QPR’s Paul Smyth and Everton teenager Shayne Lavery have been promoted to a Northern Ireland squad that Michael O’Neill believes will be seriously tested by the in-form South Korean Son Heung-min.
O’Neill has called for reinforcements following four withdrawals and has turned to Lavery, who scored two in the 5-3 loss to Spain on Thursday night, and Smyth, who trained with the seniors in France at Euro 2016.
The South Korean game is sandwiched between two key qualifiers for the under-21s, yet O’Neill could still give the duo a taste of senior action, particularly Smyth as he is suspended for the game with Iceland on Monday.
“The transition from being an under-21 to becoming a senior international is short and these are two boys who are testament to that,” O’Neill said.
“I see a lot of hope in the under-21s – players who can potentially come through and make their mark at senior international level.”
Smyth, a former Irish League player with Linfield, has long been earmarked for a senior call-up and Lavery has also been on O’Neill’s radar for some time.
The 19-year-old was on Everton’s bench for a Europa League game in December and his impressive performance against the Spaniards, where the under-21s came from behind to level on three occasions, further impressed O’Neill.
“Shayne is a player I’ve known since he came in to the under-17s,” O’Neill added.
“He’s an interesting player because he’s come late. He didn’t come in at 15, he suddenly arrived at under-17s and I thought he was excellent when I saw him at the under-17 tournament.
“He’s had a little bit of a difficult year at Everton with his progression and injuries have held him back a bit but he is a player we have great hopes for.
“I think he has all the attributes to be a really good Northern Ireland centre-forward.”
Both Smyth and Lavery will be hoping their international bows come against a South Korean team bound for the World Cup in Russia this summer.
The superstar in Shin Tae-yong’s side is undoubtedly Tottenham forward Son, who has arrived in Belfast having scored seven times in his past five club appearances.
O’Neill is delighted he is in South Korea’s ranks and feels he will provide a challenge similar to the ones the likes of Edinson Cavani and Alexis Sanchez have previously given his players.
“He’s a top player, he’s a top Premier League player,” O’Neill admitted.
“I’d imagine if he became available you’d have a lot of clubs around Europe that would be very keen to have him in their squad.
“It’s a great challenge for us to play against him. These are the players you need to test yourself against. Four years ago we went with a very inexperienced squad to South America and we were playing against the likes of Cavani, Alexis Sanchez, (Arturo) Vidal.
“If you’re going to play at international level you have to bring your game up and try and compete at this level. I’m delighted Son is here and is going to be playing.”