'Pipeline' of players needs to improve for Northern Ireland success story to continue says Michael O'Neill
MICHAEL O’Neill says the “pipeline” of players moving from the Irish League to England must improve if Northern Ireland are to continue being a force on the international stage.
The Ballymena man led Northern Ireland to last summer’s European Championships, reaching the last 16 in the process, and that form has carried on into the qualification campaign for next year’s World Cup.
Reigning World champions Germany are on course to finish top of Group C, so Northern Ireland are battling it out with Czech Republic for second place and a spot in the play-offs - with O’Neill’s men currently in the box seat.
It is Northern Ireland’s greatest period of success since reaching the 1982 and ’86 World Cups, though it was 20 years before they reached another major tournament after returning from Mexico.
And with the likes of Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and captain Steven Davis all closer to the end of their careers than the start, O’Neill knows there are not ready-made replacements playing at the top level ready to fill their boots.
He said: “The main thing we had to do, coming off the back of France, was to make sure we were competitive again and that we could maintain the momentum we had, and we’ve done that.
“There’s still so much work that needs to be done within the domestic game here in Northern Ireland to help us to have a better pipeline of players into the UK, and that isn’t something that’s going to be addressed in the short-term.
“We need much more combined thinking to get our best young players here in the Irish League into better levels of football in England, because the challenge to play in England is still massive. It’s getting higher all the time.
“We have five players in the Premier League currently playing week in, week out. When those players come to the end, will we have five players to replace them? At this minute in time, the answer’s no.
“So what we need is a structure that will help our young players here domestically to realise that they can be Liam Boyce, they can be Stuart Dallas, and that’s what we have to address first.”
One of those star players who has enjoyed a career at the top level with Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion is Jonny Evans.
Having starred for the Baggies last year, the 29-year-old has been linked with a move to 2016 Premier League champions Leicester and Arsenal, with a £20 million price tag placed on his head.
And O’Neill believes the versatile defender is worth every penny.
“Yeah, easily,” he said.
“When I look around the Premier League and I see British centre halves - the Cahills at Chelsea, your Smallings at Manchester United - and Jonny Evans for me is every bit as good as them.
“His move away from Manchester United was maybe the right thing for him at that stage of his career but he’s a player who can play right at the top level of the Premier League. If he goes to Leicester, I think it’s a good move for him.
“He was an absolute bargain at six million - which is what West Brom paid for him - and in the current market, yeah, I think he’s a bargain at £20 million to be honest, given what people are talking about in terms of [Virgil] van Dijk being a £50 million player.”