Sunday 22 April 2018

Northern Ireland recall Jamie Ward for Euro 2016 qualifiers

Jamie Ward is back for Northern Ireland's crucial games against Greece and Finland
Jamie Ward is back for Northern Ireland's crucial games against Greece and Finland

Jamie Ward has been recalled to the Northern Ireland squad for their decisive Euro 2016 qualifiers against Greece and Finland.

A hamstring injury kept the Nottingham Forest forward out of last month's game against Hungary, when Michael O'Neill's side moved a point closer to their first major tournament in 30 years.

One more win in their concluding Group F double-header would guarantee Northern Ireland's maiden appearance in the European Championship and Ward is on board for Greece's trip to Windsor Park on October 8 and the game in Helsinki three days later.

Leading scorer Kyle Lafferty, midfielder Chris Baird and full-back Conor McLaughlin are all suspended from the first match but will be available to face Finland.

McLaughlin's brother Ryan, on loan at Aberdeen from Liverpool, has been promoted from the Under-21s and MK Dons defender Lee Hodson also returns.

O'Neill will be hoping to line up with West Brom club-mates Jonny Evans, Chris Brunt and Gareth McAuley in his defence, but the latter missed Monday's 3-2 defeat to Everton with a groin strain.

"It's early days yet but we're hoping he'll be involved (for West Brom) on Saturday," O'Neill said.

"We're liaising with the medical team and I'll get a chance to chat to Gareth nearer the time. We hope it's nothing serious and he'll be available.

"The big thing for me is getting through the weekend (without injuries), which is always a challenge at this point in time."

Lafferty's absence is the biggest issue for O'Neill, with the Norwich striker netting seven times in eight matches to lead the Green and White Army's charge.

But Ward's return bolsters the attacking options and north of the border, Kilmarnock's Josh Magennis, Ross County's Liam Boyce and Dundee United's Billy McKay have all found their shooting boots.

Magennis and McKay have netted three times since the last international break and Boyce took his season's tally to an impressive 10 at the weekend.

There was no recall for Martin Paterson, a former O'Neill favourite, who has just returned to English football with Blackpool after an injury-ruined spell with Orlando City.

"Obviously we knew Kyle would not be available for myself and (assistant manager) Jimmy Nichol have watched the three lads in Scotland very closely," O'Neill added.

"McKay, Boyce and Josh are all playing well and scoring, and that's a good thing. Damien Johnson has watched Will Grigg for me too.

"But it's not just a case of who replaces Kyle, we have other options up front and we could change the system.

"That will be determined by personnel, but it's good to have the other lads playing, scoring and in good form."

Northern Ireland squad to face Greece and Finland: R Carroll (Notts County), A Mannus (St Johnstone), M McGovern (Hamilton), A Hughes (Melbourne City), G McAuley (West Brom), J Evans (West Brom), C Cathcart (Watford), S Ferguson (Millwall), L Hodson (MK Dons), P McNair (Man Utd), S Davis (Southampton), C Brunt (West Brom), C Evans (Blackburn), O Norwood (Reading), P McCourt (Luton), S Dallas (Leeds), R McLaughlin (Aberdeen), N McGinn (Aberdeen), J Ward (Nottingham Forest), J Magennis (Kilmarnock), B McKay (Dundee Utd), W Grigg (Wigan), L Boyce (Ross County).

Finland only: C McLaughlin (Fleetwood), C Baird (Derby), K Lafferty (Norwich).

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