Belfast Telegraph

Youthful squad bodes well for future of Northern Ireland football beyond 2014 World Cup

By Stuart McKinley

The building blocks towards a bright future being put in place by Michael O’Neill are clear to see.

Whether he is the manager that reaps the benefits of such forward planning remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure though, O’Neill can’t be accused of putting all his focus on the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

The opening qualifier against Russia on Friday week may be top of his priority list right now — with the home game against Luxembourg four days later a close second — but he’s also continually looking at the bigger picture.

And if the fruits of his labour pay off then then the very least Northern Ireland fans can expect is that the future will be better than the past.

“We have seven players in the squad who are either under-21 or who could be part of the under-21 squad for their games at the same time,” said O’Neill.

“I would ask the fans to be patient with this squad, to back the players as far as possible, to understand where we are at this moment in time in terms of international football.

“To recognise how important, particularly when we play at home, that positive atmosphere and the energy that the team can feed off, how vital that is going to be for the players, particularly the younger ones in the squad.

“We are in the situation at the minute where at times we are asking players who aren’t playing regularly at club level to come in and play at international level and mentally that can be difficult for players.

“It is a huge positive for players to know that they have that kind of support behind them.”

New Russia coach Fabio Capello was criticised for being one-dimensional while in charge of England, reluctant to waiver from a solid 4-4-2 formation.

O’Neill, however, believes the Italian won’t put his own stamp on the Russian team just yet — and not in time for when Northern Ireland visit Moscow.

“It’s difficult to gauge. I thought I would have seen more of a change against the Ivory Coast than what I did see,” said O’Neill, who has studied a DVD of that game having previously witnessed the Russians at first hand during Euro 2012.

“It was very similar in terms of the shape and the tactical approach they had compared to the the European Championships.

“There were one or two changes in personnel, but how they played was very similar to the Euros and I think as a manager coming in he’s not going to just tear the whole thing to pieces and then try to put it back together in the space of one or two games.

“I think we’ll see a change more gradually and we’ll maybe see a different Russia when we come to play them at home rather than in this game.”

Capello has named a provisional squad of 37 players for Russia’s games with Northern Ireland and Israel.

O’Neill, meanwhile, selected 23 with James McPake, Ryan McLaughlin and Daniel Lafferty not included this time, while record scorer David Healy, Sammy Clingan, Grant McCann and Niall McGinn have still to return.

Having almost 40 players plying their trade at the same high level as the Russians is something O’Neill can only dream of.

NORTHERN IRELAND’S WORLD CUP |FIXTURES: Sept 7: Russia (away); Sept 11: Luxembourg (home); Oct 16: Portugal (away); Nov 14: Azerbaijan (home); March 22, 2013: Russia (home); March 26, 2013: Israel (home); Sept 6, 2013: Portugal (home); Sept 10, 2013: Luxembourg (away); Oct 11, 2013: Azerbaijan (away); Oct 15, 2013: Israel (away).

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