Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has been reflecting on the first time he saw Shea Charles and Isaac Price pull on a Northern Ireland jersey.
O’Neill was an interested spectator as the pair turned out for a JD Club NI Under-16 team in a challenge match at Queen Ethelburga's College in York back in August 2018.
Leeds United Academy’s U16s provided the opposition that day and the Northern Ireland side ran out 5-2 winners.
Earlier that year Andy Cousins, who was working as a scout for O’Neill at the time and was adept at unearthing talent from GB with Northern Ireland connections, had been tipped off that both Charles and Price had parents from these shores and he acted quickly to bring the pair onboard.
The talented midfielders were subsequently invited along to the training camp in York for JD Club NI, the forerunner to the current Irish FA JD Academy based at Ulster University Jordanstown.
At the camp O’Neill spoke with their parents and outlined the pathway for young talent to the senior international squad.
And that pathway has now led to both being part of the senior set-up at the age of 19.
Charles, who made his Premier League debut for champions Manchester City in their final game of the season against Brentford, made his senior bow for Northern Ireland in the UEFA Nations League game against Greece in Belfast last summer. He has six senior caps to date.
Price, who has just left Everton and signed for Standard Liege in Belgium’s top flight, earned his first senior cap in the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier against San Marino back in March and earned his second cap in the home qualifier against Finland a few days later.
Michael O’Neill said both players performed well back in August 2018 and spoke of the need to attract players with Northern Ireland roots.
He said for a small place like Northern Ireland it was important to develop players from within the country and to attract players with a bloodline to Northern Ireland.
He pointed out: “The big thing I have noticed in international football these days is that players with eligibility are not coming on to your radar at 17, 18, 19. They are now much more on your radar at 13, 14, 15.
“The work we did then (in 2018) in getting Shea and Isaac affiliated to Northern Ireland and then the work the staff at that level did in keeping them onboard and focused was so important.
“Players now have more options. I was recently speaking to someone at the FA in England about the eligibility issue and he mentioned that 60 per cent of their players are eligible to play for other nations, and they are finding the market is extremely competitive.
“Whilst our residential academy at Jordanstown is a fantastic thing, we also have to put a lot of thought into finding players who are eligible to play for Northern Ireland. We have to be prepared to invest in it and realise the competitive market we are in because we are not the only nation who are fishing in that pond.”
The match in York against Leeds United’s U16s was not only notable for the first appearances in a Northern Ireland shirt by Charles and Price.
Three other players who are members of the current Northern Ireland senior international squad were in action that day: Dale Taylor, Conor Bradley and Aaron Donnelly.
Nottingham Forest striker Taylor, who was on loan at Burton Albion during this season, actually helped himself to two goals.
And Liverpool wing back Bradley, who has just completed a successful loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, also got on the scoresheet.
Nottingham Forest defender Donnelly, who was out on loan at Port Vale this season, was involved that day, too.
“It was a fantastic result and a very good performance,” Declan Devine, who was in charge of the team at Queen Ethelburga's College along with Jim Magilton, said afterwards.
The squad in York also featured several players who have gone on to represent their country at underage level, with the potential to break through to the senior set-up.
They include Sean Stewart (Norwich City), Josh Roney (Stoke City), Terry Devlin (Glentoran), Matty Lusty (Larne), Aaron Wightman (Glentoran), Conner Byrne (ex-Dungannon Swifts) and Orrin McLaughlin (Institute).