Michael O’Neill has praised the ‘significant influence’ Derry footballers have made on his N. Ireland squad and has promised to continue to monitor the North West area in the hope of unearthing new talent.
SIMON COLLINS reports
The Ballymena man was guest of honour at the annual Derry District Sports Council awards in the City Hotel on Friday night and claimed he was ‘humbled’ by the achievements of the local sports stars in attendance.
The N.Ireland boss, who selected no fewer than five players directly linked with Derry in his last international friendly fixture against Malta in Valletta, also paid a glowing tribute to Derry City Football Club and its manager, Declan Devine.
“I would like to take this opportunity to mention the achievements of Declan Devine last season,” said O’Neill. “To win the FAI Cup was a fantastic achievement for a homegrown team with 90 per cent of the team born and bred in the city and a home-based manager.
“Over the past few years they have learned the benefits of breeding your own talent and when you sell it into the UK market you have a sustainable model as a football club. The job that Declan has done has to be commended and I wish Derry City well ahead of the new season.
“We have a number of young players from age 17 to 21 in our underage squad and we are continually keeping an eye on the talent in Derry,” he added. “Out of the last squad of 20 players I picked for example, four players had a direct link with Derry City, either current or ex-Derry City players and then Shane Ferguson who was born in the city but obviously went to Newcastle at a younger age.
“The influence and the role that Derry plays in the N.Ireland senior team and N. Ireland football in general is significant and something that I obviously want to continue and see developing even more.”
O’Neill had spent Friday afternoon at St. Columb’s College where he helped coach the school’s Under-18, U16, U12 and U14 teams at the new state-of-the-art 3G pitch on the Buncrana Road and was impressed with the talent on display.
“It’s a great year for Derry with the City of Culture 2013, so I’m delighted to be here,” he said. “It’s always nice to come to the city. I was at St. Columb’s College working with a lot of the younger lads and spent five hours coaching and it was a really enjoyable afternoon.
“And the enthusiasm from the players and teachers was very heartening to see and experience. This is a city which has always produced excellent players, flair players who produce that little bit extra.
“It’s quite humbling to come here to these awards and see athletes from under-8 years of age and right up to 65 years of age.
“In the age of the £100,000 a week footballer, which is obscene, it’s nice to be here and recognise, not only the athletes, but the parents and volunteers that have been influencing these young people,” he concluded.