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Michael O’Neill to put faith in youth as injuries pile up for Northern Ireland

Michael O’Neill expects to be relying on young players again in next month’s European qualifiers (Liam McBurney/PA)
Michael O’Neill expects to be relying on young players again in next month’s European qualifiers (Liam McBurney/PA)

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill will be leaning on young players again for next month’s Euro 2024 qualifiers with injuries continuing to limit his options.

O’Neill is yet to confirm a date to name his squad for the qualifiers away to Denmark and at home to Kazakhstan in mid-June, but he has already ruled seven senior players out of contention due to long-term injuries.

Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington and Shane Ferguson will play no part in the matches, which has meant O’Neill has had his eye on potential call-ups while leading an under-21 training camp in Belfast this week.

O’Neill is due to hold two training camps in England between now and the qualifiers, trying to keep players whose seasons have already finished fit during the intervening period, and some of the under-21s will be involved.

“This is where this is really important to us,” O’Neill said. “We will use some of these players in the next weeks and this gives them some exposure to the senior squad.

“We know Steven and Stuart are still injured, Corry and Liam Boyce are still not back playing any first-team football, Josh Magennis will be out, Conor Washington is out and Shane Ferguson has had groin surgery, so that’s seven players that’s missing.

“It is going to challenge us. We had younger players in the squad for March and we will have younger players again next month.”

Dallas has been out all season following a double leg-break, meaning the versatile player has been unable to help Leeds in their fight against relegation.

With Jonny Evans’ Leicester also under threat going into the final day of the top-flight season on Sunday, Northern Ireland could potentially be left without any Premier League regulars next season.

However, O’Neill said that would not necessarily have a major impact on the national team.

“I realise that as the Premier League continues to go in the direction it goes that we will always have a limited number of players playing in the Premier League,” he said.

“Probably when I came into the job in 2012 we had most of our players playing there, maybe six or seven at that point in time, but it was also a time when the international team was not doing particularly well.

“The most important thing is that players are playing regularly. Going forward we will predominantly be made up of Championship and League One players, hopefully some Premier League players as well, that’s just something we have to accept.

“It’s very difficult for some of the younger lads who are at Premier League clubs to find that pathway to break in. In the Premier League there is no patience, managers can’t afford it. You can lose your job – and you see the number of changes in the Premier League and Championship this season.

“I would love to be going to Premier League matches every week but I’m not. I’m going to Championship, League One, League Two, Scottish Premiership and under-21 games in England. I’m going to see Isaac Price and Shea Charles playing under-21 games.

“That’s where we are with the resources we have.”