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Michael O’Neill wants Northern Ireland to follow Scotland’s path to improvement

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 25 Mar 2024

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Michael O’Neill believes Scotland are “very much the bar” for his Northern Ireland side as he recounted the development of Steve Clarke’s squad.

O’Neill rejected the chance to become boss of the Scottish national side in 2018 but the former Hibernian and Dundee United midfielder, who lives in Scotland, kept an eye on emerging talent in dark blue.

Ahead of the friendly against Scotland at Hampden Park on Tuesday night, O’Neill talked around a question of him being linked with the vacant managerial post at Aberdeen but discussed the opposition who are going to the Euros this summer with more precision.

“I was always aware that Scotland was a team that was going to grow,” said O’Neill.

“They have had consistent form for a number of years. They are very much the bar for us.

“I saw a lot of these players play through the early phases of their careers. It is something I spoke to the players about.

“For example, I remember seeing Stuart Armstrong play for Dundee United, John McGinn play for Hibs and now they are playing in the Premier League or have played in the Premier League for a number of years.

“So the journey their players are on is hopefully the journey that a lot of our players will go on as well.

“We are asking a lot of the younger players at this moment in time but it will be a good game.”

O’Neill outlined the disparity in levels between his young squad and that of Scotland’s group, albeit Steve Clarke’s side are on a six-game winless run following their 4-0 friendly defeat by the Netherlands in Amsterdam on Friday night.

He said: “There is real consistency with the teams Steve picks and the way they play. Our biggest challenge is we don’t have the depth that Scotland have.

“If you look at the midfield, Steve could change three or four of those players and he could be bringing in, maybe not players as established, but players who are playing in Serie A or top Championship teams.

“We have everything to gain. We are a team very much in its infancy playing against a very established team.”

Dan Ballard returns to the squad after the birth of his son but aside from that it will be the same players as Friday when Northern Ireland drew 1-1 with Romania in Bucharest, with Ross McCausland remaining out with a “complex” injury along with Jamal Lewis.

On the Rangers winger, the former Stoke boss said: “I don’t think it is particularly serious. It is a little bit complex from the understanding of the medical team.

“I think he was optimistic but he has played with pain since he had the initial challenge and injury.

“I spoke to (Rangers manager) Philippe Clement and they had him on the bench against Benfica but I don’t think realistically they intended to use him in that situation.

“He has got a lot to play for between now and the end of the season.

“We are conscious of that so we don’t want to put him in a situation where we are bringing him off the bench and he is uncomfortable in that way.

“So we just hope that he recovers quickly because the most important thing for us is that Ross is playing for Rangers and playing regularly because then we have another player playing at a level that we will get a lot from on the international stage.”

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