Wednesday 26 October 2016

Michael O'Neill confident suspensions will not hurt Northern Ireland

Published 08/09/2015 | 16:59

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is confident he can cover for suspended pair Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird, as well as Conor McLaughlin
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is confident he can cover for suspended pair Kyle Lafferty and Chris Baird, as well as Conor McLaughlin

Michael O'Neill is confident Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 dream will not be derailed by suspensions next month.

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A first major tournament in 30 years remains on the cards for O'Neill over-performing fifth seeds, after Kyle Lafferty's injury-time equaliser against Hungary kept them top of Group F with two to play.

A home win against Greece at Windsor Park in October would seal the deal regardless of other results, but that would have to be achieved without seven-goal top-scorer Lafferty, right-back Conor McLaughlin and holding midfielder Chris Baird.

Lafferty and McLaughlin both picked up their second bookings of the campaign on Monday night, while Baird was sent off in a curious incident that saw him earn two cautions in the same passage of play.

The Irish Football Association subsequently said it had sought clarification over Baird's dismissal and had been informed by the International Football Association Board that the decision was "the correct one".

The limited player pool available to Northern Ireland means they can sometimes struggle to paper over such cracks, but O'Neill believes he has able deputies in all three positions.

"You have to be able to deal with suspensions, that's the nature of international football," he said.

"We have options. Kyle being out is a blow, of course it is, but someone else will step up.

"We've seen little glimpses of what Josh Magennis can offer up front: he's a physical presence, he's powerful and I don't think people fully appreciate what he gives to this squad.

"With Conor, we have Aaron Hughes who has played right-back, Paddy McNair can play there too and he is also an option in the middle of the pitch where Bairdy plays.

"Hopefully we'll be stronger in other areas come October too, Jamie Ward will hopefully be back from injury and Jonny Evans will have more minutes under his belt by then.

"Overall there's a lot to be positive about."

Kilmarnock forward Magennis undoubtedly has the biggest boots to fill.

Lafferty has been a revelation in qualifying, with only Poland's Robert Lewandowski and Germany's Thomas Muller bettering his goals tally - not bad company for a player who was surplus to requirements at Norwich last season and has yet to play domestically due to injury this term.

Magennis has played 14 times for his country, but has started just once and has yet to open his account.

Now he is hoping to guarantee a starting spot by hitting form with his club in the coming weeks.

"I might be the front-runner to replace Kyle but we have Billy McKay and Will Grigg too," he told Press Association Sport.

"We all have four weeks of domestic football now and it's up to us to do what we can to show we're ready for Greece.

"I started off playing the last five or maybe 10 minutes for Northern Ireland, but recently it's been 15 or 20 and that is a progression for me.

"If Michael chooses to give me 90 in the next game I know I've got it in me to get that goal.

"It's up to me to do as much as I can to make sure I'm feeling right and in my absolute best shape."

Goalkeeper Michael McGovern, whose dreadful handling error gave Hungary a 1-0 lead, fronted up to his mistake and thanked Lafferty for sparing his blushes.

"It was relief all round, not just for me but for everyone," he said.

"I'm not a bad goalkeeper because I made a mistake; I'm just a goalkeeper who made a mistake.

"If we hadn't scored I would have been the villain but we got the goal and that's all that matters.

"It's never over until it's over and big Kyle came up trumps again."

Press Association

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