'Hopefully plenty more to come' – Northern Ireland's Dale Taylor on winning his first NI cap
"Give you a top five? I could name about nine or 10."
With his dual role as manager of the Under-19 and Under-17 sides, Gerard Lyttle is fully immersed in Northern Ireland youth international football.
A 10-day camp last month for a triple-header of Euro qualifiers with the U19s was followed almost immediately by a similar three-match camp with the U17s last week, while this week has seen him join John Schofield's Under-21 coaching team for a Euro 23 home qualifier double-header.
Elite youth football in Northern Ireland is very much in vogue, with a talented crop of young players coming through the international system fuelling excitement for what they could bring to the senior team in the future – an excitement that was heightened by 17-year-old Dale Taylor making his debut in Friday night's win over Lithuania.
While the names may already be familiar to many, BBC Sport NI asked Lyttle to identify five players that have the best opportunity of securing regular places in Ian Baraclough's side for the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, and to provide some insight into their strengths and potential.
'The best on the ball I've ever seen'
Shea Charles is a versatile defender, just turned 18 this month, who has come through the youth ranks at Manchester City, signed his first professional contract in the summer and is currently playing for their Under-23s. He has played for Northern Ireland at Under-16 and Under-17 level, played for Lyttle in the recent Under-19 Euro qualifiers and came on as a late substitute in the Under-21s' victory over Lithuania on Friday.
"Shea has been so, so impressive during my time working with him," said Lyttle.
"He has played as a centre-back for me but I know that, because of how good he is on the ball, Manchester City are playing him as a six in their under-23s. I have never seen anyone better on the ball than this kid.
"Honestly, he is so calm, I actually haven't seen him get out of second gear yet and that is no joke – there is even more in him. He plays with such a calmness, sees a pass, breaks lines, is technically very good, can hit long and short and can compete physically. He is just a proper ball-playing centre-back and a real good kid as well.
"As he goes up the levels he needs to keep progressing, but from what I've seen of young Shea he definitely has all the attributes."
'He scores goals, runs the channels and links up well'
Fresh from making his debut on Friday night, striker Dale Taylor is a 17-year-old Linfield academy graduate who moved to Nottingham Forest last summer and signed his first professional contract with them in December. He has impressed for Forest's Under-23s, earning his first call-up by Baraclough to the senior international squad.
"Dale is a centre-forward who is technically really good, tough, mature and with a good attitude as well as leadership qualities – I made him captain of our 19s last month," Lyttle said.
"I'd go as far as to say that if he hadn't have got the injury that he did in the summer then he would have made his first-team debut for Forest by now. That's how close he is. They speak very well of him at Forest and he has been very unlucky with the injury.
"He scores goals but is very much a team player who will do all the donkey work – run the channels, hold up and link up – he just has that sort of attitude. He's level-headed but technically very good and is a very determined young man. He takes on information well, too.
"Dale will do a lot of work outside the box, chasing things down, but he knows that goals are scored inside the box and that he needs to be in there more often. Working as hard as he does is a great attribute to have, but he could conserve some of that energy for getting into the box."
'Technically as good as any'
Ethan Galbraith is a 20-year-old Manchester United midfielder who has made one appearance for their first team and is currently on loan at League One side Doncaster Rovers. The Glengormley native signed a new deal with United last year which will keep him at Old Trafford until June 2023. Having played for Northern Ireland at all youth levels, he has won two senior international caps and earned a call-up to Baraclough's current squad.
"I haven't had the pleasure of working with Ethan just yet but I think he has made the correct decision by going on loan and playing men's football in a decent league," Lyttle said.
"Getting those minutes that he has done at Doncaster will also boost his chances of cementing his place in the Northern Ireland senior squad.
"Technically he is as good as any. He is not afraid to get on the ball, he has great receiving skills and awareness – he sees things quicker than others on the pitch.
"All of the coaches who have worked with Ethan – Jim Magilton in particular – speak very highly of him and obviously Ian knows all about him from having worked with him in the under-21s."
'He always had the wow factor'
Like Galbraith and now Taylor, Conor Bradley will need little introduction to Northern Ireland supporters. The 18-year-old impressed hugely on his Northern Ireland senior debut against Switzerland in September and made his Liverpool first-team debut in the League Cup soon after. A right-back who started out as a forward at Dungannon United Youth, Lyttle believes Bradley's mental strength is one of his biggest attributes.
"I worked with Conor at Club NI and you always knew he had that 'wow' factor when he got going," Lyttle observed.
"You talk about the full package and he has got everything going for him, and the biggest thing of all is his mentality. He always wanted to be a footballer, his standards are really high.
"He is very driven, doesn't let anything get in the way of where he wants to be and for me that is really important for a young player. It is easy to get pulled down by other things going on around you, but if you drop your standards you can forget the things that got you to where you are. Conor has that work ethic in abundance and he really is an inspiration to the rest of the young players."
'Get into forward areas with him on the ball and things happen'
Alfie McCalmont is an English-born 21-year-old Leeds United midfielder who spent last season on loan at League Two side Oldham Athletic before moving to League One's Morecambe in the summer. He joined Leeds aged nine and has played in two EFL Cup games, and has also made four appearances for the Northern Ireland senior side. He dropped back down to the NI Under-21 panel for the current World Cup double-header and scored twice in a man-of-the-match performance in Friday's 4-0 win over Lithuania.
"He's very clever in finding little pockets of space. If you get into forward areas with him on the ball, things happen – as you could see against Lithuania," Lyttle said.
"He takes the ball on the half turn and has the vision to spread it wide or forward, as well as running at defenders. And he has got a finish in his locker, both of his goals against Lithuania were calm, first-time finishes.
"That is something we have been preaching to the young lads when we have them in – so often we get into great areas high up the pitch in and around the box and we are not as calm. Alfie, however, seems to come with that natural calmness where he takes a deep breath and doesn't lash at his shot, but instead just places it in the corner or finds a pass. His decision-making is really good and he has definitely got a bright future.
"He is very much a team player, rolls his sleeves up and is a great kid. This is the first week that I have really been around him properly and his whole mannerisms, his attitude and his personality are top class."
More young contenders
West Ham's Michael Forbes has impressed Lyttle
As Lyttle said, narrowing the crop of youngsters down to five was a task he struggled with, given the depth of talent that he has seen in Northern Ireland under-age teams.
While the five players above are perhaps the best known, Lyttle spoke just as enthusiastically about a range of other prospects he has high hopes for.
"There is Ross McCausland who has signed a new three-year contract at Rangers, an attacking player with loads of ability in terms of scoring goals and pace.
"Isaac Price is a central midfielder at Everton, a tall, hard-working player who is technically very good who again really impressed me when we were away for the three 19s games. When you are profiling a player you are looking at him and thinking he actually has a really good chance because of his height, physicality, technical ability and the mental side, and again he is at a big club.
"Michael Forbes, a left-sided centre-back at West Ham, is another one – he is an Under 18 but has played a year up at Under 19. Big, strong and physical with a great attitude, still has a lot of learning to but again has massive potential, while Jamie McDonnell is also doing well at Forest."
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