Northern Ireland youngsters earn Michael O’Neill praise after narrow win
Michael O’Neill praised Northern Ireland’s youngsters after an experimental side emerged with a 1-0 friendly win over Luxembourg on Thursday night.
A horror own goal from Kevin Malget handed the Green and White Army victory at Windsor Park ahead of their Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany on Monday night.
O’Neill’s team selection was made with that game in mind as he kept his key players out of the firing line and handed opportunities to others.
And though the game was largely lacking in quality, the most encouraging signs came from the younger players in a side featuring only three players to have started Northern Ireland’s last outing in Belarus in June.
The 21-year-old Ciaron Brown – uncapped at any level and only called into the under-21 squad for the first time last week – started at centre-half alongside Tom Flanagan, who was earning only his second cap at the age of 27.
Shayne Lavery and Liam Donnelly both came off the bench to earn their second caps, while there were debuts for teenagers Alfie McCalmont and Ethan Galbraith in the second half.
“It was a very worthwhile exercise,” O’Neill said. “It was a challenging three days in terms of preparation because we wanted to put as strong a team on the pitch as possible but obviously we had more than one eye on the game on Monday.
“Of the team we picked really only George (Saville) and Corry (Evans), Gavin (Whyte) and Josh (Magennis) would be potentially starting in that game.
“We still started the game with six players that were part of the squad for France and played in the tournament so we didn’t change things too much.
“It was good to get young boys on the pitch and I was pleased with a lot of performances.”
Brown and Flanagan looked assured in defence, with Luxembourg unable to get a shot on target until the early stages of the second half.
“Ciaron Brown was the most notable,” O’Neill said of the youngsters involved. “He was only in the under-21 squad this week for the first time. You look back 16 months and he was playing for Wealdstone in non-league football…
“The injury to Callum Morris put us in a difficult situation. I wasn’t prepared to risk Jonny (Evans) or Craig (Cathcart) in this game so he came in at short notice, as did Tom Flanagan.
“With Tom it’s his second cap and he had to be the leader in that partnership and he did it very well.”
In truth, the game is unlikely to live long in the memory of many besides those making their debuts, with little in the way of goalmouth action and only Malget’s horrible mistake separating the sides.
But given O’Neill’s only goal was to emerge with his side’s confidence in tact and his key players fit and ready to go on Monday, he could not ask for too much more.
“It would be nice to score another goal or one of the young guys to score a goal, but we won the game and we have a nice little run now with five wins out of five,” he said.
“We’re in as good a place as we could be going into the game on Monday. The only thing that could be better for us is if Michael Smith or Jordan Jones or Liam Boyce were fit, but you can’t have everything.”