The next generation’s emergence in Michael O’Neill’s senior squad has reinvigorated Northern Ireland after their World Cup play-off heartache, according to Jonny Evans.
Only six months have passed since a 1-0 aggregate loss to Switzerland denied the Northern Irish a place at their first World Cup since 1986, but Michael O’Neill’s squad has already been reshaped.
Three debutants all impressed against South Korea in March and a further five uncapped players are with a team Evans will captain against Panama and Costa Rica this week.
Boss O’Neill declared “the future starts today” prior to that friendly victory over South Korea, which was achieved with a late winner from QPR winger Paul Smyth.
“Losing the World Cup play-off was in November so it now feels like a distant memory – I think the new lads coming in have been great for the squad,” Evans said.
“Paul Smyth coming in and scoring the winner last time out against South Korea… I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks.
“That’s what sometimes happens when young lads come in. People underestimate the effect young players have on the squad especially on the senior players. It gives you a lift and they challenge the senior players.”
Smyth made an instant impression in senior international football and that was the case when Evans first came across the 20-year-old in France ahead of Euro 2016.
O’Neill had invited Smyth, then at Irish League club Linfield, to the country’s training camp and Evans, playing at left-back in that tournament, was up against him in one of the first sessions.
“I hadn’t really seen much of him at that point,” he explained.
“He had the ball, I went to close him down, he’s put the ball down the line and has just taken off.
“He caught me by surprise and I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’. I’ll never forget that moment. I thought, this boy has something.”
QPR clearly agreed, signing Smyth last summer.
The winger scored the winner when he finally made his senior debut in January and Evans has been monitoring Rangers’ fixtures with interest ever since.
“They are a Championship team, he’s coming from the Irish League and the big question is can they adapt? Is he ready,” Evans added.
“It maybe took him a couple of months to adapt but fair play to him, he’s absolutely flying.
“I always check the QPR team every week to see if he is starting or on the bench.
“It’s great that he has had an impact there, he’s a great kid, brilliant attitude and I’m so pleased for him. Hopefully he can have a big influence on us for years to come.”