By Ian Parker, PA
Michael O’Neill is confident Jonny Evans will be fit to lead Northern Ireland into their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign later this month despite an injury which has kept the Leicester defender out since November.
Evans has been named in O’Neill’s first Northern Ireland squad since he returned to the national job in December, and the 35-year-old’s experience will be key in a group that is missing captain Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Ali McCann, and Shayne Lavery due to injuries.
But Evans – who earned his 100th cap in what proved to be Ian Baraclough’s final game in charge in Greece – has not played for Leicester since before the World Cup, suffering with a calf injury and more recently a thigh strain.
📣 The boss has named his squad for the @EURO2024 qualifiers ⤵️ #GAWA
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 7, 2023
“I’ve spoken to Jonny and I think he’s coming on really well,” said O’Neill, who will take his side to San Marino on March 23 before facing Finland at Windsor Park three days later.
“He had a slight setback, he picked up a thigh strain which set him back a couple of weeks but he’s back with the medical team on the grass and they’re hoping he will be available to play in an under-21 game if not this week, certainly before the international break.
“He’s obviously massively keen to be back fit for Leicester, that’s his priority but equally he’s a player that has over 100 caps, he’s very keen on prolonging his international career as long as possible and hopefully he’ll be ready to play.”
Evans has been named in a group that also includes Craig Cathcart and Shane Ferguson – all players who were in O’Neill’s first Northern Ireland squad back in 2012.
But while those two count as stalwarts, O’Neill has had to bring in four uncapped players in a youthful 26-man group for his return due to the considerable number of injuries he is dealing with.
Davis, 38, suffered a double ACL tear in December, while faint hopes that Dallas, out with a broken leg suffered last season, might return in time for this window have been dashed.
With Corry Evans and McCann also missing, O’Neill is without four midfield regulars and so has called in Everton’s Isaac Price, Motherwell’s Sean Goss and Oostende midfielder Cameron McGeehan. Bolton defender Eoin Toal is the fourth new face.
Goss and McGeehan are both 27 and did receive senior calls in 2018 during O’Neill’s first stint, but each had to withdraw through injury. Price, 19, made his Premier League debut for Everton last season, while Toal, 24, is a former under-21s captain.
✈️ Eoin Toal has received his first full international call-up as one of three Wanderers players named in @NorthernIreland‘s squad. 🟢
🤝 Eoin joins Dion Charles and Conor Bradley in the squad for EURO 2024 qualifiers against San Marino and Finland. 🇸🇲🇫🇮#BWFC 🐘🏰
— Bolton Wanderers (@OfficialBWFC) March 7, 2023
With the likes of Shea Charles and Dale Taylor also included, there is certainly a younger feel to this squad.
“I certainly sense the senior players are excited about the campaign and that’s important because they drive anything,” O’Neill said. “It’s a blow to have players unavailable, particularly Stuart and Steven and Corry with longer-term injuries.
“We have to find that excitement without those players for the time being. The younger players have to bring a bit of vibrancy and a bit of energy to the group as well. We can’t always be dependent on the senior players in the squad.”
There is no place for Kyle Lafferty, the 35-year-old who was sent home from the last camp after a video emerged of him using sectarian language in a bar, for which he later apologised.
The incident led to Lafferty being suspended by Kilmarnock and he was later released at the end of the transfer window. He has since returned to Northern Ireland with Linfield, but is yet to score for his new club.
“He’s looking for form and fitness and I don’t think at this minute in time international football would be the right thing for him,” O’Neill said. “The door is not shut, it has never been shut on anyone. The responsibility lies with the player in terms of form and fitness.”