Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill likes look of young defender
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill admitted on Tuesday that the wheels of time are starting to catch up with his squad before they start their EURO 2020 Qualifying campaign.
Yes veteran defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes have been named in the squad - but so too has uncapped Arsenal youngster Daniel Ballard.
The Gunners teenager has been called into the senior team after impressive performances for the under-19s and under-21s and O’Neill likes what he has seen.
“Daniel has had a rapid rise with us,” said O’Neill. “He was in the under-19s last year and did very well and we promoted him to the under-21s for the last few games of their campaign, he’s been playing regularly at Arsenal at under-23 level.
“We are bringing him in for the experience as well but it’s an indication of where we are at the moment as both Gareth and Aaron aren’t going to go on forever and neither are playing regularly at their clubs as well.
“So I thought it was important to bring Daniel in because within the next 12-18 months he has the potential to be a regular in the squad.”
But O’Neill insisted McAuley and Hughes - who are both 39 years of age - still have a role to play in the upcoming campaign.
“For them to finish their international careers will be their decisions. I have spoken to them and we have said we will take it on a game-to-game situation,”he said. “Gareth had a situation last summer to find a new club and he knows he has not played at Rangers as much as he would have like.
“And Aaron has accepted his situation at Hearts that he is there as a squad player.
“And that is his role with us as well but we still need these players around the squad and if we play them I would have no concerns about how they would deal with it.
“They are also good around the squad for the younger players and we are not leaving younger players out to have them in the squad.
“There are no natural successors coming through at the minute.
“Young Daniel is the next best candidate.”
O’Neill also has a problem at goalkeeper as the three in the squad - Michael McGovern, Bailey Peacock- Farrell or Conor Hazard - are not playing regular first-team football.
“It is not the ideal scenario,” said O’Neill. “It’s a situation that is out of my control.
“We’ve had this scenario before. Michael played virtually most of the campaign for Russia when he wasn’t starting at Norwich and he played and never let us down.”
Strikers Will Grigg and Conor Washington return to the sqaud, while Oliver Norwood will miss the opening qualifiers for personal reasons.
Goalkeepers: McGovern (Norwich City), Peacock-Farrell (Leeds), Hazard (Partick Thistle - loan from Celtic)
Defenders: Hughes (Hearts), McAuley (Rangers), J Evans (Leicester City), Cathcart (Watford), C McLaughlin (Millwall), McNair (Middlesbrough), Lewis (Norwich City), Flanagan (Sunderland), Ballard (Arsenal).
Midfielders: Davis (Rangers - on loan from Southampton), McGinn (Aberdeen), C Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas (Leeds United), Saville (Boro, loan), Jones (Kilmarnock), Whyte (Oxford United), Thompson (Blackpool)
Forwards: Lafferty (Rangers), Magennis (Bolton), Boyce (Burton Albion), Smyth (Acc Stanley - on loan from QPR), Grigg (Sunderland), Washington (Sheffield United).