Ali McCann loving international life under Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill

Ali McCann loving international life under Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill

Ali McCann is getting his first taste of working with Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill this summer and is already noticing the difference.

The Preston midfielder missed O’Neill’s first games back in charge of the national team in March through injury, but is in the squad for Friday’s Euro 2024 qualifier away to Denmark and next week’s home fixture against Kazakhstan.

McCann was one of the first players elevated from the under-21s when former Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough was in charge, making his debut in October 2020, but had since been told what to expect under O’Neill by his team-mates. He has now been able to see it for himself.

“It’s been great,” he said. “Even the last two training camps getting back into the swing of it has been good.

“I’ve only heard good things, and you can see that on the training pitch. The coaching from all the staff, they all seem great. It’s quite exciting.”

O’Neill is known for his meticulous planning and attention to detail, and that has been a stand-out feature for McCann.

“I’ve noticed that massively,” he added. “All of the sessions we’ve done have had a purpose, so that bodes well going forward and if we can get it right going into Friday, we give ourselves a big chance.”

Northern Ireland know they will be second-favourites in Copenhagen, with the trip to Denmark the most difficult fixture on paper in Group H.

The challenge has only been increased by the long injury list facing O’Neill, and McCann’s return is a welcome one with Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and Corry Evans still missing from the engine room.

“It is not great with all those names being injured but that happens in football and it gives an opportunity for other people to step up,” McCann said. “If I do manage to play on Friday and Monday I’ll be giving it my all to get a result for the lads.”

Should he play, McCann can expect to come up against a Denmark midfield anchored by Manchester United’s Christian Eriksen – a challenge the 23-year-old would embrace.

“He’s quality,” McCann said of Eriksen. “You’ve seen it in the Premier League for years and for Denmark for years.

“You just have to get close to him, because if you give him time and space to pick passes then he’ll be able to cut you open. I’m sure we’ll need to be aggressive. He won’t like if we get close to him and put a foot in, so that’ll be part of it.

“You want to play these players because that’s the type of games you play football for.

“I’ll be looking forward to it. It’s not just him, they have a squad full of quality. We will go there with a game plan and if we get it right we can definitely come away with something.”

McCann is coming off a season in which he made 35 appearances for Preston as they finished 12th in the Championship, six points off the play-off places.

But the Premier League remains the goal, and McCann wants to take inspiration from Luton reaching the top flight.

“We were kind of in with a sniff (of a play-off place) over the last few games but just fell short,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t go and try to replicate what Luton have done, take that next step.

“It’s a case of seeing what faces come in. We had a few loan players, there’s going to be a bit of turnover at the club this summer, so we’ll see what happens. Hopefully we’ll bring in some quality.”