Northern Ireland


I wonder if Michael O’Neill looks backs at the last cross Atlantic end of season trip and considers all that has happened in the four years since. The part the trip played in the flowering of the present dynasty was huge, not only in discovering new players but in setting down a new outlook in professionalism and culture. It was bought into, financially and mentally by association and senior players which was what the manager was seeking. The timing of this next get together (excluding Nicaragua despite the title’s suggestion) is both welcome and timely as O’Neill sets about refreshing his team to keep the glory days coming.

This time a year ago the green train had great designs on reaching the great jamboree in football’s Ursa Major. The feeling was that whether we reached the World Cup or not it was to be the end of an era with all declaring that once the manager left us and senior players retired, that was it and back to our normal diet of lentils and water. That did not come to pass and the early signs are good for how we move on.

This trip then is all about embedding possible future internationals into team, squad and culture. To the passing eye the easy option is to say that with seasoned internationals like Lafferty, Washington, Davis and McGinn not travelling it is a scratch B team with those experienced players having better things to do a la previous trips.

For me, those unable to make the trip suits the manager very well as he does not need to see what they can do. You can only play so many players anyway in two matches. Between injuries and newborns, the situation allows half a dozen players to stake and strengthen claims for inclusion. For these are competitive shirts nowadays. It seems that such is the intensity of modern football, births are now timed for the close season.

Some have questioned the inclusion of the likes of McAuley and Hughes whose time is nearly elapsed. But in keeping with the young and old dinner in March at the Culloden hotel where the manager ensured the new were made to feel included by mixing up the tables, these guys are not only playing legends, but walking salespeople for the cause. They are internal ambassadors who would have you bathing in green waters such is their influence.

The only question marks that hang I feel are possibly around goalkeeper McGovern who has had a bleak season on the bench and whose position is under threat from Trevor Carson. Will Grigg again seems happy to let the opportunity pass. I continue to maintain Grigg has still to prove himself in a green shirt.

Of those missing perhaps Tom Flanagan of Burton might have liked to build on his New Zealand cap but Doncaster’s Luke McCullough who did go to France is probably ahead in the queue and deserves a break after his injury problems. Unfortunately, injury prevents new left-back Jamal Lewis making the trip as I would have liked to see him further cement his position.

So the green gringos arrive in Panama and Costa Rica all business, and the manager who misses nothing sees this trip as replicating the intensity of international double-headers. More importantly, getting the opportunity to play against a different style of football will be a great experience for all never mind the new. Panama are well versed in European preparation having drawn with Wales, lost 1-0 to Denmark and took a 6-0 hammering from Switzerland. It was noted that Panama were overtly physical in the Danish game with a man getting sent off so another facet of experience for new caps to learn from. No doubt Cathcart and Evans will look forward to national sensation and centre-forward Roman Torres.

Costa Rica are well thought of in world football and indeed were beaten by Panama in the qualifying. They have beaten Scotland this year 1-0 and lost by the same to Tunisia. They meet NI ahead of matches with England and Belgium as part of their preparations. They have a few players who are known in these parts namely Bryan Ruiz, ex of Fulham, Joel Campbell from Arsenal and Bryan Oviedo once of Everton and most recently Sunderland fame.

On the pitch, there are a few areas to look at. The target man/nippy inside forward option is clearly under the microscope with Magennis/Boyce and Smyth/McCartan. Big responsibilities on the former pair there in line leading. Out wide many are keen to see what options Gavin Whyte can provide in taking over from Ward and McGinn.

O’Neill will be interested to see what options emerge from central midfield. Corry Evans and Paddy McNair will be the guiding hands here and it will be interesting to see if McNair can carry his end-of-season Sunderland form through the Bay of Mexico. I do see McNair down the line taking a centre-back slot but Evans and Cathcart have at least four or so years left yet. Carson and Peacock – Farrell may get a match each, in goals.

A lot to look forward to and with two further friendlies this year, a lot, hopefully, to build on.