FOOTBALL: Michael O’Neill counts on having Gareth McAuley for World Cup qualifier

Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley
Northern Ireland's Gareth McAuley

Gareth McAuley has been included in Northern Ireland’s squad for the World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan in spite of concerns over his fitness.

The West Brom player, 37, will miss this week’s friendly game against New Zealand because of a thigh injury but could still feature in Baku on June 10.

With Conor Washington and Jamie Ward missing, Kyle Lafferty is included in spite of his lack of recent game time - although that has not hampered him in the past.

Accrington Stanley forward Shay McCartan is handed a first call-up.

The former Down minor gaelic footballer, has previously played for Northern Ireland Under-21s.

Like McAuley, Watford defender Craig Cathcart will not be risked against New Zealand because of a knock, manager Michael O’Neill naming Southend’s Adam Thompson and Burton Albion’s Tom Flanagan in his 25-man squad.

Thompson could add to his two caps as he returns to the squad after a six-year absence while Flanagan is uncapped in spite of having been included in a number of squads.

With strikers Washington and Ward unavailable, in-form Ross County forward Liam Boyce and Charlton’s Josh Magennis are being tipped to start in Azerbaijan.

QPR striker Washington is missing because he is getting married while Nottingham Forest forward Ward is injured.

Washington and Ward scored Northern Ireland’s goals in their last game, which was the 2-0 qualifier win over Norway in March.

Lafferty has not played any competitive football since coming on as a late substitute in the Norway game and has been released by Norwich City.

O’Neill said that Lafferty had “worked very hard” at a squad training camp in Manchester last weekend.

“The big part of last week and this week is to assess which players are most game ready,” added the Northern Ireland manager.

Boyce appears in that category after scoring 23 goals in his 34 games for Ross County this season.

“He offers a lot. His range of goals has been impressive,” said O’Neill. “He’s deceptively quick, and good at link-up play. He’s adaptable and a really good player. “

Northern Ireland squad

Goalkeepers: McGovern (Norwich City), Mannus (St Johnstone), Carroll (Linfield)

Defenders: McAuley (West Brom), Evans (West Brom), Hughes (Hearts), Cathcart (Watford), Brunt (West Brom), C McLaughlin (Fleetwood), Hodson (Rangers), R McLaughlin (Oldham), Thompson (Southend), D Lafferty (Sheffield United), Flanagan (Burton Albion)

Midfielders: Davis (Southampton), McGinn (Aberdeen), Norwood (Brighton), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas (Leeds), Lund (Burton Albion), Paton (St Johnstone)

Strikers: K Lafferty (Norwich), Magennis (Charlton), Boyce (Ross County), McCartan (Accrington Stanley)