Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough has highlighted the importance of finding the right blend of youth and experience as he looks to blood more youngsters in upcoming friendlies against Malta and Ukraine.
Uncapped teenagers Sam McClelland, 19, and Conor Bradley, 17, have been named in a 25-man squad that includes promising young players such as Shayne Lavery, Alistair McCann, Alfie McCalmont and Ethan Galbraith.
Captain Steven Davis is rested while vice-captain Jonny Evans is out through injury, two of several high-profile omissions as the likes of Corry Evans, Jamal Lewis, Michael Smith and Conor McLaughlin are missing for various reasons.
But with a strong core including Leeds midfielder Stuart Dallas, Hull forward Josh Magennis, Watford defender Craig Cathcart and Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn, Baraclough will be relying on his more experienced players to guide the new boys through.
“I could have taken a completely young squad, a development exercise and see how they go, but the senior players, 10-15 years ago they would have been nurtured by the senior pros at the time and it’s important that you’ve got that integration,” Baraclough said.
“The older more experienced players can set them on the right pathway, set the standards in training, set the standards around the hotel and do things the right way.
“To have those senior pros here is massive and the young lads have got to be like sponges and take everything from them.”
“For many of them it’s been two seasons back-to-back without any break whatsoever,” he said. “It’s a big ask in these times. A lot of them have been without family, like (Davis) up in Glasgow with his family down south, he’s been away from his wife and kids only meeting up from time to time.
“For the rest of them, some of them are out of contract, some are nursing injuries, some are getting procedures down – Jamal had a little procedure done – some are at different stages.”
Jonny Evans had intended to travel until recently, but Baraclough effectively knew from the moment the Leicester defender hobbled out of the FA Cup final that he would be without the 33-year-old.
With Dan Ballard yet to join the squad as he prepares for Blackpool’s Sky Bet League One play-off final on Sunday – the same day Northern Ireland face Malta in Austria – Baraclough has added to his defensive options by calling up McClelland and Bradley.
“We want to try and develop those players and fast-track those we feel are capable of doing that, test them at the next level. We may find at this moment it’s too much but it gives them an idea of what’s needed.”
After facing Malta on Sunday – a game which replaced a cancelled fixture in Turkey – Northern Ireland will head to Dnipro to take on Ukraine on Thursday.
“The intention is to come away having won two games,” Baraclough added. “That’s got to be the sole focus. We’ll see where we get on that, we’ve got to come out with some positives from the trip, and from the group.
“There are young players coming in all the time and it’s got to be competitive, it’s not a shoo-in for anyone. Someone is after their shirt, someone is after their place and everyone has got something to play for here. There’s no such thing as a friendly.”