Michael O’Neill hails young Northern Ireland stars after draw in Romania

By Sports Desk March 22, 2024

Michael O’Neill praised the attitude of his young Northern Ireland players after watching them take the game to Romania in an encouraging 1-1 draw in Bucharest.

Having spoken this week about a “rebirth” for Northern Ireland, putting a disappointing Euro 2024 qualifying campaign behind them and looking to the future with a new generation of players, O’Neill picked a starting XI with an average of just 23.5 and revelled in their performance.

Debutant Jamie Reid was the oldest player in the first XI at the age of 29, yet the Stevenage striker was only seven minutes into his international career when he put Northern Ireland in front early on, before Dennis Man levelled for the Euro 2024-bound hosts midway through the first half.

“I’m very pleased with a lot of aspects of our performance,” O’Neill said. “It was a very good start, a great goal and it typified what we have in our team which is energy and legs and athleticism, and quality in terms of the quality of our play.

“I thought the attitude was excellent. We had (four) players who were 20 years of age and started and finished the game. We didn’t have a player over 30 on the pitch.

“Jamie Reid was our oldest player and it was his first cap so to come here against an experienced Romania team that have qualified for the finals and play as we did is very encouraging.”

Reid, who is eligible through his maternal grandmother, had earned his call-up with 21 goals in 44 games. It is more than 10 years since he made the second of his two appearances for Northern Ireland Under-21s, but he was given his chance from the start.

“I liked the look of him in training, he had a good energy about him, a real enthusiasm to do well,” O’Neill said. “He asked a lot of questions. I just had a good feeling about it, I thought, ‘why not?’

“We ask an awful lot of our strikers, especially away from home. They have to do a lot of work, they have to understand what’s expected of them when the team is out of possession. They have to understand, they have to be able to retain the ball and help us on the counter-attacks and I thought he did that.

“He was up against (Tottenham’s Radu) Dragusin, a very physical centre-back and he more than held is his own, this is a lad that’s coming from League One football with Stevenage and if you watched the game you certainly wouldn’t have thought that.”

While Reid claimed the headlines, it was the performance of Northern Ireland’s youngsters that felt significant as build for the future.

Conor Bradley and Shea Charles, both 20, combined to set up Reid for the goal, while Isaac Price, also 20, Brodie Spencer, 19 and the 22-year-old Trai Hume all turned in strong displays.

“It’s brilliant,” O’Neill said. “That right-hand side of the pitch, Trai, Conor, Shea Charles, Isaac Price – they could have all played for our under-21s last night.

“They have real quality, real athleticism. and they showed brilliant temperament. Isaac did a huge amount of work without reward but he gave us great balance. Conor, every time he steps on the pitch he demonstrated what his potential is as a player and again he demonstrated that as well.”

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