As the curtain gets set to raise on the UEFA Nations League, here at OTT we decided to take a closer look at the Northern Ireland squad for the games versus Bosnia and Israel, and, more specifically, those players who have moved clubs during the summer transfer window.
Leicester City will feel they got themselves a bargain with the signing of defensive stalwart Jonny Evans. In January of this year, a number of clubs were linked with Evans in a £20 million deal, including Champions Manchester City. West Brom, however, felt keeping Evans on board would give them a better chance of staying up, and the Premier League windfalls that come with that.
As it transpired, however, they fell through the relegation trapdoor and that triggered a £3.5m release clause in Evans’ contract, and Leicester swooped. The Foxes also managed to keep hold of their England centre-back Harry Maguire, so we can expect Evans to form a formidable partnership with Maguire as the season continues.
Evans long-term partner at the back for club and country was also on the move this summer. Gareth McAuley is the poster boy for the rewards of hard work and determination, and at the age of 38, he secured a move to his boyhood team. In the final days of the transfer window, McAuley and Steven Gerrard agreed on terms on a season-long deal, following his release last season from relegated West Brom.
From modest beginnings at Linfield Swifts and Ballyclare Comrades, followed by spells at Crusaders and Coleraine, ‘Big G’ worked his way through the levels of the English professional game. Starting at Lincoln in League Two, before moving on to West Brom in the top flight via spells at Leicester City and Ipswich Town in the Championship.
His international career began in 2005 and saw McAuley turn out at right back initially, but he gradually moved into the centre of the defence and made the position his own. McAuley will, of course, go down in Northern Irish folklore thanks to THAT goal in Lyon, and he will be hoping this move extends his career in green into his 40th year.
Paddy McNair has had a nightmare run at club level over the past two seasons. The Ballyclare man joined Sunderland in 2016 in the search for regular football at the highest level, but within three months he had suffered a horrendous knee injury, which kept him out for over 11 months. During that time Sunderland dropped into the Championship, and despite McNair’s return to fitness they were unable to stop the rot and suffered a second relegation.
The summer of 2018 began with all sorts of rumours surrounding McNairs next destination, Brighton, Norwich City, Reading and Stoke City were all linked before Middlesbrough stepped in with a £5m bid to keep him in the North East as Tony Pulis reshaped the Boro squad for an assault on the Championship title. So far, McNair has been limited to cameos from the bench as Boro sit joint top of the division with Leeds, but this should prove to be a shrewd move for both parties as McNair looks to get his club career back on track.
Joining him at the Boro will be George Saville, who made a deadline day move from Millwall. Initially on loan, the deal will become permanent for a rumoured £7m fee in January, which would be the second largest fee paid for a Northern Ireland player (second only to Jonny Evans to West Brom for £7.5m). Saville has become a bit of a fans favourite since his debut vs Germany in a 3-1 defeat in October 2017, bringing energy, guile and creativity to the squad.
Having come through the ranks at Chelsea, before moving on to Wolves, Saville has impressed at club level since his permanent transfer to Millwall. Much like McNair, this move should lift Saville up a level as they look to secure a return to the Premier League.
Gavin Whyte has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past few years, emerging as the finest player in the Irish League before securing a move to Oxford United this summer. All the while he was gaining international recognition, with Michael O’Neill taking a keen interest in the progress of the talented winger at u-21 level. Whyte was called up for the end of season international tour for games in Panama and Costa Rica by O’Neill, and although he didn’t get any game time he impressed the coaching staff on tour.
The young winger had a sensational final season in the Irish Premier League, netting 23 goals as Crusaders won their third title in four seasons. He was then named the Ulster and NIFWA Footballer of the Year and since making the move to Oxford, has settled quickly and netted three times despite Oxfords early struggles in the division. He had been named in the u-21 squad for their upcoming fixtures against Luxembourg and Spain but was called up to the senior panel following his impressive start to life in full-time football.
For the third summer in succession, Olly Norwood is on the move. Sheffield United will be hoping his spell at Bramall Lane will go as well as that with his previous two clubs, Brighton and Fulham. Norwood played a major part in both clubs having excellent seasons which ended up with promotion to the promised land of the Premier League. Norwood has begun the season in fine form, playing 90 minutes in all three games, with one goal and two assists to his name as the Blades sit firmly in the promotion picture.
Lafferty Goes Home
The forward options available to O’Neill have rarely looked stronger, and it was in this area of the squad that this summer has seen the most movement. Kyle Lafferty was the most high profile of these, as he secured a return to his boyhood club, Rangers.
Lafferty began his career at Burnley, before earning his first move to Ibrox in 2008 where he won 3 SPL titles. When Rangers well-documented troubles kicked in, Lafferty chose to move on and began a period of his career which can be best described as nomadic. Spells in Switzerland, Italy, England and Turkey followed before he joined Hearts in 2017. He proved to be an excellent signing for the Jam Tarts, netting 19 goals in all competitions as Hearts top goalscorer.
Conor Washington burst on to the international scene in the run-up to Euro 2016, marking his home debut with the only goal in a friendly vs Slovenia. His all-action style makes him another popular member of the national side, and having fallen out of favour at QPR under Steve McLaren a move north to join Norwood at Sheffield United will hopefully reignite his goalscoring form for club and country.
Its fair to say Josh Magennis divides opinion amongst NI fans, but the support of Michael O’Neill has never been in doubt. The bustling striker is a key member of the squad under O’Neill, and having impressed during his spell in League One at Charlton he has secured a move to the Championship and Bolton Wanderers.
Jamie Ward has never been a prolific forward for club or country, but his in-your-face- style makes him a player the fans love, and the opposition love to hate. Ward made a deadline day move to Charlton, replacing international teammate Josh Magennis at The Valley, another deal which will become permanent in January. The Birmingham born striker has been an important member of the squad under O’Neill, and having bounced around a number of clubs in the last few seasons he will be hoping he can become a key man at his new club.
There were also a few notable players in the squad who Northern Ireland fans may have been hoping to see on the move to aid their international careers. None more so than captain Steven Davis, who seems to have fallen out of favour under Mark Hughes at Southampton. Hughes recently assured Davis that he will have a big part to play in the Saints season, and Davis will be hoping he is true to his word.
Michael McGovern has become a backup goalkeeper at Norwich City, and he now finds himself under intense pressure to keep hold of his national team jersey, with rivals Trevor Carson and Bailey Peacock-Farrell playing week in week out for their clubs. Carson has been the man O’Neill has turned to in recent times, but Peacock-Farrell has starred for a Leeds team flying high at the top of the Championship, and he must feel he has a great chance of making his full debut in the upcoming games.