance to continue their rise through the international ranks comes tomorrow evening when Belarus visit Windsor Park.

While Lewis and Jones are exceptions,, it has been widely publicised that plenty of O'Neill's squad are struggling for game-time at club level.

The boss, typically, is picking out the positives of the situation.

"Players haven't had their minutes in their legs at their clubs - physically that could be a good thing," he said. "The other thing is that your body becomes accustomed to play Saturday-Tuesday in club football. We're asking them to play Thursday-Sunday, which is the same time-frame. We need another high level of performance, intensity and energy, particularly in the early part of the game.

"We'll look and see how the bodies are. We haven't had that much time to look at Belarus but we'll do that tonight. The biggest thing is making sure we're right to play the game, physically and mentally."

Belarus were beaten 4-0 by the Netherlands on Thursday but O'Neill is warning that they could pose a goal threat if Northern Ireland allow their levels to drop.

"International football is always difficult to judge," he said. "You know what you're getting when you play the top teams.

"When you look around the games that have been played to date, England aside there haven't been too many big scorelines. Whilst nations are ranked into different categories and pots for the group, you can't underestimate any of the teams and we've never been in that position.

"Where we've been good in recent times is, historically, these tended to be the more difficult games for us. These tended to be the games we struggled with. In recent years, we've been an awful lot better with that. That comes with confidence and with getting results, and with players becoming more accustomed. The way we played on Thursday, we had a lot of control on the game and that's what we're after. We'll hope to achieve that again tomorrow night. You have to convert that control into chances, goals and win the game.

"If you look at the group, Estonia are Pot 4, Belarus Pot 5 but they've had a good Nations League and have a play-off option so we have to congratulate them for that. They'll possibly pose a greater threat counter-attacking-wise than Estonia did.

"We have to keep our performance level at the same if not higher to make sure that we get the result."

Defender Jonny Evans, meanwhile, is hoping his side can make it two wins from two at home.

"It was a good start to the campaign for us. Two goals and a clean sheet and we'll look to build on that now.

"We played Belarus a few years ago before the Euros. A few of their players have played at a decent level. We'll look at their game against Holland. I'm sure they'll pose different problems than Estonia and it'll be a challenge for us trying to break them down.

"You know the games - you've got to be patient. We had a lot of possession. We've been in games before where you don't have the ball and that takes a lot out of your legs and you've got to concentrate for the whole game. Sometimes it's quite hard to do that. We've got to be patient and wait for the right opportunities. If it takes us 60 or 70 minutes to get the first goal, that's what has to be done.

"When you win, it means you're confident going into the next game. It's great to have the two games at home and we're looking forward to getting out on the pitch and showing everyone what we can do again.

Here's the press conference as it happened:

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