Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill understands the excitement around teenage striker Callum Marshall but is eager not to put pressure on the West Ham prospect.
Marshall is expected to feature in Saturday’s Euro 2024 qualifier against San Marino after returning to O’Neill’s squad this month, and fans are keen to get another glimpse of a player who has already drawn comparisons to Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer David Healy.
Marshall was denied a dream international debut in June when his late equaliser against Denmark in Copenhagen was ruled out by the VAR for offside, but the 18-year-old will hope for another opportunity against San Marino and in Tuesday’s match against Slovenia.
“I don’t want to put any added pressure on a young lad who is 18,” O’Neill said. “He’s shown a huge amount of promise. We probably skew that because of the moment in Copenhagen but that was only a moment.
“I can’t think back to when we’ve had a young striker – they generally come in later…A young striker coming in always excites people.
“Like every country, you want somebody at the top end of the pitch who can be a natural goalscorer, and without putting any burden on Callum, he has the potential and has shown the potential certainly since we’ve had him in. We’ve seen that he has the attributes.
“But he’s only starting on his journey in the game. The signs are very positive and if he has the opportunity to play from the start or play some part of the game, I know he’ll approach it in the right way.”
Marshall is yet another young face in a Northern Ireland squad robbed of experience by injuries, a significant factor in a qualifying campaign that has unravelled since the opening win in San Marino in March with five straight defeats.
“It’s having that resilience which I think you build over time,” O’Neill said. “This team doesn’t have resilience yet because the players haven’t played enough, they’ve not played through the experience that Jonny (Evans) played through and Steven Davis played through.
“That’s how you build it. That’s where you get it. We have too many players still in single figures in caps to have that resilience. That’s what they will learn when they step forward into the next phase of their international career, that the expectations will be there for us as a team to do better.”
Evans echoed that view. The Manchester United defender made his international debut in Northern Ireland’s famous 3-2 win over Spain in 2009, and has seen both the highs and the lows since.
“My international career got off to a good start and then had a bit of dip but you always find that, nothing is constant,” he said.
“You’ve got to be able to handle that. It wasn’t until I was 27 or 28 that Euro qualification came around. It’s a long time but you’ve got to keep learning.”
With Euro 2028 hosting rights having been awarded to the United Kingdom and Ireland this week, there is now the hope of Northern Ireland getting to play at another European finals, and to do so on home soil. However, O’Neill said that tournament is not on his radar yet.
“The most important thing is to continue to work with this group of players,” he said. “It needs a lot of work.
“There’s been a lot of talk about this campaign having not been what we hoped and being disappointing and yes, it has been, but we have to be realistic: this group of players is not ready to qualify for a major tournament.
“Seven of them are under 21. Fourteen of them are three, four, five caps. We need to grow this group of players into a group ready for the next campaign.”