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Belfast Live
Belfast Live
Gareth Fullerton

Northern Ireland boss Gerard Lyttle on emerging talent, eligibility fight and future ambition

Approaching two years as Northern Ireland Under 17 and 19 manager, Gerard Lyttle believes the future is looking bright for football here.

Appointed in March 2021, Lyttle's time at the helm has witnessed the emergence of exciting youngsters including Dale Taylor, Shea Charles and Brodie Spencer, three talented teenagers who have already played senior football for their country.

Both of his squads have also qualified for the Elite rounds of the Euro qualifiers, a seismic result for the Irish FA's academy set-up.

Read more: Mick McDermott ignoring 'balloons' wanting him out of Glentoran

Lyttle was appointed on a two-year contract back in 2021, and approaching the end of that initial deal he has been reflecting on his time in the hot-seat.

In an wide-ranging interview with Belfast Live, we chatted to the former Cliftonville and Sligo Rovers manager about the work he has put into the job, those players he has helped reach senior level, and guiding both the U17 and U19 sides to the Elite stage of their respective Euros.

Lyttle also chatted about the importance of eligibility when it comes to attracting and holding onto young talent, and the prospect of working with Michael O'Neill.

Northern Ireland Under 17 and 19 manager Gerard Lyttle (Stephen Hamilton/Presseye)

Looking back at his initial involvement with the Irish FA, Lyttle said: "I started off with Jim Magilton when I left Sligo Rovers. Jim invited me in to take a session with some of the young lads and that got me involved.

"I then worked with the Under 16 Victory Shield squad, and then the Academy management job came up which I applied for and got.

"A few months into that the U17 and 19 job became vacant and I applied for that. I got down to the final three and did an assessment and was successful.

"In the middle of all that I formed an Under 18 side as well."

He added: "I obviously had my own expectations when I came into the job. I looked at the past history of where we were, and I wanted to make sure our young players would be ready to step up to the senior squad whenever they were called upon.

"In my own head I wanted to be competitive in the qualifying rounds and to go and compete. And a year later we have two teams qualified for the Elite stage of the Euros, which is a massive achievement."

Lyttle admits his "ultimate goal" has always been to mould his young players into senior internationals - and he has enjoyed a fair amount of success over the past two years.

A number of his teenage stars were promoted during Ian Baraclough's tenure, including Nottingham Forest striker Taylor and Manchester City starlet Charles.

"We have seen players like Shea Charles, Brodie Spencer, Josh Clarke and Dale Taylor progress through the ranks and play senior international football," Lyttle said.

"I worked with all those lads and recommended them to Ian. I knew they were ready to step up and Ian showed his faith in them.

"The ultimate goal of any underage manager is to bring these types of players in and mould them into senior players.

"And I believe the qualification of both the U17 and 19 teams will stand Michael O'Neill in good stead. These boys will be exposed to high quality tournament opposition and football, and they will experience what it takes to qualify.

"Playing against the likes of France and other top European teams at their age groups will be a massive learning curve for them, and a priceless one.

"The Under 19 group we have now is a strong squad, so it is important they continue their development the right way."

Gerard Lyttle in the dugout with Roy Carroll and Gareth McAuley (Jonathan Porter/PressEye)

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill recently admitted the Irish FA must be "proactive" when it comes to the issue of player eligibility.

O'Neill - who has returned to the international helm after almost three years away - says identifying fresh talent will continue at pace, but admits it remains a challenge to hold onto players who qualify for other nations.

It is a concern shared by Lyttle, who has been working tirelessly to attract new players to Northern Ireland.

"An example is Josh Clarke. People don't realise the work that went on behind the scenes to get him to commit to Northern Ireland," Lyttle added.

"This kid could have gone to the Republic of Ireland, England or Sweden, but he came with us. That was a big thing.

"And every little thing we promised him we fulfilled. We kept our word to him, in terms of getting involved with the senior team and showing him that pathway.

"There is a lot of work that goes into eligibility to convince players to make the right choice and come to Northern Ireland and stay here.

"For me, it is very important we work on eligibility. We know we have a great bunch of home-based players who have come through our system.

"But we also rely on players from other countries who qualify for Northern Ireland. We are currently and actively looking at bringing players in to bolster the quality we already have.

"I have sat in on Zoom calls with players and their families. I spent hours on the phone with Josh Clarke and his father and met with them to convince them that this was the right move.

"And when they do come to us, we want them to leave with a good experience behind them in terms of professionalism, training methods, the camps and everything else.

"You want them wanting more, and you have to manage that as well."

Lyttle believes the examples of Dale Taylor and Shea Charles can inspire other youngsters coming through the ranks - and also players who may be weighing up a switch to the Irish FA.

"Northern Ireland football is becoming an attractive prospect for young players," he added.

"I remember talking to Shea Charles in the Czech Republic the day before our first game. I recall after training we were walking across the pitch.

"I put an arm around him and asked him how he was feeling. He said he loved it here and I told him he would be playing in our senior team within a year.

"Shea looked at me as if I was mad and said 'really?'. He said he would be happy just getting into the Under 21s, but I just told him to continue what he was doing with Man City and with us, and he would soon be in the Northern Ireland senior squad.

