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World Cup 2018

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Northern Ireland's young stars can earn big club moves through international displays: McAuley

 

By Paul Ferguson in San Jose

After the immediate reaction of disappointment and frustration following Northern Ireland's 3-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Sunday in San Jose, perspective hit the players on their long 14-hour journey back to the UK yesterday.

It was not the performance or result the men in green wanted from their final match on a two-game tour to Central America following last Tuesday's 0-0 draw with Panama.

Conceding two goals from set-pieces and a complete lack of attacking intent is a concern for boss Michael O'Neill.

Northern Ireland, despite coming so close to World Cup qualification, have only scored in one of their last six matches - against South Korea in March at Windsor Park.

But the emphasis of this end-of-season tour was to integrate six Northern Ireland Under-21 internationals into the senior squad, with a view of reaping the benefits in years to come.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Conor Hazard, Jordan Thompson and Shayne Lavery all made their debuts in Central America, while former Linfield star Paul Smyth earned his second international cap against Panama.

Only Crusaders' attacking midfielder Gavin Whyte failed to receive game time during the two matches, but his hopes may have been dashed by picking up an injury during training on the eve of the Costa Rica match.

Veteran defender Gareth McAuley, who has accumulated 79 caps, insists this trip will be invaluable to the younger players and may even improve their club prospects.

He recalls being afforded his big Premier League opportunity after impressing for Northern Ireland.

And while these young players will obviously not be catapulted into England's top flight, McAuley - currently searching for a new club as West Brom have not offered him a new contract - argues that the exposure you gain from international football can only be hugely beneficial.

Midfielder Thompson, having been released by Rangers, is certainly one player who hopes to take advantage of being in the shop window.

Larne man McAuley knows all about it, having secured a move to Premier League West Brom in 2011 when Roy Hodgson came to watch Aaron Hughes during the international break and decided to sign him instead.

"International football can only help out your club career," said the former Leicester and Ipswich defender, who revealed in Panama that he will continue to play club and international football next season.

"You come, play here and do well... going right back to when I moved to West Brom, it was Roy Hodgson watching two international games.

"He was watching Hughesy (Aaron Hughes), who he had worked with before, but that got me into West Brom. It's helped me massively and it will help others going forward."

McAuley, as a senior player alongside skipper Jonny Evans and Hughes, performed an instrumental role in making sure the young guns were at ease throughout the 10-day tour.

During training he was impressed by their attitude and application - especially Everton's Under-23 ace Lavery, who really caught the eye with his power and technical ability.

McAuley is looking forward to a short summer break and joining a new club for pre-season - as West Brom have not offered their centre-back a new contract.

Then the inaugural Nations League will take place in September and Northern Ireland play their opening match against Bosnia at Windsor Park on the eighth of that month.

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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