Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has warned that his young side may lose more games than they win until they gain more experience.
O’Neill said he has little choice but to select a number of inexperienced players as there is a dearth of senior players worthy of replacing them.
He was upbeat about the potential of the youngsters, saying a team of older players would be “mediocre”.
“The younger players merit their place in the squad,” O’Neill said.
“That is something that we should be enthused about. They are probably going to lose more games over the next period than maybe they win, that is something that we will have to live with.”
He added: “I know as journalists and supporters there is always a focus around results, I get that, but I have to look a little bit beyond that.
“Ultimately I will be judged on results and I am prepared to take that judgement whatever it may be, good or bad, but I genuinely believe that the decisions being made with this squad are the right things for the country going forward in terms of the team that we will have.”
‘We could have a mediocre team of older players’
O’Neill was speaking as he announced his squad for Northern Ireland’s final two matches in what has been a challenging Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
Having won just two of their eight matches so far, both against San Marino, O’Neill’s men complete their Group H programme with a trip to Finland next Friday before welcoming top seeds Denmark to Belfast’s Windsor Park three days later.
Injuries have robbed Northern Ireland of a host of key, experienced players for all or most of the campaign – including captain Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas – meaning teenagers such as Shea Charles, Isaac Price and Callum Marshall have been regular members of the squad.
Those six defeats have meant Northern Ireland have dropped to a lowly 75th place in the world rankings, but O’Neill was adamant that selecting the youngsters now is vital for the future success of the team.
“Not really, if I didn’t play a young player then I wouldn’t have any player,” O’Neill said when asked if it was a balancing act between giving youngsters more experience in the final two qualifiers and trying to boost the world ranking.
He added: “I think we could have a mediocre team of older players but it would be mediocre, so our choice is to try and improve the team by introducing some of these younger players.
“As I have said all along, there are not 10 or 12 players that could knock on my door and say ‘I think I should be in the squad over the head of a Dale Taylor or a Brodie Spencer or a Conor Bradley or a Trai Hume’ or any of those players.
“They are not there. They are not in the English game and not playing at their clubs, and, if they are, they are playing very irregularly.”
‘We’ll still depend on senior players for 2026’
Despite being drawn in a group that looked favourable at the outset, Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualification for next summer’s Euro finals in Germany were realistically over after four matches.
O’Neill defended how his side – fifth out of six teams in Group H – have played.
“We have finished [games in] this campaign at times with five or six Under-21 players on the pitch,” he continued.
“Can you think of any game where we have been totally outplayed? Can you think of any game where we have been beaten three or four-nil? That hasn’t been the case, we have been narrowly beaten in the games.
“I was in Slovenia last week and the technical director from the Slovenia FA said he was really impressed by our team, the age of our team and felt that we had a good team in the making going forward. I think you just have to be as positive as you can with the young players – it will take time.”
While stressing the importance of giving young players experience before the World Cup 2026 and Euro 2028 qualifying campaigns, O’Neill also said that it could be important that the experienced players currently in the squad are still around.
“I think 2026 will still depend on our senior players being around at that point in time,” he said.
“If you look at Magennis, Washington, Evans, Saville, they are all going to be 33 or above at that time, so whether they are going to be still with us and whether they are still able to impact the game at that level, I cannot answer that.
“If they are not then obviously there will be a huge dependency on people like Daniel Ballard, Trai Hume and Jamal Lewis. I expect by that time to see Conor Bradley, Shea Charles, Isaac Price being regular and important players at their clubs. Dale Taylor is in that category as well.
“I can’t really see what will happen, I’m not in control of where their club careers go. I will obviously try and guide and support them in any way we can but I think for 2026 we still will need a number of our senior players still to be around.
“Unfortunately we have had the retiral of Craig [Cathcart] while Stuart, Steven, Shane and Corry have been injured. We have basically had nothing out of those five players and probably in the past four or five of those players would have started on a regular basis.”