Northern Ireland: Euro qualifying campaign 'a steep learning curve' for young players

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill was reappointed for a second spell as Northern Ireland manager in December 2022

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill says his side's Euro 2024 qualification campaign to date has been "a steep learning curve" for his young players.

O'Neill's side picked up three points in their opening game in San Marino but have since lost 1-0 to Finland and Kazakhstan at home and Denmark away.

The NI manager has been without a number of key injured players including Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas.

"The younger players have had to step up during this campaign," said O'Neill.

"Probably a little bit sooner than we thought and for a lot of these players in their first international qualifying campaign it's a little bit of a steep learning curve."

'Too many senior players missing'

Northern Ireland travel to face Slovenia and Kazakhstan in their next Euro qualifiers on 7 and 10 September, but those three defeats from their first four matches look to have rendered hopes of qualification remote.

"There was a real attitude among the senior players to really have a go in this campaign and a belief that there was an opportunity for us here. Unfortunately we've had too many of those players missing," reflected O'Neill.

"When I look at the games we've had three narrow defeats. We've not been outplayed.

"I thought we coped with the game in Copenhagen extremely well. We all know how the decision went against us [a last-gasp equaliser denied by a VAR decision] and we've come out on the wrong side of the fine margins.

"We've conceded three poor goals and we've had opportunities at key moments in games that we've not taken.

"When I look back at successful campaigns the margins in the games are always very fine and unfortunately in this campaign to date we've probably come out on the wrong side of those margins."

Northern Ireland midfielder Shea Charles
Shea Charles made the move from Manchester City to Southampton in the summer

'We'll get a better version of Shea'

Among the young players afforded opportunities because of the unavailability of more senior members of the squad are Shea Charles, who made a summer move from Manchester City to Southampton, and fellow 19-year-old Isaac Price, who has switched from Everton to Belgian club Standard Liege.

Both are included in the group for the forthcoming double-header, having continued to impress their international boss with their new clubs in the early stages of the new season.

"Shea was always going to have to make that decision at some point [to move to another club]. It's a huge ask for any young player to get into Manchester City's team," observed O'Neill.

"We were asking a lot of him as an international player but I think he coped with that and I've been delighted with his performances since I've taken over.

"I think we'll get a better version of Shea from him playing first-team football in the Championship because he'll have to learn quickly.

"It's a competitive league, he's playing for a good team who play a style of football that I think will suit him and he has adaptability.

"I think we're only going to see Shea progress and improve with his club and internationally.

Isaac Price moved from Everton to Standard Liege in the summer
Isaac Price made his first start for Northern Ireland in the 1-0 defeat by Kazakhstan in June

'Brave' move for Price

"The same goes for Isaac. Since I've had them they've essentially been playing under-21 football and been on the fringes of first-team training.

"Now they're both starting games, Isaac at Standard Liege and Shea at Southampton. That's a positive for ourselves.

"It was a very brave move for a young player [Isaac] to make. Everton wanted to keep him but he wanted to go out and play first-team football.

"He has done well. He has started five games for Standard Liege, played in a central midfield role and is very involved in the games.

"Athletically he looks big and strong and has quality on the ball. The experience he is going through will only help us.

"I think Isaac is going to continue to be an important player for us and he will continue to develop."

Queen's Park Rangers winger Paul Smyth
Paul Smyth scored a spectacular winning goal on his Northern Ireland debut against South Korea in March 2018

'An infectious character'

Queen's Park Rangers winger Paul Smyth has been recalled to the squad, having made his debut under O'Neill in 2018 and won the last of his three caps in 2021.

Former Linfield player Smyth returned for a second spell with QPR after spending two seasons with Leyton Orient.

"When I initially had Paul in the squad maybe the jump to QPR was too big. Dropping down to Orient has proved to be a really good decision. He's determined to make an impact there [at QPR] second time round.

"He had two very good seasons at Orient and he's proven himself ready to step back up again.

"He's been in QPR's team since the start of the season and he's playing for a manager [Gareth Ainsworth] who had him on loan at Wycombe, so who knows him well.

"I'm glad to see him back in because he's an infectious little character and player and it's down to him now and he's playing at a level now that merits his inclusion."