Michael O’Neill joy at Shane Ferguson switch

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Michael O’Neill is thankful Shane Ferguson was able to secure a loan move away from Newcastle ahead of a key week of World Cup qualifiers for Northern Ireland.

O’Neill has placed a lot of trust in the 21-year-old since taking over as national boss at the start of last year, making him first choice on the left of midfield despite his relative inexperience.

But, after a positive start to the Premier League season that saw him increasingly involved in first-team affairs at St James’ Park, Ferguson found himself nudged to the periphery by the influx of signings from France in January.

Ferguson played no senior club football in January or February and eventually agreed a loan deal with Birmingham.

He has earned rave reviews in his four games to date and provided the assist as Blues beat Middlesbrough 1-0 on Saturday.

O’Neill, himself a former Newcastle player, is delighted to see the player back showcasing his skills ahead of home clashes against Russia on Friday and Israel four days later.

“It was important to get Shane out on loan and I was pleased he got that opportunity,” said O’Neill.

“The introduction of the new players at Newcastle made things very difficult and sort of halted the progress he was making there. He had been getting game time and making an impact, whether he was starting games or coming off the bench.

“At times he hasn’t been playing as much as you would like to give him the best chance of performing for us and going to Birmingham will help that.”

O’Neill’s initial squad for the matches has had one change prior to the players’ arrival in Belfast, with Derby forward Jamie Ward withdrawn pulling out injured last night and Aberdeen’s Josh Magennis replacing him.