Michael O’Neill focusing on football as he prepares for Qatar friendly

Manager Michael O'Neill
Manager Michael O'Neill

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill insists Sunday’s friendly against Qatar is all about football, despite the fixture drawing the attention of human rights charity Amnesty International.

The Qatari national side are currently training at St George’s Park and will face O’Neill’s men at Crewe’s Gresty Road before heading to Edinburgh to take on Scotland.

Amnesty have called for both of the home nation associations to use their position to draw attention to the Gulf state’s treatment of migrant workers – particularly those involved in projects related to the controversial 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s very position as hosts of that tournament was one of the hot topics at the turbulent FIFA congress in Zurich, but O’Neill – whose focus is firmly on preparing his side for a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier against Romania next month – is keen to keep political issues at arm’s length.

“That is something for the Irish FA to make a decision on, but we certainly wouldn’t have organised a fixture on the basis that we intended to pull out of it,” he said.

“Their name is in the media for various reasons, with the World Cup there in 2022, but I haven’t given it a great deal of thought.

“We are here for football reasons; the game was offered to us and it suited our needs.

“I wouldn’t claim to be educated enough in what’s happening in Qatar to give an honest, accurate assessment of my view but I’m sure between now and 2022 they’ll be playing several European nations.”

O’Neill intends to use the match as a chance to assess some of his less experienced squad members, having excused first-choice players Steven Davis, Chris Brunt, Gareth McAuley, Chris Baird and Kyle Lafferty from the clash.

Manchester United defender Jonny Evans will be on duty though, captaining the team in Davis’ absence.

Evans was a peripheral figure in United’s run-in and appears to face an uncertain future at Old Trafford, but O’Neill is delighted to have a performer of his calibre around what is an otherwise callow group.

“It says everything about Jonny’s character that he wants to come here and play,” said O’Neill.

“He might have asked for a couple of extra days off around this fixture but he understands that he hasn’t played a lot towards the tail end of the season and he wants to get minutes under his belt versus Qatar and in our closed-doors game against the Republic of Ireland before taking on Romania.

“Everyone knows what Jonny is about and he’s a natural for the captaincy role.”

Having missed the first four matches of Northern Ireland’s impressive Euro campaign to date due to suspension and injury, Evans had no intention of sitting out another game, even if his TV presenter spouse Helen had other ideas.

“My wife was thinking about that more than me, but she’s taken a holiday by herself now,” he said.

“The other Premier League lads have been given a couple of extra days off but they’ve been playing right up to the end of the season and I haven’t been so it was more important for me to get as many minutes under my belt as possible and get back into the swing of things.

“Not for one minute did I want to miss any training or game time. “It’s important for me because we have a big game coming against Romania and all of us need to be right.

“Missing any international feels bad and I’ve been a bit envious of the lads at times in this campaign.”

For Evans and his brother Corry, who plies his trade at Blackburn, the decision to hold the Qatar fixture in the north west makes this even more of a home game than a trip to Belfast.

And the pair have been sure to cash in on some home comforts.

“Our Mum and Dad only live about 25 minutes from Crewe,” Jonny added.

“Corry and I sent them round a bag of washing for them to do. I’m sure they’ll pop down to see the game because we’ll need to pick that up.”