By Ian Parker, PA
Craig Cathcart has been named captain of a depleted Northern Ireland as injuries take their toll on Michael O’Neill’s squad ahead of Thursday’s Euro 2024 qualifier away to San Marino.
The 34-year-old Cathcart, who has 69 caps, takes the armband after defensive partner Jonny Evans was ruled out with a hamstring injury.
The squad is already without Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, Liam Boyce, Ali McCann and Shayne Lavery, with Conor McMenamin a late withdrawal on Tuesday and fellow forward Conor Washington a doubt.
👏 Congrats to Craig Cathcart who has been named as our captain for the opening @EURO2024 qualifiers against San Marino and Finland #GAWA pic.twitter.com/BgeKEf6UrE
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 21, 2023
Speaking ahead of a training session in Belfast, O’Neill said Washington was undergoing a fitness test, while McMenamin pulled out after a scan on his calf, with a decision on whether to replace him likely to be taken before the team fly out on Wednesday morning.
“We’re down some senior players, there’s no doubt about that, but this gives an opportunity to the younger players and I’m enthused by what I’ve seen,” said O’Neill, preparing for his first game since he returned to the job in December.
“It’s a big step for some of them if we ask them to start a game, so we have to be mindful of what we’re asking of the younger players.”
O’Neill became aware last week that Evans, who has struggled with niggling injuries on his way back from a long-term calf problem, would not be fit for the trip, but has opted not to call up a replacement.
“I think we’re covered at centre-back pretty well,” he said. “I look at the options we have. We have Shea Charles and Paddy McNair who are predominantly midfield players but can play in a back three or back four.
“Paddy has been playing there for (Middlesbrough) and Shea played there for (Manchester) City in the under-21 game on Sunday against Manchester United, so those are all situations where I think we’ve got enough cover in there to deal with the absence of Jonny.”
O’Neill, 53, returned to the Northern Ireland post late last year after the sacking of Ian Baraclough, with the last game of his previous reign back in November 2019.
“It’s been great (to be back),” he said. “I’m getting to know some of these lads who were very young players when I was last in this position, it’s great to see them here. Conor Bradley, Isaac Price, Dale Taylor, they’re all lads who were 15 or 16 at the time and now they’re here with the senior squad.
“It’s very positive for us to see that development. We have to prepare a team very quickly for the game on Thursday night.
“I’m enthused by the group of players. I’ve enjoyed the build-up to this, I’ve enjoyed putting the staff together and particularly the new players. You do wish some of the injuries hadn’t occurred, but that’s just something as an international manager you have to play the hand you’re dealt.
“We have to get the maximum out of the players here.”
And with minnows San Marino up first, there is an opportunity to make a strong start to the qualifying campaign that O’Neill is determined to take.
⚽️ NEWS | Jonny Evans withdraws from Northern Ireland squad #GAWA
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 20, 2023
“It’s essential really, particularly as a smaller nation, to try and get points on the board in the opening two games or four games because it puts you in a position where you start to believe you can finish in the top two,” he said.
“We did that in three of my four previous campaign and the one where we didn’t it made it difficult.
“We need to put points on the board because our fifth and sixth games is an away double-header against Slovenia and Kazakhstan which logistically will be very difficult so it’s important we get off to a good start.”