Jonny Evans is optimistic about Northern Ireland’s future thanks to the young players who have begun to break through.
There has been a degree of turnover in Michael O’Neill’s squad since their bid to qualify for the World Cup fell short, but a new generation of players has given Evans confidence they can continue to build on recent successes.
“We’ve seen a lot of progress,” the 30-year-old said ahead of Tuesday’s friendly with Israel.
“I think one thing I’ve been impressed by is the lads coming into the squad, I really have.
“I think there’s always that worry as players retire, can the young lads step up? But we seem to have a good little group of lads coming through with huge potential.”
Goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and left-back Jamal Lewis made their first competitive appearances in Saturday’s frustrating 2-1 loss to Bosnia & Herzegovina while George Saville has made a big impact in earning his six caps to date.
Next in line could be midfielder Gavin Whyte. The 22-year-old was included in the squad that travelled to Panama and Costa Rica in the summer without playing, but has visibly improved since leaving Crusaders for Oxford and is looking to make his debut against Israel.
“They’re all quick, which is good and it adds that extra excitement into the team having attacking players, added Evans, who has seen huge changes in his 12 years in the national team.
“Some lads have got moves to different clubs and they are settling in at this stage but it is exciting for us.”
The Northern Ireland players are still trying to grasp exactly how they lost Saturday’s game, in which they enjoyed 67 per cent of possession and had 26 total attempts on goal, but made two costly mistakes at the back and had only Will Grigg’s stoppage-time strike to show for their efforts.
Evans was asked if Bosnia’s victory was, in many ways, the sort of thing Northern Ireland have done to others in recent years.
“I can see what you mean in terms of doing a lot of defending and nicking a few goals but I think it was a great night for us, more than looking at it that way,” Evans said.
“For us to go out and dominate a game the way we did; it’s not easy to do that in football and they are a good side.
“They have some very good players like (Miralem) Pjanic and (Edin) Dzeko who are playing top-level football in one of the best leagues in the world and to do to them what we did was excellent.”
That in turn brings confidence that Northern Ireland can follow up qualification for Euro 2016 by reaching Euro 2020 as well.
“There’s always a worry at the end of every campaign, ‘can we go again?’” Evans said. “Michael’s talked about that.
“We went close in the last campaign and it’s given everyone optimism. With the young lads coming in, pushing for places in the team, there is no reason why we can’t [qualify].”