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Tuesday 21 Mar 2023
Cathcart to captain Northern Ireland in opening Euro qualifiers

Craig Cathcart will captain Northern Ireland in their opening two games in the UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign.

With regular captain Steven Davis and vice captain Jonny Evans both missing due to injury, Cathcart was a shoo-in for the role, according to Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.

“Craig has been a big part of my teams over the years. He has good leadership qualities and a calm head,” the manager said.

Centre-back Cathcart, who has 69 caps for his country to date, will don the armband for the Euro qualifiers against San Marino (away on Thursday) and Finland (home on Sunday).

O’Neill admitted losing Evans over the weekend was “a blow to us”, however he also said he has enough cover to deal with the defender’s absence, pointing out that both Paddy McNair and Shea Charles are comfortable playing in central defence if required.

The manager further revealed there is a doubt over striker Conor Washington’s fitness ahead of the trip to San Marino, while attacking midfielder Conor McMenamin has had to withdraw from the squad due to a persistent calf injury.

O’Neill has spent the past couple of days reconnecting with players who served him well during his first spell as manager as well as getting to know the younger players in what is now a 24-strong panel.

He said everyone has blended in well and he is enthused by the group of players at his disposal.

He has also been impressed by the “freshness” the younger players have brought to the group, adding: “It’s really positive to see so many young players coming through.”

The two new senior coaches in his backroom team have impressed him, too. He said Aaron Hughes has brought “standards of excellence and a calm head”, while Diarmuid O’Carroll has been “very vibrant”.

The manager said it is important to get off to a good start in the group – Northern Ireland are in Group H along with San Marino, Finland, Denmark, Slovenia and Kazakhstan – and try to get points on the board.

And he insisted neither he nor his players are taking San Marino lightly.

“We have to make sure we prepare for this game as we would for Denmark away, which we would anticipate will be the most difficult fixture in the group,” he pointed out.