Between penalty furores and eligibility rows, goal – line clearances and near managerial moves the average Northern Irish foot soldier has had plenty to consider in recent months. It’s all good stuff of course as these days there’s plenty to get your teeth into in and around the yellow and navy Celtic cross. It almost feels like a forthcoming match will give us all time to catch our breath.
For me this match and year start the second half of Michael O’Neill’s international reign and whilst we are playing a team south of the thirty- eighth parallel, if he can add another parallel to the first half of his administration we will all be breathless again. It may or may not last as long as the first period, but his half- time tackle on John Delaney shows he is beginning the second-half with gusto and if a few feathers are ruffled so be it.
The year offers him some time and space to set about creating the second team that needs to emerge from the ageing skin of the present one. Three spring and two autumn friendlies alongside four competitive matches will have him in a much clearer position this time next year. He will have a good idea as to where he stands in relation to the potency of that new O’Neill team ahead of the Euro ‘20 qualifiers.
So right now how does it look. Never mind dead rubber matches against Norway or unassailable mountains against Germany. A crazy penalty decision certainly skewed the dynamics of three hours of football against the Swiss but I do feel that the team lost some mojo in the autumn, increasingly rarefied air notwithstanding. The match against the Czechs in early September was the last time I saw the familiar certainty of imprint from the team. It is a good time now to set about recovering that.
So the squad announcement already has an air of change about it. Of the three doubts who might not continue playing Chris Brunt was always the biggest question mark having expressed concern about time away from his family. This pragmatic approach of avoiding friendlies should work well for the moment. This should allow Norwich’s Jamal Lewis to get a chance at the left – back position and also to assimilate into the senior squad. The other area we can look at is midfield. George Saville has emerged into an energetic and forceful central midfielder for Millwall and has already shown good promise in the green shirt in his earlier appearances. This game also offers an excellent opportunity for Kilmarnock’s Jordan Jones to stake a claim in front of the Windsor fans.
This is such a natural time for rejuvenation and gradual team metamorphosis but it also maintains competition for places and keeps the bar high. Not so long ago it was feared that there was little talent coming through but right now optimism is fair that this will not be the case. Fans may have to accept that some of these new players may not have Ulster accents but provided they give the necessary commitment similar to those beside and before them that should not be a problem. This maintenance of competition for places is important as it maintains the honour of playing for the shirt and blocks those who think they are doing us a favour like Lee Camp.
There is discussion in this regard with Will Grigg. We should probably all accept the manager’s story of the Wigan striker concentrating on his team’s promotion push and there is the Central American tour perhaps for him. But I personally tend to agree with Stephen Looney who on ‘The Social Club’ felt that Grigg has never really cemented his place in the squad never mind the team, compared to Magennis, Boyce and Washington who made the most of their opportunities. I would have liked to have seen QPR’s Paul Smyth in the squad but am quite relaxed that his time is ahead of him and we all look forward to that.
So there are a few things I would like to see happen personnel wise starting on Saturday. Up front I would like Lafferty to get back amongst the goals as he definitely has lost a bit of international momentum over the last couple of years. If we are playing four -four -two it would be good for Liam Boyce to get a run beside him as that option hasn’t really been explored yet. It would do Boyce a power of good following his own injury and also to see if they can play together. It is not clear if Steve Davis will be fit enough to play as he has missed the last few Southampton games and Ollie Norwood has been benched for Fulham recently. So in central midfield I would like to see George Saville put in the sort of storming and perhaps scoring performance that he regularly does for Millwall. His energy and ground coverage is phenomenal and with a few appearances in green already under his belt he is set up to put a marker down. As mentioned I would like to see Jones on from the start to see what he can do on the flanks.
In defence it is important Jamal Lewis gets a run out and it is good to know he is capable of doing the wing-back role as well as out and out left-back as this flexibility is vital to the team. Following his welcome return to the Watford bench last weekend against Liverpool, it is a good chance for Craig Cathcart to play at some point as with injury issues he has not played for us for about a year. Trevor Carson should probably get at least a half as goalkeeper following good progress at Motherwell and if Michael is feeling generous with the subs Paddy McNair could do with a run. McNair , like Cathcart has had a troubling time with injuries. It is still to be established what role he does best for us and indeed his flexibility should be and is a plus. However almost three years ago in Crewe I remember him putting in a huge midfield performance of long range passing and physical domination against the Qataris and I would like to see if this can be developed at some point.
It is always good to see new teams play in South Belfast and I suppose first off we can be glad it is not North Korea just in case we beat them and upset their leader. Son Heung-min of Tottenham is the most familiar of the South Korean team and he will arrive in Belfast in a particular rich vein of form and he will ask questions of Northern Ireland. There is a slight tendency amongst football supporters in these islands to think that if they don’t know players from opposition teams there is little to worry about but South Korea have continually qualified for World Cups and know their way about the footballing globe. This will be a decent contest for both teams.
Another international year starts for us and we have plenty to look forward to in 2018. If this time next year we are still in the twenties in the international ranking and have a few new players embedded into the side or squad I for one will be well pleased.
I’ll go for a 1-1 draw.