Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill forced to rely on young guns

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

Manager Michael O’Neill wishes it was harder for young players to break into the Northern Ireland squad but realises he may be relying on the next generation sooner than expected.

A spate of injuries, prior engagements and late withdrawals ahead of Friday night’s friendly in Uruguay and next week’s trip to Chile leaves O’Neill in charge of a youthful group in South America, with five uncapped players in tow.

Of those, 18-year-old Fulham defender Liam Donnelly has never played a senior match at club level, 19-year-old Liverpool full-back Ryan McLaughlin has just nine games on loan at Barnsley to his name and 20-year-old Luke McCullough was in and out of the side at relegated Doncaster last season.

They are not usually the kind of credentials that lead to international recognitition, but O’Neill has a limited player pool to choose from and has been forced to fast-track individuals long before they have matured at club level.

O’Neill admits it is a decision he has had to make sooner than he would have liked.

“If I’m honest I wish it was harder for them to get to this level,” he said.

“It would benefit them more if it was more difficult to get to this level. They’re probably getting their chance a little bit easier than they should do.

“But of course it’s exciting to have the chance of working with them.

“The ones who are here are in a pool of players where the next generation of international players will come from. The only ones outside that pool will be through eligibility and they’re not coming out the woodwork.

“So while they’re very young they’re not that far from being involved. As we go into the first qualifier against Hungary in September it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that some of these younger players will be needed.”

O’Neill is also holding out some hope that Uruguay, minus the injured Luis Suarez, are not as formidable as their FIFA ranking of six in the world suggests.

“Uruguay haven’t had a fantastic two years of results,” he said.

“They scored 25 and conceded 25, and they’re heavily dependent on a front two, Cavani and Suarez, who are on a par with anything in the world. Suarez is not playing, which is a great bonus from our point of view, and I don’t think there’ll be any real surprises – they’re not a team that really forces the issue.”