Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough believes Dion Charles is ready to make an impact at international level after naming the Accrington striker in his squad for this month’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Charles, 25, has scored 17 goals in 38 appearances for Stanley this season as they look to force their way into the League One play-offs, and has been rewarded with a first senior international call.
“He’s having a fantastic reason and now is the right time to call him up,” Baraclough said.
“He’s playing in the same league as Josh (Magennis) and Conor (Washington), and scoring 17 goals is no mean feat with an unfashionable club – if you can call Accrington that – while spearheading their chance at a play-off spot.
“Dion fully deserves his call-up. I wanted to bring in an extra striker as well to this camp and not have as many wide players, so Dion is coming in at exactly the right time.”
Northern Ireland travel to Parma to face Italy in their opening World Cup qualifier on March 25 before facing Bulgaria at Windsor Park six days later, with a friendly at home to the United States in between.
Charles is one of five out-and-out strikers in the 26-strong squad alongside Magennis, Washington, Kyle Lafferty and Liam Boyce, but Boyce is not expected to join up with his team-mates until later in the camp as he awaits the birth of his second child.
“Family comes first in these situations,” Baraclough said. “It’s just him and his wife, family from either side aren’t able to get over immediately at the moment, so hopefully there’s the safe arrival of the child and then Liam can come in on a high and with a clear mind.”
It is a largely familiar squad as fears of a rash of international retirements following last year’s failure to qualify for Euro 2020 were not realised.
Captain Steven Davis stands one cap shy of Peter Shilton’s British record of 125 international appearances going into the triple header, while the likes of Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Stuart Dallas and Craig Cathcart are all included.
Baraclough was given an injury worry when Paddy McNair hobbled out of Middlesbrough’s 2-0 win over Preston on Tuesday night, but the versatile 25-year-old takes his place in the group.
“The conversation I had with him last night was really positive and there’s a good chance he’ll be fit for the weekend,” Baraclough said. “That’s good news for us and good news for Middlesbrough as well.”
Charles is not the only new face in the squad as Derry City goalkeeper Nathan Gartside, 23, comes in, joining Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Conor Hazard with both Trevor Carson and Michael McGovern sidelined.
“I had Roy Carroll making a late bid for a comeback,” Baraclough joked when asked about his goalkeeping options.
“Nathan is someone I know who will be coming in for the experience and he will certainly be up for it.
“He’ll be relishing getting the call and he’ll relish being part of the group.”
Baraclough is still waiting for a first win in regular time since taking over from Michael O’Neill, with his only victory to date coming in the penalty shoot-out against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A trip to Italy, where Northern Ireland have never won, might be an unlikely place to find it but Baraclough said the mood was positive.
“We’ll meet it head on,” he said. “Rather than meet them mid-campaign where they’ve maybe got up a head of steam, we may just catch them cold.
“We’ve got to be on top of our game, there’s no illusions about that. But there’s no fear going in there, we’ll relish the chance.”