Sunday 25 February 2018

O'Neill admits defeat in bid to unearth Northern gems

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Rory Dollard

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill admits he has reached a dead end in his efforts to expand the country's player pool.

Like most of his predecessors in the post, O'Neill has spent plenty of time poring over lists of uncapped players across the UK to see if any are eligible for Northern Ireland.

When he was appointed nearly two years ago he was enthusiastic about the possibility of unearthing new talent for the senior squad but, aside from Scotland-born defender James McPake, he has found the process a frustrating one. The promised land of the Premier League, in particular, has proved barren.

"There are none in the Premier League who are eligible and are prepared to come and play for Northern Ireland," O'Neill admitted. "When I got the job, I went through every Premier League squad to find out those players who are not playing international football somewhere else.

"The nature of the game has changed. There are not many Premier League players who don't play international football already. If they don't, they probably feel as though they don't need it. It's not a career enhancer to them.

"We contacted all the agents at the beginning. The process originally was to look at all players from England, Scotland and Wales. We also looked at the Republic of Ireland. I would love to tell you there are some hidden gems out there, but there just aren't. They just weren't there for us and that is why my main focus now is on the group we do have."

O'Neill thought he was close to finding some joy at Championship level, pin-pointing four players for potential recruitment, only for a variety of stumbling blocks to get in the way. Watford striker Troy Deeney appeared to be the most promising lead, only for it to emerge that his family link was too distant.

Huddersfield's Sean Scannell is on the radar but has yet to commit, while Notts County's David Bell and Millwall's Liam Feeney have suffered dips in form since being identified.

"It's not a case of just saying 'right, who is eligible?' and then bringing them into the squad," O'Neill said. "To bring someone in, they have to be on the up."

Sunday Independent

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