Michael O’Neill wants Paddy McNair to head a new generation of leaders within the Northern Ireland squad as they look to a future when the stalwarts of the last decade are no longer around.
O’Neill on Tuesday named his first squad since returning to the job in December, and was forced to select a relatively inexperienced group with the likes of Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Ali McCann, and Shayne Lavery out injured.
Jonny Evans is included, but it remains uncertain what role he will be able to play in the opening Euro 2024 qualifier away to San Marino on March 23rd and the home match against Finland that follows, as the 100-cap defender has not featured for Leicester since November due to calf and thigh problems.
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In Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Shane Ferguson, O’Neill has called up three players who were all in his first Northern Ireland squad back in 2012, but Davis and Corry Evans, two others from that group, are sidelined by long-term ACL injuries.
Dallas has not yet recovered from the broken leg he suffered last season.
“What will be interesting about this window in particular is how we will cope without, at this moment in time, Steven, Corry, Stuart, players that have been with me a long time,” O’Neill told the PA news agency.
“Players emerge all the time. You look at Paddy McNair, 27 years of age, McNair needs to become a huge player in this group, a really big player and he has to embrace that role.”
McNair is well established as one of Northern Ireland’s most reliable players with 58 caps since his 2015 debut, and O’Neill now wants the Middlesbrough man to have a bigger voice within the group.
“I don’t think he needs to add anything (to his game), but at 27, he has to develop his leadership skills and that personality in his play,” he said. “I think he has that.”
O’Neill also highlighted 23-year-old Sunderland defender Dan Ballard, a player who got his first call-up late in O’Neill’s first reign but made his debut under Ian Baraclough and quickly established himself, earning 16 caps to date.
“(Dan) Ballard is the same,” he said. “I already see that in Daniel playing at Sunderland. Sunderland have a young team and I see him as a leader in that team.
“What I see in some of my younger players is the ability to step in and deal with situations they face. Watching Trai Hume at Sunderland, he looks very assured and calm, Conor Bradley at Bolton is playing very well.
“How those players are dealing with situations gives me a lot of confidence. We will need players to emerge very quickly in the next 12 to 18 months and the team may look different to what it does now, but it will certainly grow and progress in that period.”
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O’Neill has called up four uncapped players in Motherwell’s Sean Goss, Ostend’s Cameron McGeehan, Bolton defender Eoin Toal and Everton teenager Isaac Price while the likes of Burton forward Dale Taylor, Aberdeen winger Matthew Kennedy and Manchester City’s Shea Charles have only a handful of caps.
With so much experience missing there is an added importance on Jonny Evans being involved to whatever extent he can be, which may include him playing before he makes his first-team return for Leicester.
“Jonny is not a player that loses fitness very easily and also not a player who depends on that – Jonny’s game is played with his brain, his intelligence as much as anything else,” O’Neill said.
“I’m optimistic he’ll be fit and I know he’s desperate to be involved. Although he’s not had 30 games this season I believe he’ll be able to come in and handle games at this level.”