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Steven Davis and Jonny Evans can inspire Northern Ireland's rising stars, says Michael O'Neill

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So close: Michael O’Neill with Steven Davis after Dutch draw

So close: Michael O’Neill with Steven Davis after Dutch draw

So close: Michael O’Neill with Steven Davis after Dutch draw

Steven Davis and Jonny Evans will continue to be the driving force for the Northern Ireland team and inspire younger players, according to Michael O'Neill.

The Stoke City boss may no longer be in charge of his country but he still wants the side to shine and feels experienced duo Davis and Evans are key to that, showing the way for those coming through at senior international level.

Davis is 35 and Evans 32 but O'Neill says they have a strong commitment to the cause and much to play for going forward under a new boss. There are also personal targets to aim for with Rangers midfielder Davis on 117 caps, two behind the record held by Pat Jennings, and Leicester defender Evans 16 appearances away from a century.

"I know Steven will play on and break Pat's record and Jonny has aspirations to get 100 caps and more," said O'Neill, whose biggest regret in his career is not winning more than 31 caps.

"They still have an awful lot to play for and I hope they play on as long as possible because they are necessary for the team. Experienced players can show the way for younger ones.

"It's huge for the players coming into the squad to see the likes of Aaron Hughes doing everything to be in the squad for the Euros and going through rehab to be fit for the World Cup play-off.

"Jamal Lewis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who weren't born in Northern Ireland, then got to see what it meant to play for Northern Ireland and the experienced players set a great example."

O'Neill states during his reign as boss his biggest worry was losing influential players.

"My biggest concern in the eight years was always the vulnerability of the squad and the vulnerability of losing players," commented the Stoke manager.

"My first campaign taught me that more than anything, in terms of players we lost through suspension or injury, or players who deemed international football wasn't for them at that time or if they were under pressure from their club," added O'Neill.

"It made it a very difficult job if you were picking from 60 or 70 per cent of the players available to you and particularly if you were missing your top players.

"We had a base of 30 players or 35 players maybe over eight years, it's not like there were automatic replacements there, though I think we coped well with the loss of Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes.

"As a squad the younger players came in and stepped up but there may be a period when the team has to find its level again before it progresses.

"It's hard to ask young players to come in and contend with top teams if they haven't played a lot of football.

"To qualify for a World Cup you're going to have to beat a top 10 European team so those situations make that difficult but the Euros gives you more of an opportunity.

"I think there has to be patience for whoever comes in if and when that transition happens."

Belfast Telegraph