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Conor Bradley: Liverpool star will be 'huge' for us, says Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

Conor Bradley pictured in action during Northern Ireland's Euro 2024 qualifier against Finland

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill says Conor Bradley will be a "huge player for us" as he praised the young defender's "fantastic" recent performances for Liverpool.

Bradley scored his first Liverpool goal and notched two assists in the Reds' 4-1 win over Chelsea last month.

The 20-year-old missed Sunday's defeat by Arsenal following the death of his father.

"I'd known of Conor from my tenure the first time," said O'Neill.

"He was an under-16 player going to Liverpool. We obviously had high hopes for him. He's dealt with a very difficult situation at home. I was at the funeral on Tuesday.

"It was a hell of a week for him with what he went through with his family but he's got a really strong family unit. That was evident. He's a strong boy mentally and I think he's shown what he's capable of as a player."

O'Neill was speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live after Northern Ireland were drawn against Belarus, Bulgaria and Luxembourg in the 2024-25 Nations League.

Bradley has won 13 caps for Northern Ireland after making his debut under O'Neill's predecessor Ian Baraclough.

Prior to his starring role in Liverpool's win over Chelsea, he also recorded assists in victories against Bournemouth and Norwich City, earning him a nomination for January's Premier League player of the month award.

"His level of performance coming into the Liverpool team has been fantastic," added O'Neill.

"He was injured for the majority of the first half of the season as well so I think we would probably have seen that earlier if that hadn't been the case.

"We only had him for three games out of 10 in qualification for Euro 2024. He's going to be a huge player for us going forward."

When asked if Northern Ireland fans should be excited about the former Dungannon Swifts youth player, O'Neill said: "I think so. We see it at Liverpool where he's playing at right-back.

"There's people who've worked with him when he was very young with Northern Ireland tell me that if I'm brave enough to play him in midfield that I'll see an even better player. We'll see what comes of that. I'll have to be brave.

"But he's one of a number of young players. He's in a good group. The likes of Shea Charles, Isaac Price, Callum Marshall, Dale Taylor, Trai Hume.

"We have six or seven players who are nearly starters for us at this moment in time who are under-21 so those lads need time, need games. And Conor's got a nice group developing (around him). This tournament will give us a chance to add to the experience."

'Nations League a chance to develop young team'

Michael O'Neill applauds the Northern Ireland fans after the Euro 2024 qualifier win over Denmark
O'Neill says the Nations League will give him the chance to further develop his young side before their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign

Northern Ireland will face Belarus, Bulgaria and Luxembourg in Group C3 of the Nations League having failed to earn promotion to League B in the 2022-23 tournament.

O'Neill's side struggled in Euro 2024 qualifying, finishing fifth in Group H after winning just three of their 10 matches.

"It's quite an open kind of group, a competitive group," said O'Neill, who led Northern Ireland to the last 16 of Euro 2016 during his first stint and returned in late 2022.

"We missed getting Romania and Sweden who are probably the two strongest teams out of pot 1.

"We've got a very, very young squad at the minute and this will give them an opportunity to win games, give them more experience and help us develop the team further, particularly with the World Cup qualification the next big tournament to deal with."

Belarus, the lowest-ranked team in Northern Ireland's group, have played their home games at neutral venues since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

On potentially facing Belarus at a neutral venue, O'Neill said: "I understand that they've played their home games in Budapest on occasions. That's probably a plus for us if I'm honest.

"I've been in Belarus before. It's not an easy game. We did win there in Euro 2020 qualification so the fact that the game may be in a neutral venue hopefully will help us.

"A big thing is that we're not going to be dealing with a huge amount of travel. We had Kazakhstan in the qualification for Euro 2024 and it was a difficult trip."