Michael O’Neill has dropped a big hint that he is set to welcome Crusaders ace Gavin Whyte into his Northern Ireland squad for the end of season tour of Central America.
Northern Ireland will take on Panama in Panama City on Tuesday, May 29, before facing Costa Rica on Sunday, June 3, in San Jose and manager O’Neill views the friendly fixtures as an opportunity for rising stars like Whyte to showcase their talent.
The Crues winger, who is set to seal a move to full-time football this summer with Leeds United leading the race for his signature, has represented the Northern Ireland Under-21 side but now wants a chance to deliver for the senior team.
O’Neill names his squad for the tour on Monday with youngsters such as Whyte, Everton teenager Shayne Lavery and Queens Park Rangers striker Paul Smyth in line for a call-up.
Former Linfield hero Smyth netted on his senior Northern Ireland debut, scoring the winner in a 2-1 victory over World Cup bound South Korea in the Windsor Park friendly in March.
“It’s a good tour for us,” said O’Neill. "Two years ago we went to Uruguay and Chile with a relatively inexperienced team. This year we have a stronger squad but there will be an opportunity to introduce more exciting young players.”
Whyte, who was named Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year at the Northern Ireland Football Awards on Monday night, said: “I love playing for Northern Ireland.
“I’m in the Under-21s now and would relish the chance to pull on the senior shirt. I’m feeling confident going into games and it’s been the best year of my life with Crusaders.”
O’Neill has been impressed with the performances of the Northern Ireland Under-21 side under the guidance of Ian Baraclough and other young aces who could come into his thinking for this tour are Leeds United goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson and Hartlepool defender Liam Donnelly.
O’Neill added: “We have Jamal Lewis and Jordan Jones in particular who have come into the panel, while Liam Boyce and Paddy McNair are coming back from injury.
“For those players the tour is very important and it also gives me the opportunity to introduce some of the younger ones as well.
“I’ll finalise the squad in the next week and the great thing is that there’s a real appetite for players to do it. That’s testament to the players’ spirit in the squad and their desire to see more progress.”
This tour will be the first time that Northern Ireland has faced either country, who have both qualified for the World Cup in Russia.
Panama have been drawn in a group with England, Belgium and Tunisia, with Costa Rica preparing to face Serbia, Brazil and Switzerland.
The match against Panama will be played in the Stadio Rommel Fernandez, while the game against Costa Rica will take place in Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica.
While the results will carry little significance, O’Neill views the games as solid preparation for the Uefa Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifying.
It’s also a golden opportunity for players such as 20-year-old Smyth to enjoy more game time at senior level.
Northern Ireland will host Bosnia and Herzegovina in their Uefa Nations League opener on Saturday, September 8.
O’Neill’s men will then have two away fixtures in League B Group 3 against Austria on Friday, October 12 and the Bosnians on Monday, October 15. Their final match is at home to Austria on Sunday, November 18.
Defender Jonny Evans, who collected the International Personality of the Year award on Monday, says O’Neill will keep Northern Ireland’s production line in fine working order.
“It’s amazing that Michael decided to stay on when there was interest from Scotland,” said the West Brom skipper.
“I think everyone will agree that he has done an amazing job and it was great to see him sign a new contract.
“Everyone in the squad texted him to say how relieved we were he’s staying on and the positive aspect is we have young players coming through who can push us on to the next level.
“Michael has always got an eye out for young talent and over the last campaign we have seen players break through and the future is bright.”
O’Neill added: “With regard to my future, I had conversations with Jonny and other senior players and staying with Northern Ireland was the right thing to do. I had opportunities to take club jobs and the Scotland one but I never felt deep down that it was the right thing to do and credit to the Irish FA, they came to me straight after the play-off game and offered me a new contract.
“You don’t needs loads of payers to have a good senior international team, you just need the right ones and we can challenge again in Euro 2020.”