Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has told Oxford boss Karl Robinson to “think before he speaks” after his complaints over Gavin Whyte’s international call-up.
Whyte’s inclusion for the Nations League games against Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina was no surprise as he has been named in the last two Northern Ireland squads, and scored with his first touch in international football when he made his debut against Israel last month.
But with Oxford rock-bottom of the table, Robinson asked for Whyte to be released by Northern Ireland to face fellow strugglers Plymouth on Saturday.
After that request was denied, Robinson questioned whether the call-up was “fair on fans, players and staff” at Oxford, suggesting Whyte might not be included if Northern Ireland had a fully-fit squad.
O’Neill dismissed Robinson’s complaints, noting Whyte had already received one senior call-up before joining Oxford, even if injury prevented him from playing.
“I was quite surprised at that to be honest,” he said. “If you sign an international player you then object to him playing international football?
“Gavin Whyte was a senior international, in terms of he came in the squad with us in the summer. I believe Karl is claiming that he has made him into an international player in the five games he’s started for Oxford this season. So (I was) very surprised by that.
“I thought the comment that Gavin is not an important player for us is a bit belittling of the player, given that Gavin was named in the original squad.”
O’Neill added that Whyte was in the mix to start either or both games this weekend, and said Oxford should be grateful that the 22-year-old winger, who was signed from Crusaders in the summer, was breaking through with Northern Ireland.
“I can guarantee you that if a club comes in for Gavin Whyte, the first thing Oxford United will say is that he’s an international player,” he said.
“To be an international player you have to turn up and play.
“Gavin is delighted to be here, so I think Karl should maybe think before he speaks.”
Austria are in a similar position having also lost their opening game to Bosnia, who are sitting pretty in the group. Though the hosts will be without injured star David Alaba, O’Neill highlighted West Ham striker Marko Arnautovic as a major threat.
“Of their two big players, we know that Alaba isn’t available due to injury, so that is a bonus for us, but we have to make sure we keep Arnautovic quiet,” he said.
“That’s a big challenge for us as a team defensively and it’s a good challenge for our centre backs, but that’s why you play international football, to play against these players.”
Captain Steven Davis said: “There’s always a certain pressure that comes with playing competitive games,” he said.
“Bosnia have put themselves in a very strong position. We realise we’re on the back foot a bit, it’s the same for both teams going into this game.”