"And again, our word was true to him. He ended up playing for Ian Baraclough.

"It is good to be able to say this, and have the confidence to tell young players. Ian gave opportunities to young players and should be commended on that.

"Shea is a quiet lad, and he is so cool on the pitch. Nothing flusters him, and when you give him a job he does it. Being in that environment at Man City every day, and being coached by someone like Pep Guardiola, is also beneficial for us."

New senior manager O'Neill was a strong advocate of the youth system here during his first spell as Northern Ireland boss.

And Lyttle remains confident the 53-year-old will continue investing in young players after being named as Ian Baraclough's successor last year.

"If they are good enough, they are old enough. I am sure Michael will look at the young players and give them their chance," Lyttle added.

"Michael is a great manager and knows the make-up of our set-up. He has been here long enough. So I am confident he won't by-pass any young player, if they are good enough.

Gerard Lyttle will be two years in the job as Northern Ireland U17 and 19 manager this March (Jonathan Porter/PressEye)

"He has always taken a great interest in the underage set-up, and was behind Jim (Magilton) when Club NI was developing."

Lyttle's success over the past two years is expected to be rewarded with a new contract from the Irish FA beyond March.

The 45-year-old admits he is excited at what the future holds, but insists the hard work is only getting started.

"We have to continue working as hard as we have been over the past couple of years. That work ethic never changes," he said.

"We have to develop young players to break into Michael O'Neill's squad. Also get more youngsters into the Under 21s. It is my job to push these players through quickly.

"We have the Elite stages of the U17 and 19 Euros to look forward to. That will be a massive task, but it is important to expose these young players to tournament football, and against some of the world's best teams.

"It is another three games they wouldn't have had if they hadn't qualified. So it is a brilliant experience for them, huge. And it is both for the U17 and 19 teams, so this will bring them on immeasurably.

"We want to be competitive every year."

He added: "I have loved the job. It has taken me out of my comfort zone from before. Previously I worked with senior players and senior football, so this has been something different.

"I had to adjust how I worked, but I always had that connection with young players and I always gave them a chance at the clubs I was at.

"As far back as giving Aaron Donnelly his Cliftonville debut at 16 years of age at Windsor Park, to developing players at Sligo Rovers. Players like John Mahon who has gone on to play for St Johnstone.

"I have always had an eye for a player and how to develop them. And more so now because I am working with the best young talent in our country.

"It is important we continue developing these youngsters and helping their careers. We want the best for them.

"The Irish FA and underage system is thriving at the minute. We have really good coaches involved with the teams, and they are people who care about Northern Ireland football.

"They want these young players to get better."

Lyttle's primary focus between now and March will be preparing both the U17 and 19 squads for the Elite stages of the Euros.

The Under 19s will face France, Romania and Norway in Group 1 of their tournament, while the U17s will be up against Netherlands, England and Denmark in their Group 3.

"We can't wait for the Elite stages of the U17 and 19 Euros. The work has already started in preparation for that," Lyttle said.

"I will be doing a lot of travelling to watch players for their clubs. And working out who makes the squads.

"You are only allowed a 20-man squad for each age group, and that is one of the hardest jobs for me as manager.

"You have the sorry task of leaving one or two players out. They might have had injuries and not played as much.

"But when you become attached to players and have to leave them out, it is tough."

One of Lyttle's first moves when he was appointed back in 2021 was to add Northern Ireland legends Gareth McAuley and Roy Carroll to his backroom team.

Ex-Irish League star Andy Waterworth - who now heads up the Irish FA JD Academy - was also brought in as Lyttle's assistant.

"When I was interviewed I was asked who I would bring in as my backroom staff. I just thought it was a no-brainer to bring Gareth and Roy in," Lyttle said.

"I was always bringing in Andy Waterworth as my assistant, and I thought it was important to bring on these players who have played at the highest level.

"I knew Roy well and know what type of character he is, and he is passionate about Northern Ireland football. And I was very proud when Ian (Baraclough) brought him into his senior set-up.

"And Gareth was doing his coaching badges at the time, and I wanted to bring him in because of his experience of tournament football. And the young lads look up to him.

"That has worked out brilliantly. Gareth has been with me for two years, and part of the whole journey.

"These former players are legends of Northern Ireland football, and the young players look up to them. They aspire to be the next Gareth McAuley or Roy Carroll.

"And these youngsters want to play at a major finals. Playing at a Euros or World Cup would be massive, and I have no doubt they will.

"If they make the right choices in their careers, then there is no reason why they can't realise these dreams.

"And for me, to watch any player I have coached reaching the top level will be a very proud moment. That's why we are in it."

As for the future, Lyttle admits he doesn't know what may "lie around the corner".

He added: "You just don't know what will happen.

"I loved my time at Cliftonville and Sligo, and the experiences I had at both. At Cliftonville we were challenging, while at Sligo we were competing to keep a big club in the league, which we achieved.

"I have worked at both ends of that spectrum, and I loved every minute of it. And now I have experience of international football.

"I have always said I would enjoy another crack at club football at some stage of my career, but who knows. I am loving my time here and fully focused on the job in hand.

"It has been a pleasure working with these young players, and with it being on my doorstep is perfect."


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