Ins, outs, and talked-abouts of the Northern Ireland squad
GIVEN his recent comments about players he felt should have been in contention for Northern Ireland squads there was always going to be extra scrutiny of Michael O'Neill's latest selection.
The forthcoming home friendly against Korea Republic (South Korea) may be largely meaningless for the hosts but the 24-man panel provided plenty of talking points anyway.
Included are a former Down underage Gaelic footballer now on Celtic's books (Conor Hazard) and a Luton-born left-back for Norwich City who qualifies through his mother (Jamal Lewis).
With a certain irony, there was much discussion about absentees, including two players whom O'Neill has been attempting to persuade to give their international allegiance to Northern Ireland – one-time Republic of Ireland underage prospect, Sean Scannell and Sean Goss, currently on loan at Glasgow Rangers.
Also missing from the 24-man panel to play the Koreans at Windsor Park on Saturday March 24 are two Belfast-born players at different ends of the age scale, namely Paul Smyth and Chris Brunt.
As the game is only a friendly, it will have no bearing on players committing to Northern Ireland, despite some conspiracy theorising about the absence of Smyth.
The Republic of Ireland are reportedly monitoring the 20-year-old former Linfield forward, who is now at QPR, but O'Neill explained his absence was nothing to do with any hesitancy by the player:
"Paul Smyth is in the under-21s. They have a massive game against Spain. We are in second place and it's been a long time since we have been able to say that and the impact that Ian Baraclough has had at that level has been really positive.
"Paul has played for us at under 19 level and eight times at under 21 level and one of the great things about this [match] week is that the senior and under-21 sides will be in Belfast at the same time.
"That gives me the opportunity to call any of the lads up and we will look at that as the week progresses. Paul is very much in my thoughts with the summer tour looming but at this moment in time we thought it best to leave him with the under-21s."
As for the 33-year-old Brunt, his focus is on his club, said O'Neill: "I met Chris on Thursday and we had a good conversation and I fully understand he is taking a break from international football at the moment.
"I said to him not to make any rash decisions early and Chris won't do that.
"He has his own club situation to focus on at the moment. It is a difficult position West Bromwich are in at the moment so that dialogue will remain open and we will see what his thoughts are in September."
Regarding the new call-ups, O'Neill commented: "Young Conor Hazard is a goalkeeper we have high hopes for. He is at Celtic, obviously, and on loan at Falkirk.
"Conor trained with the senior squad before the Azerbaijan game last June and I think it is important we have three young goalkeepers in Conor Hazard, Conor Mitchell and young Bailey [Peacock-Farrell]. The three of them will be rotated and managed between the [under]21 set-up and senior set-up going forward…
"Jamal Lewis has been in our under-21s and his progress after coming back from injury has been phenomenal for Norwich. He's a young player with huge potential."
There remains the potential for Scannell and Goss to become involved with Northern Ireland.
The 27-year-old London-born Scannell, whose father is from Armagh, also qualifies for England and Jamaica, but has so far only represented the Republic of Ireland at underage level.
O'Neill updated his situation: "Sean Scannell is injured. The dialogue will remain open with him between now and the end of the season to see how he progresses.
"He had a good first half of the season on loan at Burton but then went back to Huddersfield and got injured.
"The nature of the injury means he is unlikely to play this season, or feature much between now and the end of the season but we'll play it by ear."
Goss was actually born in Germany and brought up in England from the age of eight but qualifies for NI through grandparents. O'Neill hopes that the influence of his assistant Jimmy Nicholl at Ibrox, where the 22-year-old is on loan from QPR, can help him plump for Northern Ireland:
"Sean Goss is a player that has been on our radar for quite some time. We first spoke to him when he was at Manchester United so this isn't a recent conversation.
"But like any young player he is entitled to wait and see what he wants to do. He hasn't represented anyone at international level; he was born in Germany, so he has quite a few options.
"But hopefully with Jimmy's influence at Rangers, Sean will make the decision to play for Northern Ireland."
Northern Ireland squad (v Korea Republic, Saturday March 24):
Goalkeepers: McGovern (Norwich), Carson (Motherwell), Hazard (Falkirk, loan);
Defenders: Hughes (Hearts), McAuley, J Evans (both West Brom), Cathcart (Watford), C McLaughlin (Millwall), Hodson (Rangers), McNair (Sunderland), Lewis (Norwich);
Midfielders: Davis (Southampton), McGinn (Aberdeen), Norwood (Fulham, loan), C Evans (Blackburn), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas (Leeds), Jones (Kilmarnock), Saville (Millwall);
Forwards: K Lafferty (Hearts), Magennis (Charlton), Washington (QPR), Ward (Cardiff, loan), Boyce (Burton).