INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Croatia defeat prompts Michael O’Neill to reconsider Northern Ireland schedule

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Michael O’Neill witnessed Northern Ireland suffer their first home loss in three years and admitted he may reconsider arranging friendlies after competitive games in the future.

A depleted Croatia team, missing the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Dejan Lovren, ran out 3-0 winners at Windsor Park, where the hosts were last defeated by Portugal in 2013.

It rounded off a memorable calendar year in disappointing fashion, though will certainly not overshadow the memories of Euro 2016 and the record 12-match unbeaten run O’Neill’s team compiled en route to France.

However, having played this fixture just four days after beating Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier, O’Neill admits he needs to look at future schedules.

“I think a friendly after a competitive game is maybe not something we would do again,” he said.

“We will be fully focused to play again in March; I’ve told the players tonight’s result isn’t important. We have a big game against Norway to put ourselves at 10 points (in the World Cup qualification process) and in an even stronger position.

“Our priority was that we win the game on Friday night. If anything tonight was probably maybe a game we didn’t need with the injuries we had but we got some of our players who’ve had little exposure on the pitch; that was the bonus for us.”

Although Michael McGovern and Conor Washington had returned to England for treatment on injuries, the appetite to play for Northern Ireland, one that has been fostered in these good times under O’Neill, was epitomised by Jonny Evans.

The three-time Premier League winner became a father again last week and was offered the chance to skip this game by O’Neill, only to fly back in to Belfast on the morning of a game he played in its entirety.

“It’s unbelievable,” O’Neill added.

“He only came in this morning for the game, his wife’s had a baby and he went home for a few days.

“I gave him the option to miss the game and he came back in to play, I think that says everything about Jonny Evans, in terms of his attitude to play.”

Alongside Evans in the starting line-up was debutant Matthew Lund of Rochdale, while Shrewsbury’s Ryan McGivern and Ross County’s Liam Boyce were among those to see the field too.

“I don’t have a deep squad, that’s pretty simple,” O’Neill argued.

“We’re playing against Croatia who are bringing in young players who are at Napoli and Inter Milan. With all due respect, we’re bringing in lads that are at Shrewsbury and League One clubs - we have to be realistic when we ask them to come and play international football.”