'NI players need game time at clubs' - Michael O'Neill

Credit: Pacemaker

Michael O'Neill is desperate for Northern Ireland's players to acquire regular first-team football between now and the next international break.

A 0-0 draw with the Czech Republic in Prague earned O'Neill's side a point in their first World Cup qualifier, yet an underwhelming performance from a group of players who reached the last 16 of Euro 2016 only two months earlier will be a cause for concern.

O'Neill noted that four of his starting XI - Kyle Lafferty, Jamie Ward, Stuart Dallas and Paddy McNair - have been used sparingly by their clubs so far this term, and their international manager is eager to see them get up to speed ahead of fixtures with San Marino and Germany in October.

That may prove problematic for the likes of Lafferty and fellow striker Conor Washington, who are both down the pecking order with their Championship clubs, following the abolition of the emergency loan window.

"What I've said to the players is they need to come in October game-ready," O'Neill said. "We can't continue to play without minutes in our legs at club level."

As he had done against Poland back in their Euro 2016 opener, O'Neill handed starts to League One pair Conor McLaughlin and Shane Ferguson, who bookended a back four that kept a fifth clean sheet in eight games.

O'Neill stressed that the fact Ferguson had to fill in in a position where he is not even utilised by Millwall typified his lack of options in certain areas.

"We're asking him to play left-back. He plays left side of midfield for his club," O'Neill added.

"These are the challenges we have as a team. We don't have a left-back playing first-team football in the UK; trust me, that's not a great position to be in."

The defensive stoutness was again evident in O'Neill's team at the end of a week in which he spoke of how the blueprint to achieve qualification would follow the template he used to reach France.

And there was plenty of evidence in this rearguard performance which suggested they will once again give little away.

"The great thing is that we got off to a good start in a difficult away game," O'Neill said.

"We've not been beaten and now we've got a home game to look forward to that we need to win."