Young Northern Ireland duo expected to bag first starts to prove future is bright
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill says he’s been impressed by the new arrivals in the squad and he hopes they can earn the fans’ approval on Saturday.
Norwich defender Jamal Lewis and goalkeeper Conor Hazard, who is on loan at Falkirk from Celtic, are fresh faces drafted in for the friendly against South Korea at Windsor Park.
It’s Northern Ireland’s first fixture of 2018 and O’Neill is keen to get some momentum going before the Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifying tests arrive.
Skipper Steven Davis is ruled out through injury while Niall McGinn, Stuart Dallas and Kyle Lafferty could also miss out.
- Watch: I can't wait to introduce myself to 'amazing' GAWA, says Northern Ireland new-boy Jamal Lewis
Midfielder Jordan Jones and left-back Lewis are expected to be handed their first Northern Ireland starts.
“We have to be careful with the players given the time of year it is and the nature of the game,” said O’Neill, preparing for his first game since agreeing a new and improved contract with the Irish FA.
“The game will provide an opportunity for some of those players like Jordan Jones and Jamal Lewis and one or two others.
“Jamal has been very impressive, very good, very athletic.
“We’ve only had two training sessions with him so we’re really looking forward to seeing him in the game.
“Trevor (Carson) has been very good; he’s had a great season and Conor Hazard has been very impressive as well.
“We are just seeing more. George (Saville) is still relatively new, too, and it’s good to see him again.
“The squad is slowly growing and there are one or two more who can push and add to it.
“But when you look at the squad, there are still a lot of the faces that have put us in the positions we’ve been in in the last four or five years.”
Under O’Neill, Northern Ireland have soared up the Fifa rankings and are currently 24th. The squad came within a controversial penalty decision of making it to back-to-back major tournaments and the former Shamrock Rovers chief desperately wants to keep the good times rolling.
“It’s important to try to win the game,” added O’Neill. “Our ranking is good and although we’ve slipped one or two places, to get to 20th and above some of the countries we’re above is a big achievement and we want to keep that as high as possible. You want to grow the team but also maintain the ranking.
“We haven’t played at home since missing out on the World Cup and I’m sure the players will get great support and the players really enjoy playing at home and enjoying the atmosphere.
“We are playing a bit of an unknown quantity. We obviously know one or two of their English-based players but it will be a tough game.
“They are very impressive, it will be a high tempo and that’s what we want.
“A line has been drawn on the World Cup. The motivation comes next March when the Euro qualifiers begin.
“We’ll embrace the Nations League and enjoy it but we don’t have a demotivated team. The key is the players are back in Belfast and we aren’t back until September so they’ll want to put on a performance.”