The footballers of St Columb’s College availed of a coaching masterclass with Northern Ireland senior international football manager, Michael O’Neill, on Friday. Mr. O’Neill used the opportunity to praise his Derry born players and in particular Daniel Lafferty.
Mr. O’Neill and the IFA were invited to the Buncrana Road school to put the college boys through their paces on their new state of the art 3G pitch facility.
The session proved timely in that, two St. Columb’s sides, the first and fifth years, have qualified for the quarter final of the Northern Ireland Schools Cup. They will face the much fancied Holy Cross teams in the next two weeks.
Mr. O’Neill said of the experience: “It was very good, it is an excellent facility and the young boys have given us their full attention.”
“Most importantly,” added the former Shamrock Rovers manager: “There are some very good players in the group. The IFA are constantly looking for new talent. It is no secret that there are good players here in Derry. We had five Derry players in the last squad. Shane Ferguson went across the water but the other four are home grown with Derry City connections.”
Those four players are Gerard Doherty, Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn and Daniel Lafferty.
“They’re a testament to the quality of the player that is developed down here and we want to give young players the opportunity to develop and come through to play for Northern Ireland.”
What advice did the international manager offer the St. Columb’s boys wishing to follow in their footsteps?
“The most important thing for the boys is to enjoy the game. We only had the players for an hour and we are not going to turn them into world beaters in that time. it is important that they complete their education here as well and, if they keep progressing their football, hopefully they’ll have options at the end of the year.”
A few of those senior players were subject to much transfer speculation in the recent transfer window,
Michael said: “It is out of my control. I can do nothing in that situation. I’m an interested observer in that any help I can give to players I’ll do so; be that recommending them to clubs or speaking to managers.”
Though he refused to be drawn on individual players and transfers, the Northern Irish ‘gaffer’ said: “Often club managers will ask me about players and obviously it is in my best interest that the boys are playing club football as often as possible and at a high a level as possible. I try and accomodate that and at times during the transfer window I was more like an agent trying to help some of the lads get clubs.
“I see that is part of the role of being an international manager - helping the players through their club careers.”
In terms of his side’s chances of qualification for Brazil 2014, Mr. O Neill said: “We look forward to the Russia and Israel double header next month. There is a different edge to competitive games. It would be unrealistic for us to say that we’re going to top the group.
“Russia and Portugal are two of the best sides in Europe. People have to be realistic. We have an international side with only six players playing in the Premiership, so we’re picking lads from the SPL and Championship and it is a big step up to play International football. A lot of the boys aren’t playing as regularly as they would like, so it will take time. A lot of them are at the start of their careers.
“Daniel Lafferty for example has not played 20 games yet for Burnley and we’re asking him to step up to International standard. It is a tough challenge and he has adapted to it well. Daniel has had some good performances and at times he has found it difficult. I felt his goal shouldn’t have been disallowed against Malta, we were disapointed to draw that game but sometimes the (press) reaction is a little misguided. You can not build an international team in 12 months.”
Mr, O’Neill was also guest speaker at the Derry City Cports Council Awards at the City Hotel on Friday night. “I always enjoy coming to Derry,” he said before adding smartly: “When we came up with Shamrock Rovers we always left with three points so I enjoy visits to Derry.”