Belfast Telegraph

Robinson is looking to have conveyor belt working even quicker

By Stuart McKinley

Over 60 players will have pulled on the Northern Ireland shirt this week by the time the final whistle blows at Windsor Park tonight.

With the senior team, the under-21s and under-19s all in action there is a chance to assess both the present and future prospects for the international team.

And one man who is working to ensure that the future is bright believes that the pool of talent is growing deeper.

Stephen Robinson has a huge responsibility on his shoulders as manager of both the Northern Ireland under-17s and under-21s and the 38-year-old former midfielder, who won seven caps under five different managers, is also in a perfect position to judge the progress that is currently being made.

"The opportunities are there for players to impress and move on quickly," said Robinson, whose team faces Denmark in a friendly today.

"David Morgan and Luke McCullough were excellent at the Milk Cup and they are in the under-21 squad this time. We have brought Rhys Sharpe and Jamie Sendles-White in as well and they are players that can put pressure on others who have been around a little longer and make it tough for them to hold onto their places."

From Robinson's point of view the conveyor belt of talent is starting to roll just a little quicker than it has before.

If recent results are anything to go by he is right.

Recently an under-17 squad, made up mostly of players from last season's under-16s who have secured contracts with clubs across the water, won 4-0 in Malta.

Robinson was also in charge of the under-20 team that beat Denmark and the USA at the Milk Cup. The challenge for players aspiring to play senior international football is to first get into the first-team at their club.

Senior boss Michael O'Neill wasn't able to select some of his most experienced players for tonight's World Cup qualifier against Russia as they haven't got a club at present.

"There aren't enough Northern Ireland boys playing regularly at the higher levels in England and Scotland, but if those at Premier League and Championship clubs on either side of the border can make a breakthrough at their clubs the international call will quickly follow.

"We have a few players in the under-21 squad who are on the verge of first-team football at their clubs, which is important if they are going to progress," Robinson said.

"In the under-21 squad we only have Rory McKeown at Kilmarnock, Chris Hegarty at Rangers and Greg Tempest at Notts County who are regularly involved at their clubs.

Players need to be pushing for first-team recognition and if they get that then they will inevitably come up on Michael's radar."

The under-19s drew 1-1 with Scotland yesterday – a result that should be given due credit as manager Stephen Craigan was working with a group of players who have just stepped up from the under-17 squad.

"Stephen took the game against Scotland with the under-19s and it was always going to be a tough one for him as he went with basically an under-18 squad," said Robinson.

"It was a good chance for those boys though to come in and show that they can step up – but for some it is a big step up.

"Those who can make the step we will try to push on and we will fast-track the best players as we have done in the past – even looking back to the like of Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans who didn't have under-21 careers."

Glentoran youngster Jordan Stewart scored the goal against the Scots and while he is highly rated at the Oval, a look at the under-21 and under-19 squad lists show how hard it is for Irish League players to earn international recognition.

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