Panama v Northern Ireland: Central America tour all part of Euro plans

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill pictured at the team hotel in Panama City on the first day of their summer tour to Panama and Costa Rica.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill pictured at the team hotel in Panama City on the first day of their summer tour to Panama and Costa Rica.

Northern Ireland arrived in Central America with manager Michael O’Neill planning to use minutes against Panama and Costa Rica towards European Championship commitments closer to home.

Friendly dates as part of the host nations’ final World Cup preparations will also sit within the early stages of Northern Ireland’s qualification process for EURO 2020.

Josh Magennis, Gareth McAuley and Stuart Dallas in Panama City on the first day of Northern Ireland's summer tour

Josh Magennis, Gareth McAuley and Stuart Dallas in Panama City on the first day of Northern Ireland's summer tour

“The preparations for the European Championships in 2020 started probably with our last friendly against South Korea,” said O’Neill. “The four Nations’ League games and friendlies scheduled are crucial as, outside of our core group, we’ve players without a lot of international experience.

“We want to get them as much football as possible because, once we get around to EURO 202 qualification, those players are going to be very important.

“There are going to be opportunities for these lads to play, we want to make sure we are as strong as possible.

“The main thing is our experienced players, most of them, are here and others, like Liam Boyce, would really benefit from being here to get a lot of gametime.

“Costa Rica are a good team, probably with more exposure compared to Panama in terms of where they play in European football.

“Panama have players based more in America and South America but both are teams going to the World Cup.

“You always want to win but this tour is more about development.

“But over the past four years we’ve got ourselves in a position of winning games and want that to continue.”

Ryan McLaughlin joined his Northern Ireland team-mates on the plane following a late call-up for the summer tour in place of the injured George Saville. Everton’s Shayne Lavery and Jordan Thompson were promoted as previous replacements for Cameron McGeehan and Oliver Norwood.

“We are a little bit light in the middle of the pitch so we’ll have to improvise but have one or two things in mind,” said O’Neill. “It’s always difficult at the end of the season as players have maintenance work or procedures and clubs obviously take priority.

“But I still think the way we’ve structured the squad is good, to be able to bring in younger players.

“It’s all part of development, these players need to grow and we need to see them coming through.

“Jordan’s very gifted, he’s had that disappointment of leaving Manchester United and is in that situation again with Rangers.

“Hopefully, his involvement with us brings him to the attention of people and we’ve a responsibility to make sure Jordan’s playing at the highest possible level.

“Shayne’s just signed a new contract at Everton, which is good as his progress has maybe been halted over the past 12 months by injuries.

“But he’s a player we believe can make that transition to senior international level quite quickly.”

Northern Ireland will tackle Panama tomorrow before facing Costa Rica on June 3.