Jamie Ward returns to Northern Ireland squad for final qualifiers
Michael O’Neill has named Nottingham Forest striker Jamie Ward in his Northern Ireland squad for the final two Euro 2016 qualifying clashes against Greece and Finland, with star frontman Kyle Lafferty suspended for the former match-up.
A hamstring injury kept the Forest forward out of last month’s game against Hungary, when O’Neill’s side moved a step closer to their first major tournament in 30 years, with the Group F leaders 7/4 with Coral to secure top spot.
Norwich City’s Lafferty has been one of the key components in Northern Ireland climbing to top of Group F but, with the towering targetman suspended for their next meeting with Greece, Ward and other forwards may get an opportunity to help make history.
— Official Irish FA (@OfficialIrishFA) September 29, 2015
O’Neill’s men need just two points from their remaining games to book a place in France next summer, but the boss will now have to make a decision on which strikers will lead the line in Lafferty’s absence.
Ward is without a club goal this term, while Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn has been a constant threat in Scotland and is selected in the squad, as well as Billy McKay, Will Grigg, Liam Boyce and Josh Magennis, leaving O’Neill with plenty of Lafferty alternatives.
Kilmarnock’s Magennis and Ross County’s Boyce have found their scoring boots in the Scottish Premier League this term, with the former netting three times since appearing as a late substitute against Hungary and his international teammate recently taking his season tally to 10.
In defence, West Bromwich Albion centre back Gareth McAuley is an injury concern, but takes his rightful place in the squad, alongside skipper Jonny Evans, versatile Manchester United starlet Paddy McNair, Newcastle United-owned Millwall loanee Shane Ferguson and MK Dons defender Lee Hodson also returns.
Veteran Chris Baird is also suspended for the first clash with Greece, as well as full back Conor McLaughlin, while the latter’s brother Ryan has been promoted from the Under-21s.
Greece make the trip to Windsor Park on October 8th and the game in Helsinki takes place three days later, with Northern Ireland needing just the one win to secure a stunning qualification.
Full Northern Ireland squad:
Goalkeepers: Roy Carroll (Notts County), Alan Mannus (St Johnstone), Michael McGovern (Hamilton Academical).
Defenders: Aaron Hughes (Melbourne City), Chris Baird (Derby County), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Jonny Evans (West Brom), Craig Cathcart (Watford), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United), Lee Hodson (MK Dons), Conor McLaughlin (Fleetwood Town), Paddy McNair (Manchester United).
Midfielders: Steve Davis (Southampton), Chris Brunt (West Brom), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Oliver Norwood (Reading), Paddy McCourt (Luton Town), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), Ryan McLaughlin (Liverpool).
Forwards: Kyle Lafferty (Norwich), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Jamie Ward (Nottingham Forest), Josh Magennis (Kilmarnock), Billy McKay (Wigan Athletic), Will Grigg (Wigan Athletic), Liam Boyce (Ross County).