As we head into the run up for the 2018 World Cup finals, 32 countries are gearing up for their ultimate test by engaging in a series of friendlies. I could rant on about how it should have been us but it’s time to let the past be the past and look forward.
Northern Ireland are one of those teams being used as somewhat of a sighter, Michael O’Neill’s squad will embark on a Central American expedition as a test for Costa Rica and Panama. Panama will face England in their group while Costa Rica face our play off victors Switzerland.
There are a few newer faces in the Northern Ireland squad and some big omissions for what will be an interesting end of season test.
Trevor Carson retains his spot in the squad and continues to look like a realistic replacement for Michael McGovern in the next few years, McGovern will not travel with the squad. Celtic’s Conor Hazard returns to the set up along with a first call up for Leeds’ Bailey Peacock-Farrell, both are uncapped at senior level internationally.
West Brom’s Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley are in the squad following their relegation from the English Premiership, teammate Chris Brunt is out as he continues to contemplate his international future. Craig Cathcart is in despite a torrid season due to injury, Luke McCullough is another player who has not had much game time this season but will look to make his breakthrough into an ageing NI backline. Millwall’s Conor McLaughlin and wingback/winger Shane Ferguson will also travel following a fantastic season in the Championship with the London club. Scottish Premiership contingent Aaron Hughes (Hearts) and Lee Hodson (Rangers) also make the cut.
The big news is the call up for Crusaders’ Gavin Whyte – a massive boost to his chances of a move across the water after another fantastic season at the NIFL Premiership champions. Former Crues winger Stuart Dallas (Leeds) will also make the trip as one of a number of representative of English Championship clubs along with Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Oliver Norwood (Fulham, on loan from Brighton), Paddy McNair (Sunderland – relegated to L1) and George Saville (Millwall). There is also a first call up for 23-year-old Cameron McGeehan, an English-born player who has represented NI at various youth levels. Steven Davis does not travel after a tough season with Southampton, Jamie Ward and Jordan Jones are not in the squad either – the latter having recently undergone surgery on a groin injury.
The resting of Conor Washington and Kyle Lafferty gives plenty of opportunity to those just behind in the pecking order. Josh Magennis had a strong season for Charlton, losing out in the League One play off semi-finals. Burton’s Liam Boyce has done fantastic to come back from a devastating injury and will be keen to add to his solitary international goal. After making his debut against June last summer, Shay McCartan returns to the fold. Last but certainly not least, big things are expected of ex-Linfield player Paul Smyth – the 20 year old has had quite a debut season with QPR, making his goalscoring debut for The Rs before also making a goalscoring debut for Northern Ireland. Smyth went on to secure the QPR Young Player of the Year award, a fantastic sign of great things to come.
- With four potential debutants, there are 9 of the 22 players who are on less than double digits in international appearances.
- With 21 goals this season, Gavin Whyte is the highest league goalscorer included in the squad. The highest international goalscorer is Gareth McAuley with 9 goals in his 77 appearances.
- The average age of the squad is 26 with a gap of 18 years between the youngest players (Hazard, Smyth both 20) and oldest players (Hughes, McAuley both 38).