Northern Ireland: Michael O’Neill to ‘evaluate’ futures of older players

Northern Ireland: Michael O’Neill to ‘evaluate’ futures of older players

3 min

Northern Ireland: Michael O’Neill to ‘evaluate’ futures of older players

Jonny Evans
Evans, 35, is one of a number of Northern Ireland players approaching the latter stages of their careers

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill has conceded he will have to “evaluate” the futures of some of the older members of his squad during the rest of the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.

O’Neill is braced for a significant squad overhaul in the coming months.

“I have to evaluate some of the older players – are they still able to give us what we need going forward?” questioned O’Neill.

“I’m [also] still at a point where we’re evaluating a lot of those who have come in [more recently],” he said.

‘We’re short on players playing at a high level’

Northern Ireland have taken three points from six games, with their solitary victory in Group H coming against minnows San Marino in March.

They have been hampered by a seemingly never-ending injury list, with 12 players ruled out of Sunday’s match and up to 17 players missing at various stages of the qualifying campaign.

Stalwarts Steven Davis, Corry Evans and Stuart Dallas have missed the entirety of the campaign with long-term injuries, while fellow experienced members of the squad Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart have also been on the treatment table for a number of games.

With all those players in their 30s, O’Neill will have big decisions to make about their continued selection ahead of next year’s Nations League.

“There’s a decision to be made. We’re just a little bit old in some areas of the team and a bit young and inexperienced in the others,” he admitted.

“That’s something that can only be compensated by getting players on the pitch and playing games.

“We’re a little bit short on players playing at a high enough level at the minute to make us as strong as we could be as a squad.”

‘Players have to be patient’

Northern Ireland fell to their fifth defeat in a row in Kazakhstan
Northern Ireland fell to their fifth defeat in a row in Kazakhstan

The country’s record goalscorer David Healy says there have been “structural failings” in the Irish FA which have hindered the team’s progress.

O’Neill pointed to the lengthy injury list and having to blood young players much earlier than he anticipated as key factors in their disappointing campaign so far, but believes that his squad members are as committed as ever to turning their fortunes around.

“Every time they turn up and play they’re representing their country, so I don’t think you need motivation for that as a player,” he said.

“For a lot of them they’re at the start of their international careers, so they should be excited to come, which I believe they are. It’s always difficult when players turn up and they have to be patient.

“We’ve a number of players who haven’t played in these two games, but I think if they look around and they see the likes of Jonny Evans here and the players who would love to be here – Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans – I think that’s motivation enough.”

He added: “It’s part of being a Northern Ireland international. You’re not going to turn up and just win all the time.

“We have to mould a team and you can only really do that by continuing to be available and motivating yourself.

“I’ve no concerns about that over the rest of the campaign.”

‘It’s been challenging’

Reflecting on his “frustrating” return to the Northern Ireland job, O’Neill believes he can use his previous experience to coax the team back to winning ways.

Although their qualification hopes have been all but extinguished, they still have four games of the campaign remaining.

There will be a home double-header against San Marino and Slovenia in October, before they conclude their campaign with a trip to Finland and a home game against Denmark in November.

“It’s been challenging,” O’Neill acknowledged.

“I think, like any manager, the job is always more enjoyable when you’re winning, but I’ve been through this before at international level.

“I think the experience I’ve had in the past has helped me keep things in perspective. I look back on this campaign and try and find as many positives as I can.”

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