O'Neill laments limited player pool
Published 29/05/2014 | 17:12
Manager Michael O'Neill wishes it was harder for young players to break into the Northern Ireland squad but realises he may be relying on the next generation sooner than expected.
A spate of injuries, prior engagements and late withdrawals ahead of Friday's friendly in Uruguay and next week's trip to Chile leaves O'Neill in charge of a youthful group in South America, with five uncapped players in tow.
Of those, 18-year-old Fulham defender Liam Donnelly has never played a senior match at club level, 19-year-old Liverpool full-back Ryan McLaughlin has just nine games on loan at Barnsley to his name and 20-year-old Luke McCullough was in and out of the side at relegated Doncaster last season.
They are not usually the kind of credentials that lead to international recognitition, but O'Neill has a limited player pool to choose from and has been forced to fast-track individuals long before they have matured at club level.
The trio mentioned are not without promise, with Donnelly excelling at under-21 level despite his tender years, McLaughlin a highly-rated talent who comes with Kenny Dalglish's seal of approval and McCullough a product of the Manchester United youth system, but facing the likes of Uruguay's Edinson Cavani and Chile's Alexis Sanchez would be a huge step to take.
And O'Neill admits it is a decision he has had to make sooner than he would have liked.
"If I'm honest I wish it was harder for them to get to this level," he said.
"It would benefit them more if it was more difficult to get to this level. They're probably getting their chance a little bit easier than they should do.
"But of course it's exciting to have the chance of working with them.
"The ones who are here are in a pool of players where the next generation of international players will come from. The only ones outside that pool will be through eligibility and they're not coming out the woodwork.
"So while they're very young, they're not that far from being involved. As we go into the first qualifier against Hungary in September it's not beyond the realms of possibility that some of these younger players will be needed."
O'Neill is wary that asking too much, too soon may have a detrimental effect but is hopeful none of the touring party will be scarred by their experiences in South America - regardless of results.
Early in his reign, O'Neill saw a second string side battered 6-0 by a Holland outfit on their way to Euro 2012, in what was a particularly chastening experience for inexperienced players like Daniel Lafferty, Lee Hodson, Andy Little and Will Grigg.
He will be crossing his fingers for tighter contests in Montevideo and Valparaiso, but is wary of a repeat.
"You never want that to happen, but it's out of my control in a sense, the reality is Holland were brilliant against us that night," he said.
"It's about getting the balance right. The younger ones might come in without too much fear but you have to be fair to them.
"You don't want to put them in when it's too much for them and they dread coming in to play again.
"But we're not in a position really to protect the players from that, we have to put them in.
"Whoever plays can only benefit from it. I wouldn't expect to see players destroyed by this experience."
O'Neill is also holding out some hope that Uruguay, minus the injured Luis Suarez, are not as formidable as their FIFA ranking of six in the world suggests.
"Uruguay haven't had a fantastic two years of results," he said.
"They finished fifth in World Cup qualifying and won a play-off with Jordan.
"They scored 25 and conceded 25, and they're heavily dependent on a front two, Cavani and Suarez, who are on a par with anything in the world.
"Suarez is not playing, which is a great bonus from our point of view, and I don't think there'll be any real surprises - they're not a team that really forces the issue."