Northern Ireland: Mark Sykes gets first call-up for Euro 2020 qualifiers in Estonia & Belarus

Mark Sykes in action for Northern Ireland Under-21s
Mark Sykes has played for Northern Ireland Under-21s but has yet to earn a senior international cap

Midfielder Mark Sykes has been given his first Northern Ireland call-up for the Euro 2020 qualifiers in Estonia and Belarus.

The Oxford United player is named by manager Michael O'Neill after taking part in two recent training camps in Manchester.

Hearts full-back Michael Smith returns after injury, while former captain Aaron Hughes retains his place.

O'Neill's side face Estonia on 8 June and play Belarus three days later.

Northern Ireland are top of Group C after beating both of their upcoming opponents at home in their opening two qualifiers in March.

They will travel to Austria on Monday in preparation for the matches in Tallinn and Borisov.

Former Glenavon midfielder Sykes made the move to Oxford in January and steps up to the senior squad after making 11 appearances for the Under 21s.

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Sykes heads winner for NI U21s against Slovakia

"I think this is the next stage of Mark's development - we brought him in for the training camps and he showed up very well," said O'Neill.

"He is clearly a talented player, which we knew from his days with Glenavon and the Under 21s, but he has adapted to full-time football really well.

"We always want to bring as many young players into the squad as we can to help their development. Mark has got the opportunity now and I think he is capable of doing very well."

The inclusion in the squad of Hughes, who holds the Northern Ireland appearance record for an outfield player, comes on the same day Hearts announced that the 39-year-old defender will be leaving the club.

Aberdeen winger Niall McGinn is missing after suffering ankle ligament damage in training in April.

Striker Will Grigg, who suffered League One play-off final disappointment with Sunderland on 26 May, is not selected. He was named in the squad for the March qualifiers but pulled out injured before the games.

Will Grigg
Grigg came on as a second-half substitute in Sunderland's play-off final defeat by Charlton

There is no place for Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson, who had been called up for the training camp after recovering from deep vein thrombosis.

Sheffield United midfielder Oliver Norwood is missing again, after declaring himself unavailable for the opening two Euro qualifiers in March.

As he did ahead of the home games against Estonia and Belarus, O'Neill has stressed the importance of securing six points from this double header.

"We got six points in March and this is stage two now - we have to replicate that," he added.

"It will be more difficult away from home, but I do believe it is possible and we would then essentially go into a group of three with Germany and Holland.

"We would have a points advantage because of the extra games and that's the situation we have tried to create to possibly put more pressure on the bigger nations.

"Our squad's in a good place. There is a lot of youth in it but we still have the core there as well."

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Senior call-up is 'next stage in Sykes' development' - NI boss O'Neill

Estonia and Belarus have yet to win a point, with the latter sitting bottom of the table.

Germany, who come to Belfast to play Northern Ireland in September, are second in the table, although they have only played one match.

The Northern Ireland players have been training in Manchester during the last 10 days ahead of their first away matches of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

Northern Ireland squad

Goalkeepers: McGovern (Norwich City), Peacock-Farrell (Leeds United), Hazard (Celtic).

Defenders: Hughes (Hearts), McAuley (Rangers), J Evans (Leicester City), Cathcart (Watford), C McLaughlin (unattached), McNair (Middlesbrough), Lewis (Norwich City), M Smith (Hearts), Flanagan (Sunderland), Ballard (Arsenal).

Midfielders: Davis (Rangers), C Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas (Leeds United), Saville (Middlesbrough), Jones (Rangers), Whyte (Oxford United), Thompson (Blackpool), Sykes (Oxford United).

Forwards: Lafferty (Rangers), Magennis (Bolton Wanderers), Boyce (Burton Albion), Smyth (Queens Park Rangers), Washington (unattached).

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