Disappointments have left ‘scar tissue’ for Saville

Venue: Olympic Stadium, Helsinki Date: Friday, 17 November Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio Ulster; live text and report on BBC Sport website; highlights on BBC One NI

As he prepares to captain Northern Ireland for the first time, George Saville has revealed he still feels the hurt of previous disappointments.

Saville, 30, will wear the captain’s armband on what will be his 50th cap in Friday night’s penultimate Euro 2024 qualifier against Finland in Helsinki.

Since his debut in May 2017, the Millwall man has lost in a play-off for the 2018 World Cup and the 2020 Euros.

“There’s a lot of scar tissue. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t,” he said.

Saville added: “I came in just after 2016 so we were in a good moment and I feel like I was riding the wave and hit the ground running.

“We had opportunities to make the finals which hurt and still hurts to this day. We missed out in Switzerland away by a goal [in 2017] and we missed out against Slovakia in a play-off final [in 2020] to go to the Euros.

“They were big opportunities missed and the last couple of years have been difficult as a nation, as a team and individually.

“I’m here to get success and I’ll stick with it and work hard. I like facing difficult situations, I’ve always been one to front it.”

While Saville may well have captained the side on his milestone cap anyway, as other Northern Ireland players have done previously, he does so in the absence of a number of experienced players.

Long-term skipper Steven Davis has missed the entire qualifying campaign through injury and Jonny Evans pulled out of the squad at the weekend, while Stuart Dallas is still out and Craig Cathcart now retired.

With Northern Ireland having picked up just six points from eight games in Euro 2024 qualifying before their final double-header, Saville admitted the campaign has been disappointing but is optimistic about the future.

“Obviously you want to play in a wining team. When it is tough it is hard to play well but for me I have stuck with it,” he continued.

“The last two or three years have been difficult. We haven’t picked up many wins and we are not going to hide from that.

“Collectively and individually it has been difficult in terms of results but I remain optimistic and really feel there is a lot of youth coming through that will have success.”

‘I rang my dad straight away’

With so many potential captains not available, manager Michael O’Neill had a choice to make about who would lead his side out in the Olympic Stadium.

Saville spoke about the joy he felt when the manager told him during the week that he would be wearing the armband as Northern Ireland aim to secure their first Group H points against opposition other than San Marino.

“I rang my dad straight away,” Saville said when asked how it felt when told he would be captain.

“It was a nice moment, Michael just pulled me and explained the situation. It comes as a great honour and pride for me personally.”

Not always a favourite among the Northern Ireland supporters despite making an encouraging start to his international career, Saville is yet to score in his 49 caps – but would love to mark his captaincy by ending the barren run.

“If I can follow up what I did at the weekend [when he scored for Millwall] we will all be smiling,” he said. “I want to get that goal. There is no secret with that. I remain optimistic I will get there.”

Sitting alongside his latest captain at the pre-match press conference in the Olympic Stadium, manager O’Neill joked about Saville being grumpy while praising his attitude.

“I laugh at George, he’s pretty grumpy and miserable around the place at times and he’s been even more grumpy with the captaincy,” O’Neill said.

“He’s got high standards and expectations and that’s what you want to bring to the new players.”