Every session counts, warns Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
Published 12/11/2015 | 14:56
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has told his players to make every training session count between now and Euro 2016.
All eyes are firmly on next summer's trip to France after securing their first major finals appearance since 1986 last month.
Friday's home clash against Latvia is the first of five proposed friendlies before the finals, meaning O'Neill is already thinking about the composition of his 23-man squad.
That is the exact number of players on duty in Belfast this week but with Chris Brunt injured, Aaron Hughes staying with Melbourne City this week, and a handful of other recent squad members also hoping for another chance, there are hard calls ahead.
"I said to the players the other night that every training session is high stakes now," said O'Neill.
"I can only put 17 on the pitch on Friday night and I'll have two games in March but I'm not big on just changing the team for the sake of it.
"So every session we have is important to these players because the time we spend with them is so limited.
"People who are in the squad but aren't in the team have to prove they deserve a place. That's either with what they're doing at their club or how they do when they come here."
O'Neill is likely to prioritise game time for those who have been sitting out for their clubs in recent weeks, and may even consider another look at the 3-5-2 formation he has used previously, but he has no intention of awarding cheap caps.
"The regular players want to play and they deserve to play," he said.
"It's not a case of giving someone a shirt - they have to take that off the person who is playing.
"Sometimes that can happen through injury. We're deprived of Brunty for this game so we'll look at that scenario at left-back and there's a chance for someone to stake a claim.
"It is very much about players taking their chance."
Northern Ireland are also in the process of finalising their preference for a base camp in France, new territory for an association that last feasted at the top table at the 1986 World Cup.
O'Neill went to run the rule over a handful of possible venues after qualification was secured but is planning a repeat visit to finalise his thoughts.
"We went the week after the Finland game and saw four venues of different suitability," he said.
"It was very useful but a little bit rushed so we're looking at a second visit next week.
"We're well down the road in terms of a preferred venue but we're still looking at other options at this moment in time.
"It's not just a case of finding the perfect hotel and the perfect training pitch; you need accessibility to the airport because you're going to fly to your games in the host cities. It's a little bit trickier then people from the outside might imagine.
"There's quite a range in terms of suitability, cost and location. All of those things are under consideration.
"But we'll get what we want, no doubt about that, and hopefully it's as close to perfect as possible."