Taking the positives: Michael O’Neill’s thoughts on Northern Ireland’s loss to Costa Rica

Northern Ireland's Conor Hazard makes his debut against Costa Rica
Northern Ireland's Conor Hazard makes his debut against Costa Rica

Michael O’Neill insisted there would be no damaging effect to Northern Ireland after they finished their Central American tour with a 3-0 loss to Costa Rica in San Jose.

The World Cup-bound Los Ticos joined Germany and Croatia as the only teams to have defeated the Northern Irish by more than one goal since November 2014.

Johan Venegas and Francisco Calvo both scored from Joel Campbell corners, in-between the Arsenal man’s strike just after the break.

O’Neill, whose side drew 0-0 with Panama last Tuesday, took a relatively young and inexperienced squad on the trip, handing out four debuts across the two fixtures, and he stressed the positives of the 10-day tour outweighed the negatives.

“The alternative is not to do something like this and play a game at home against low opposition,” O’Neill said.

“This is a new experience, a good experience for me as a coach, a good experience for the players.

“This doesn’t damage us in any way. Come September we’ll be ready to play and we look forward to the Nations League.

“It would have been nice to come out here and get two positive results. Today has just shown maybe it was a game too much.

“We were heavily reliant on our older boys and it’s a big ask. There’s potential there but we can’t expect these young lads to come in and play international football.”

Most of them aren’t even playing club football.

“The first hurdle for these players is to get regular club football, and at as high a level as possible. The next step is international football.

“(Steven) Davis, (Oliver) Norwood, (George) Saville, (Kyle) Lafferty, (Conor) Washington, (Jamie) Ward...there’s a lot of players to come back into the squad. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m not going to be too despondent about today’s result.”

Costa Rica, who face England at Elland Road on Thursday, represented a step up in quality from Panama and Campbell, in particular, impressed.

Still at Arsenal, the 25-year-old has just completed his sixth loan spell away from the Gunners and has not played for Arsenal since late 2016.

“He’s a player that typically looks to be better at national-team level than he does at club level,” O’Neill noted.

“He had a very exciting World Cup in 2014. Costa Rica are a team that don’t have any huge stars. I think when they got to the tournament they’re capable of causing upsets. They’re capable of certainly getting to the last 16.

“I think they’re well geared to deal with the tournament. Not all their players have played the whole season. Campbell looks fresh, sharp, he’ll be a big player for them.

“They’re sharp all over the pitch. (Cristian) Gamboa’s barely played a game this season (for Celtic), looked a good player, (Bryan) Oviedo’s in and out of the team at Sunderland.

“It’s a little bit like Chile - sometimes these players are better for their national team than they are for their clubs. Sometimes the system they play in suits them a bit better.

“They seem to raise their level in the national team jersey. I think that will give them a chance to do well in Russia.”