Irish League stars, including Roy Carroll, are unlikely to force their way into a Northern Ireland squad anytime soon.
Linfield stopper Carroll was his country’s number one keeper as recently as March last year, but, although O’Neill didn’t totally rule out further international appearances, it seems a recall is an unlikely prospect for the 39 year-old.
“You’ve got to look at a number of things,” began O’Neill. “Part of my job is to develop the squad so if Roy’s not the first choice goalkeeper, there’s not a huge benefit in bringing him to sit on the bench. It’s much more beneficial to bring a younger goalkeeper like Trevor Carson.
“I do think it’s a massive step for a goalkeeper, coming from part-time football.
“I had a good conversation with Roy after the Euros. He was very unfortunate in how he lost his place coming into the finals, getting sick and Michael coming in but I don’t think anyone would dispute that Michael McGovern is the number one goalkeeper that we have at this present time.
“As I said to Roy, the door is always open if we need him to come in. I know he would do that and not let us down but I think that, realistically, at the level that we’re playing at, I don’t think our players are playing at a high enough level domestically to come in and challenge in the international squad at this minute in time.”
Linfield’s Gareth Deane and Paul Smyth were both included in NI’s most recent Under 21 squad, as was Glenavon’s Mark Sykes. O’Neill also brought Smyth and Glenavon’s Joel Cooper to France to train with the Northern Ireland squad during the Euro 2016 finals.
“You’ve got to remember our league is ranked 47th in Europe so it’s not a fantastic standard of football that the players are coming from,” continued the NI manager. “We have picked a number of young Irish League players for the Under 21 squad. Some of them have done well but some of them failed to turn up as well so there’s a professionalism aspect there that I think has to be addressed within the domestic league.
“We’ve really tried to promote the young players in our league by giving them experience at under 21 level. That’s all we can do. Hopefully by playing at under 21 level, it will enhance their careers whether it’s here in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.”
Northern Ireland’s home game against Azerbaijan could prove a pivotal point in their World Cup qualifying campaign and the bid to seal second in Group C. Their opponents are currently three points ahead of NI in second, but the hosts would overtake them with a win.
“We don’t want to go six points behind Azerbaijan (but) I don’t think it will be a defining game,” said O’Neill. “Having seven points at the end of the first four games would make us joint second, ahead of Azerbaijan on head to head. We’ve been away to Czech Republic and Germany, the two most difficult teams in the group. We’d be in a good place and that has to be our aim.
“We’ve already seen Czech Republic and Norway drop points. Everyone talked about them as our biggest threat for a top two finish but they have both dropped points to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan will strongly fancy that they have a chance to finish in a top two position.”
SQUAD: GOALKEEPERS: McGovern, Mannus, Carson. DEFENCE: Hughes, McAuley, J Evans, Brunt, McGivern, C McLaughlin, Hodson, Flanagan. MIDFIELD: Davis, McGinn, Norwood, C Evans, Ward, Ferguson, Dallas, McNair, Paton, Lund. FORWARDS: K Lafferty, Magennis, Washington, Grigg.