NORTHERN IRELAND: Central America touring party offers glimpse into the future

Northern Ireland's Luke McCullough. Pic by PressEye Ltd.
Northern Ireland's Luke McCullough. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

Michael O’Neill’s Central America touring party has been picked with one eye on the next phase of his Northern Ireland evolution.

Having guided squads to the European Championships and one moment away from World Cup qualification, O’Neill’s focus is now on future challenges.

Although seasoned names such as Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley will clock up additional caps against Panama and Costa Rica, the inclusion of the next generation indicates interest beyond immediate concerns.

“The younger players in that squad may or may not get gametime but have that introduction to the senior group and a chance to go away on tour,” said O’Neill. “I could have filled those six spaces with experienced players who would have been kicking their heels annoyed at not playing.

“It makes more sense to do it like this and there are one or two others on the periphery, particularly in the under 21s.

“We are thinking about if we had any withdrawals would we fill the squad more with a younger player and we probably would.

“At this minute in time we have enough in the squad for the two games.”

Cameron McGeehan, Gavin Whyte, Conor Hazard and Bailey Peacock-Farrell are each in line for debut senior appearances.

“Bailey is one we have put a lot of time into as we first meet with him two or three years ago to discuss the option of playing for Northern Ireland,” said O’Neill. “At the time he was in a group of young goalkeepers the English FA were working with and he came in and trained with us before the Azerbaijan game.

“This season he has taken the chance, when given to him over 10 or 12 games, at club level with Leeds United.

“Cameron had been in our youth set-up but opted not to play in the under 21s, which I was disappointed with but, equally, met him subsequently and understood his reasons and he recognises it could have been handled better.

“He got a good move from Luton to Barnsley but then it took him a little bit of time to get back from a leg break and I’ve watched him on loan at Scunthorphe.”

O’Neill is also relishing returns of injury-hit Paddy McNair and Luke McCullough.

“Paddy’s had two very unfortunate years,” O’Neill. “Two years ago he was leaving Manchester United to go to Sunderland in the Premier League and through injury, no fault of his own, he is now at a massive club in League One.

“The main thing is he gets another run of games injury-free and is playing regularly at his club, that is the high priority for me.

“It will give Luke a bit of a lift, he was keen to come and he is a player I still believe can have a big future with Northern Ireland.

“At 24 years old he is still young and the past 18 months, in particular, have been very difficult for him but he is back for Doncaster.

“He fits in well with the squad and he gives us a lot of options as someone so versatile.”