Michael O’Neill is crossing his fingers that Jonny Evans will be fit enough to feature from the start in his first competitive games as Northern Ireland manager.
As a Manchester United regular, Evans arguably has the most big-game experience at club level within the Northern Ireland squad, but his international career has been hampered by injury and former boss Nigel Worthington’s preference to play him at left-back.
O’Neill made a statement when he took the reins at the start of the year by restoring Evans to his preferred centre-half position against Norway and is now desperate for him to lead the back line in next month’s World Cup qualifying double-header against Russia and Luxembourg.
Evans has yet to play for United this term, a hangover from the ankle surgery he underwent at the end of last season and a belated return to pre-season training.
But he is now back with the first-team squad and was named on the bench for the win over Fulham at the weekend.
Northern Ireland kick off their road to the 2014 finals in Brazil in Moscow on September 7 and O’Neill, having today included Evans in his 23-man squad, is desperate for him to make the starting XI.
“Jonny has had his injuries and he had to have surgery but he’s made progress with his return and he was on the bench on Saturday,” O’Neill said.
“There are 10 days before the Russia game and we hope his fitness can really improve. He is vitally important to us.
“Jonny is very hopeful and optimistic that he will be ready to play.
“I have spoken to Sir Alex (Ferguson) but I also keep in touch with the players directly. The communication between myself, the players and the association is very good and we’ll contact them if there are any issues with their fitness.”
O’Neill does not have lavish resources to play with in terms of personnel but he still had a couple of tricky decisions to make, leaving out a trio of experienced players in David Healy, Grant McCann and Sammy Clingan.
As his country’s record scorer and most capped outfield player, Healy’s omission is sure to catch the eye, while McCann and Clingan were both favourites of Worthington.
But all three men have had changed circumstances in terms of their club football recently and O’Neill has instead opted for the likes of Will Grigg, Josh Carson and Oliver Norwood – all of whom are still eligible for the under-21s.
“It’s not as though I’m picking from 100 players, so those who are not in the squad can still be important for us,” he said.
“Sammy’s club situation is not resolved and he is without a club, David Healy was too and he has just signed with Bury.
“David has had 60 minutes of competitive football this season and that is not enough to quite make this squad, but I’ve spoken to him and he’s in my thoughts for future games.
“Grant has not started the initial games for Peterborough but he is on standby for the squad.
“The door isn’t closed on them, in fact it’s not closed on anyone who is eligible for Northern Ireland.
“But seven of this squad are under-21s and we want to integrate those players. Throughout this campaign they can grow and get experience of international football. Patience is the key and the players need the crowd behind them.”
Elsewhere in the squad, there are places for Rangers duo Dean Shiels and Andy Little, who face the challenge of balancing life in the fourth tier of Scottish football with a World Cup qualifying campaign.
O’Neill watched James McPake at the weekend but with the likes of Evans, Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes and Craig Cathcart all included there was no place for the Hibernian centre-back.