Liam Donnelly has taken a step forward in more ways than one as he makes his long-awaited return to the Northern Ireland squad.
The 23-year-old made his debut for the Green and White Army five years ago as a late substitute against Chile, but he has not had a second chance since, instead collecting 24 caps with the Under-21s.
He has been close to making recent squads but Michael O’Neill could hardly leave him out for this week’s friendly with Luxembourg and the Euro 2020 qualifier against Germany after he opened the season with eight goals in eight games for Motherwell.
Not bad for a man who has spent much of his career as a centre-half, but he is certainly making the most of a move into midfield.
“I’m starting to put a bit of pressure on myself now,” he said with a laugh. “If I go a couple of games without now it’ll be seen as a drought.
“But I’m buzzing. It’s an added bonus, the goals. I’m more focused on performance but it’s nice to get a few so hopefully they keep coming.”
Donnelly’s role at Motherwell remains primarily a defensive one, even if his goal-scoring record suggests otherwise, but Stephen Robinson’s system allows for rotation in the midfield three and it is paying dividends.
“I try and creep forward and if I hear the shout I maybe stay back,” he said. “But if I go forward usually someone slots into my place.”
Donnelly moved to Motherwell in the summer of 2018 from Hartlepool, enticed in large part by the opportunity to work for former Northern Ireland midfielder Robinson.
His first season was frustrated by a series of injuries, costing him the chance of a call-up from O’Neill during the Nations League campaign last year, but things have fallen into place this season.
“Last season was a difficult one,” he said. “It was frustrating with a few injuries, but the position sort of became vacant in the summer so I tried it out and it’s working well so far.”
Donnelly is not the only young player looking to make an impression on O’Neill this week and potentially earn a second international cap.
Shayne Lavery was initially named in the Under-21s squad for this international window, but was moved up to the senior group after an injury to Paul Smyth.
It comes as a reward for the 20-year-old’s fine start to life at Linfield, where he has scored four goals in nine games, including a fine brace against Qarabag in the Europa League qualifiers.
Lavery, released by Everton in the summer after four years in their youth set-up, is certainly making the most of the opportunity given to him by club boss David Healy.
“I don’t see it as a step back at all,” he said. “It’s just good to be back playing football again and showing people what I can do.”
Lavery managed only a handful of appearances for Everton’s Under-23s and also struggled for playing time on loan at Falkirk in the second half of last season.
But though he could not crack it on the other side of the Irish Sea at the first attempt, Lavery is certain the experience made him a better player.
“David Unsworth, John Ebbrell, it was great to be coached by them,” he said.
“They’re ex-Premier League players and I can take a lot of positives from it for the rest of my career.
“With the players I was training with at Everton, it made me a better player. I don’t have any regrets about it at all.”
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