NORTHERN IRELAND: Forward-thinking Michael O’Neill to mix it up in Central America

Liam Boyce (left) and Josh Magennis should feature as a forward partnership during Northern Ireland's Central America tour
Liam Boyce (left) and Josh Magennis should feature as a forward partnership during Northern Ireland's Central America tour

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill has handed seats on the plane for Central America to four fresh faces but will turn to tradition as part of his forward thinking.

Gavin Whyte, Cameron McGeehan, Conor Hazard and Bailey Peacock-Farrell can clock up the air miles and hard yards within the senior international environment following selection by O’Neill for friendly tests against Panama and Costa Rica over May and June.

Experienced names dominate the bulk of the 22-strong squad, however, with O’Neill aiming to use the summer tour as the next stage of his panel’s evolution by fielding a revamped strike partnership.

“I want to see Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis together for longer so, with this squad, the idea was to avoid four forwards giving each a half of football,” said O’Neill. “We know what Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington and Will Grigg can do and we’ve had conversations with each player.

“Liam has missed a big chunk of football, including missing out on the Euros and even this season.

“Josh has had a good season at Charlton, scoring 10 or 12 goals and just missing out on the play-offs, with a lot of interest in him from clubs higher up in the Championship.

“Then you have the two young boys in Paul Smyth and Shay McCartan there to come in if we need them.

“To be fair, Paul probably surprised us a little bit with the progress he has made, but it shows he’s capable of doing that.

“Back in March it was the first time we had the scenario of the under 21s and seniors both in the same place at the same time, which was good.

“The tour is not as intensive an environment as a tournament qualification double-header, so it is nice to bring young lads in so they can settle with our option to then play or not.

“That was important, I was brought on a tour to America and never got on the pitch so know what that feeling is like as a player.

“I don’t want to be in a position with some of the senior players thinking in the middle of a game I need to put him on after bringing him out on tour.

“Instead, the players who miss out on gametime would potentially be more of the younger guys.

“The make-up of the squad was done with that in mind when deciding which players we need to go or not.

“We’ve only two games so wanted the balance of two experienced strikers and two young guys.”

One experienced addition is Jonny Evans, the subject of transfer speculation over a £3million release clause following relegation with West Bromich Albion.

“When you look at what players move for now, to get Jonny for £3million is a no-brainer for me,” said O’Neill. “Obviously in the Premier League at the top end it is not just about what it costs but if he is the right player for your club.

“If you look at Jonny over the past two years and how he has played for us at international level, he has always been, for me, someone capable of being in the Premier League’s top-six teams.”