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Gareth Fullerton

Michael O'Neill in praise for Gerard Lyttle and Gareth McAuley following underage success

Michael O'Neill has praised the work of Gerard Lyttle and Gareth McAuley following the success of Northern Ireland's Under 17 and 19 squads.

The two underage sides excelled in 2022, both reaching the elite qualifying rounds of their respective UEFA Euro 2023 competitions.

Next spring the U19s will face France, Romania and Norway, while the U17s are set to take on Netherlands, England and Denmark.

Read more: NI footballer opens up on gruelling Michael Conlan training camp

O'Neill - who is back as Northern Ireland manager - was a key driver of the country's underage football set-up during his first spell as international boss from 2011-20.

And he recognises the work Lyttle and McAuley have continued in the three years he has been away.

"It is brilliant. Gerard Lyttle and Gareth McAuley have done a great job," O'Neill said.

"I saw the results and for a small association that is massive, because it builds a proper international calendar for those players.

Northern Ireland U17 and U19 manager Gerard Lyttle (Jonathan Porter/PressEye)

"If you don't qualify, it is difficult for a small association to fund international football at that age with friendly games etc.

"Whereas if you go to the second phase, those lads will probably get 8-10 international games a year.

"And that's when you get the buy-in from those players, from these experiences."

O'Neill added: "The work done at the JD Academy and Andy Waterworth has been massive. That was in its infancy when I was here, and Jim Magilton. We got it off the ground in a very short space of time, and big strides have been made since then.

"You see the young players and the clubs they are going to now. They are better equipped to go to those clubs.

"The key is also to help our clubs develop young players, and if we can do that as an association then that's a big challenge.

"But I am excited for the future."

O'Neill says he looks forward to following the progress of the underage squads now he is back with the Irish FA.

He said: "This job affords you the chance to go and check it out, and if the dates coincide the right way then all the better.

"I always enjoyed watching the U17s and 19s playing in tournaments. You can easily build a relationship with a young player, and two years later he could be in your senior squad."


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