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Expectation is great but we can't get carried away, warns O'Neill

 

By Steven Beacom ·

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Making a point: Michael O’Neill is keen to remain realistic

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill believes the expectation among the fans ahead of the Nations League campaign is positive for his players.

O'Neill was at pains to point out prior to today's opening fixture with Bosnia & Herzegovina, however, that with optimism must come a dose of realism.

He said that Northern Ireland's squad depth remains limited and he has hope rather than certainty when it comes to the prospect of young players coming through for the future.

Since becoming boss in December 2011, O'Neill has brought the glory days back to the country, inspiring his side to reach Euro 2016 and go close to making this year's World Cup finals, losing in the play-offs.

The next tournament on the horizon is Euro 2020 and even though the draw for qualifying has not been made, the Green and White Army expect Northern Ireland to be there.

O'Neill has brought the nation a long way, with a few bumps on the journey.

"I didn't just come in with a magic wand and everything fell into place. That didn't happen," said the 49-year-old.

"What we managed to do was get every ounce out of the players that we could. Some obviously have fallen by the wayside in terms of their international careers or opted to retire, and then hopefully you get the emergence of some new players.

"For me, it's good to see players turn up for international duty with a smile on their face and a real purpose and a belief they can achieve something.

"Expectation is a good thing. The worst thing you can have in football is no expectation.

"To have that within the group, it's a great time for young players to come into the squad.

"In the early years it was difficult for them because we were struggling to get results.

"Now they come in and we're on an upward curve. The benchmark is set higher for them.

"The lads coming in are going to have to perform well to stay in the squad and the team."

Cue the realism when strength in depth was mentioned at his eve-of-match media briefing.

"We're still not strong in terms of our depth. We're not leaving players out of the squad who are playing at a good level," said O'Neill.

"The players on the fringes of things are still trying to make an impact with their clubs and often playing at a lower level as well. That's something we can't really address immediately.

"Our Under-21s have had a good campaign.

"The challenge for those players will be how they progress with their clubs. A number of them are playing first-team football, albeit at a lower level.

"There's always hope. Young players give you hope. We've seen Paul Smyth and Gavin Whyte come in. There is no induction period for those lads with Northern Ireland, you need to be ready to play.

"The squad now has a nice age about it.

"The squad now has a nice age about it.

"We have that experience in the right areas, we have good legs in the team and the players who have come in have made an impact straight away and hopefully we'll see the emergence of three or four other players through the Nations League."

Asked if hope is enough, O'Neill replied: "It's all I've got! I would love certainty, but we don't have it.

"We can't manufacture players. We have two routes to find players; they either come through and develop and are born here, or we find them through eligibility. They're the two routes to strengthen the depth we have."

Today, Bosnia's record goalscorer Edin Dzeko will be the chief threat.

While respectful of the Roma striker, O'Neill believes Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans have the quality to cope.

Defender Aaron Hughes has returned to Hearts due to injury, leaving O'Neill with 25 players to choose from.

WBA's Chris Brunt has retired from the international scene and new Rangers signing Gareth McAuley, yet to play this season, is likely to sit out today meaning a key double act where set-pieces are concerned will be missing.

"Much has been made of that side of our game and how much we utilise set-pieces, we've never hidden the fact that we do value them and work on them, but we have other people who can deliver the ball," said O'Neill.

"Gareth's situation has meant that this game realistically is too soon for him to be involved. We do have other aspects to our game and it's not just a case of trying to replace two players. It's how we compensate for that as a team.

"I know the team I'm going to play. I see parts of it that are very exciting."

Northern Ireland are in League B in the Nations League. Win their section and they are promoted to play against the likes of England, Spain and world champions France. There is also the possibility this competition can take you to Euro 2020 through the back door.

"You try to win your group and hopefully that leads to promotion," said O'Neill.

"If it doesn't, possibly it will give you a route to Euro 2020 if you don't succeed in the qualification when it starts in March. Bosnia will be a tough opener but we are aiming to win."

One of O'Neill's big selection headaches is who will take their place between the posts.

But he has declared that he won't simply select young Leeds United goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell today because he has opted to play for Northern Ireland rather than England.

O'Neill insists he will choose the man he feels deserves to play with Norwich's Michael McGovern and Motherwell's Trevor Carson also in the mix.

Asked if securing Peacock-Farrell's international status would impact on his selection, O'Neill said: "It's always a factor but I'll pick the goalkeeper that I think deserves to play.

"At the end of the day I don't think we'll lose Bailey. He's committed to us.

"But it's a competitive game, the start of a new tournament. The goalkeeper that is chosen is the goalkeeper I think deserves to play."

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Making a point: Michael O’Neill is keen to remain realistic
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Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans are expected to get the nod at centre-back