O'Neill puts open-door selection policy in place

 

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The Independent Online

The new Northern Ireland manager, Michael O'Neill, has vowed to give every eligible player a fresh start in his quest to turn around the country's footballing fortunes. O'Neill, who starts his two-year tenure on 1 February, was unveiled at the Irish Football Association's headquarters at Windsor Avenue yesterday and immediately set about making his intentions clear.

While it is accepted that Northern Ireland will never have the largest player pool in the world, O'Neill believes he can add significantly to the group that finished fifth in Euro 2012 qualifying under Nigel Worthington.

The former Shamrock Rovers manager, 42, confirmed he would ask the likes of former captain Aaron Hughes to reconsider their international retirements and cast his eye over those who were out of favour under Worthington. Most importantly, however, he pledged to address the talent drain to the Republic of Ireland.

Fifa rules allow anyone born in Northern Ireland to declare for the Football Association of Ireland, with a series of players doing just that in the last couple of years. Many have yet to realise their stated ambition of representing the Republic and O'Neill plans to offer those who remain available for his side a return to the fold.

"The vision for me is that we need a bigger pool of players available," he said. "That's no secret. I've never hidden the fact I think it [players switching allegiance] is wrong.

"I think the ruling itself is particularly unfair. What I would say to any young player is to think long hard about that decision, because of the players who have made it to date only Darron Gibson has played a competitive international for the Republic.

"You have to understand where your long-term future is. For players born in Northern Ireland, I think maybe they should aspire to long and distinguished careers for Northern Ireland rather than sitting on the periphery of the [Republic] squad."

One such high-profile example is Sunderland's James McClean, who represented the IFA at age-group levels before rejecting Worthington's call-up to the senior side and declaring for the Republic. That created much disappointment at the time, but O'Neill is happy to wipe the slate clean for the benefit of the team.

"James McClean is eligible for Northern Ireland so, of course, he's on my radar," he said. "While respecting the wishes of the players, I'll be doing everything in my power and my remit to emphasise to them that their long-term futures lie with the Northern Ireland national team. Any player who is still eligible for Northern Ireland will come under consideration."

O'Neill, who won 31 caps for his country, also intends to discover just how certain the likes of Hughes, West Ham's George McCartney and Motherwell's Stephen Craigan are about their retirements.Fulham defender Hughes, in particular, would be a major boost to the team he led with distinction until his retirement at the end of the previous campaign. His return would also be welcomed by the Green and White Army, who were denied the chance to say goodbye to Hughes after injury kept him out of a Windsor Park farewell.

"I'll be speaking to all the senior players who have been involved in recent years and Aaron Hughes was a fantastic servant," O'Neill said. "Would I love to have Aaron available? Of course I would. Would I love to have George McCartney available? Of course. Would I like Stephen Craigan? Yes.

"All these conversations will be had. They'll be done in private and their wishes will be respected, but if they felt they had something to add to the international set-up I'd be delighted to welcome them back."

The final batch of players who can expect to be affected by O'Neill's open-door policy are those who did not feature regularly under Worthington. "I'll consider everyone that's playing at a good level; look at Dean Shiels at Kilmarnock, Martin Paterson at Burnley, Martin Duff at Burnley," O'Neill added. "There are a lot of players who haven't been in squads in recent times and they'll all be considered and monitored."

O'Neill's first match in charge comes in a home friendly against Norway on 29 February, by which time he hopes to have his full back-room team in place.

The Scotland manager, Craig Levein, hopes his captain, Darren Fletcher, will be available for the start of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign in September, even though the Manchester United midfielder is taking an extended break from the game with no date set for a comeback.

Last month, United confirmed the 27-year-old would take a full break from the game to try to overcome the debilitating effects of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel condition.

Fletcher is certain to miss next month's international friendly with Slovenia but could return for the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign, against Serbia in September. Levein said: "He's out for four months' complete rest, and then we can reassess things. I'd be desperately hoping [to have him for the qualifiers]. He becomes such an important player for us, not just on the field, but as an example by the way he behaves himself."

Levein also shed some light on Fletcher's battle with the condition: "He's had this for nearly four years now, he's been pushing himself, and he's really suffering. It's just quite remarkable how he's managed [to play with the condition]."

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