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Friendlies key for O'Neill

14 Nov 2013 16:46:54

Friendlies key for O'Neill

The eyes of the football world may be on the likes of Portugal and France this week but Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill insists clubs must recognise the importance of friendlies too.

While some of European football's top talent - including Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - take part in the World Cup play-offs, O'Neill's men will be contesting a lower-key date in Turkey.

With neither side having qualified for a place in Brazil and the Euro 2016 campaign not kicking off until next September it is the kind of fixture that may be greeted with groans by club managers, but O'Neill sees it as a crucial part of his planning.

His time with the players is limited enough as it is and with the possibility of just three more get togethers before the next batch of competitive fixtures, the trip to Adana takes on plenty of importance.

"Games like this are essential," he said.

"The next date is in March and after that there is possibly an opportunity at the end of May with teams preparing for Brazil, we'll look at options there, so these games are invaluable.

"Three friendly games amounts to about nine days with the players, I think that puts into perspective the challenge we face.

"I understand some of the clubs have difficulties with them but for us to be able to build and develop a team we have to be able to have all of these fixtures.

"It can be difficult at times because you don't always get the ideal scenario or the ideal fixture but I'd rather come and play the likes of Turkey - a difficult game with an edge to it - than a less meaningful friendly."

Despite the value placed on the clash by O'Neill, Northern Ireland will not be able to call on a full-strength side for the match, with absentees reaching double figures.

Chris Brunt, Craig Cathcart, Jamie Ward and Shane Ferguson are among the injured, while Gareth McAuley (personal reasons) and Kyle Lafferty, who is due to become a father for the second time, are also unavailable.

That leaves O'Neill carrying a skeletal 17-man squad, just about acceptable for a friendly but hardly a precedent he would want to repeat.

"That's what we have to choose from. The reality is the next couple of players to be called into the squad would be from League Two," O'Neill admitted.

"Before you look at that level of football, without being disrespectful, you're essentially looking at a possible squad of about 27 players.

"That's where we are, we have 11 players unavailable to us for one reason or another.

"Going forward into the campaign we cannot have that level of unavailability if we're to have a fighting chance in whatever group we're in."

One player who has arrived to boost O'Neill's options is 27-year-old Jonny Steele.

The New York Red Bulls midfielder is set to win his first cap on Friday having scrapped his way to the top in the most unlikely way imaginable.

Steele, who played indoor football in the United States to make ends meet before his Major League Soccer breakthrough, will get the chance to stake his claim for further recognition after impressing O'Neill with his determination.

"Jonny is a late developer and the path he's taken to where he is now is not the traditional path," said the former Shamrock Rovers boss.

"He's played indoor soccer in the States, gone on a season-to-season basis having to make his living, so it's nice for him to get his opportunity to be part of an international squad on the back of what has been a very good season.

"He's playing in a league which is highly regarded now and for one of the biggest clubs in that league.

"He plays with some big name players (including Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill) albeit probably not in their prime.

"This last year there has been a real maturity in his game, and in himself, and it's good to get a chance to work with him first hand."


PA

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