Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland still have everything to play for in their bid to reach Euro 2024 even as injuries hit hard during the qualifying campaign.
With a trip to Denmark and a home match against Kazakhstan up next, O’Neill has named a 28-man squad that includes five uncapped players and a total of 15 with fewer than 10 caps.
Although Jonny Evans returns from the hamstring injury that prevented him from adding to his 100 caps in March, Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Josh Magennis, Conor Washington and Shane Ferguson remain sidelined, forcing O’Neill to rely on youth.
When O’Neill returned to the Northern Ireland job in December there was an opportunity to capitalise on a favourable qualifying draw, and although that remains possible, the absence of his most experienced players is making it a much tougher ask.
Northern Ireland began with a 2-0 win in San Marino in their group opener, but a 1-0 home defeat to Finland highlighted the difficulties.
Asked if the job had been harder than envisaged, O’Neill said: “I suppose it depends on what the expectation is for this campaign going forward as well. I still think we have got everything to play for in this campaign.
“The next two games are going to be very important and then obviously we have a double-header away in September (against Slovenia and Kazakhstan) which will be difficult, so we are going to ask a lot of a number of young players in this group.
“The senior players that we have with us, we really can’t afford to lose any more. I think we have eight players out who could all equally play for us, who have all been established players with a high number of caps.
“That is the situation that unfortunately we just have to deal with.”
It has meant O’Neill has been juggling the need for results with the need to nurture young players, with Conor Bradley and Shea Charles in particular asked to take on significant roles.
“It is a different approach from taking a team and saying ‘Right, how do we qualify? What is our route to qualification? How do we get enough points?’” O’Neill added.
“Of course, that is always in the background but I think it is more about the integration of the younger players and they will have to learn very quickly on the job if we are going to take that next step.”
O’Neill has hosted a series of training camps with senior players and under-21s in recent weeks, aiming to keep fitness levels high after the end of domestic campaigns while running the rule over younger faces.
Nottingham Forest defender Aaron Donnelly, West Ham teenager Callum Marshall and Larne forward Lee Bonis have all used the opportunity to earn their first senior call-ups.
While the return of Evans is a major boost, the Leicester defender will come into camp dealing with the disappointment of relegation and facing uncertainty over his future.
“He is very disappointed for them to go down and he is in a situation where he is out of contract as well,” O’Neill said. “I am sure if he was playing his football elsewhere next season he would have liked to have left Leicester in a slightly different way but he was just unfortunate this season.
“Probably, I think by his own admission, he pushed very hard to get back because I think he does make a difference to Leicester’s team. I think you saw that in the final three games that he was fit to play in. But I know he is keen to be a part of this squad and play.
“It is big for us to have him back, obviously we missed him in March and I believe that Jonny still has a lot of football left in him, both with Northern Ireland and wherever he chooses to play his football next season.”