Craig Cathcart has backed Daniel Ballard and Ciaron Brown to have big futures with Northern Ireland.
With Jonny Evans absent through injury Cathcart lined up alongside Cardiff’s Brown, 23, twice over the past week, while the 21-year-old Ballard came into the Northern Ireland side for Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Ukraine after helping Blackpool earn promotion to League One at the weekend.
And though Northern Ireland could not follow up Sunday’s 3-0 win over Malta as they were edged out in Dnipro, Cathcart was impressed by his younger team-mates.
They’re going to be big players for Northern Ireland
“They are two young players who have come into the team and every time they play they do really well,” the Watford defender said.
“They’re going to have a great future. They’re playing club football week in, week out now and that can only develop them further.
“They’re going to be big players for Northern Ireland.”
Brown would have Northern Ireland’s best chance of the game in Ukraine, with his header late in the first half being clawed to safety by Heorhiy Bushchan.
“I was right behind it to be fair and he got a good contact on it from a great delivery and if we had gone in at the break 1-1 we would have been really happy,” Cathcart added.
“It was a really tough game. Ukraine are a really good side and you could see why they’re going to the Euros.
“They caused a lot of problems, especially in the first half and we found it hard to deal with their movement.
“But we came in at half-time 1-0 down, had a good chat and changed a few things and we were unlucky not to get a goal early in the second half.
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“It’s never easy in these camps with lads coming in at different stages of their fitness, but it has been good.
“We got a good win against Malta, played a really good Ukraine team and while it was a difficult match, we can learn from the experience.”
After 17-year-old defender Conor Bradley made his debut in the Malta win, Thursday was the turn of Chelsea teenager Sam McClelland.
The 19-year-old is yet to play for his club at senior level but made his international bow when he replaced Brown late on in Dnipro.
“It was a dream come true for me,” said McClelland. “To make my senior debut for Northern Ireland has been my goal in football since I started playing competitively.
“To make my debut at this age and so early in my career is such a big thing for me and I just hope it’s the start of many more caps and appearances for my country.
“It’s what I’ve always dreamed of and to get on was a really nice feeling, but it also gives me that feeling of working harder and pushing on to next season.
“My game has developed. I’ve got bigger and stronger, but also technically and tactically more aware, so my game has pushed on and I just want to continue that progression.”