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Northern Ireland ascendancy: top five future football stars

Northern Ireland can bask in the glow of being the only Home Nation to scramble up the FIFA rankings, as rivals England, Scotland and Wales all dropped further down the list.

The Green and White Army have jumped up to 43rd place, 18 spots above foes the Republic of Ireland. Michael O’Neill’s men previously resided in 95th, but Euro 2016 qualifying wins against the Faroe Islands and Greece have helped them climb the ladder.

Whilst fans celebrate the present, with current Group F toppers Northern Ireland (9/2 to win their pool, or 6/5 to qualify for Euro 2016) savouring the prospect of making the finals in France, there is also much to look forward to in the future.

Coral writers take a peek at five young-guns lurking in the Green and White Army’s talent pool.

Goalkeeper – Chris Johns (Southampton)
The 19-year-old, renowned for his communication and shot-stopping ability, is no stranger to adversity. Johns was originally an outfield player but, after being diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter disease as a youngster, made the switch to be a stopper.

After signing his first professional contract with the Saints in 2011, becoming part of their highly-rated academy, Johns has gone from strength to strength.

The youngster played regularly in Northern Ireland’s Euro 2015 Under-21s qualifying campaign, after impressing in the Under-20s Milk Cup win with victories over Canada, China and Mexico.

Centre Back – Paddy McNair (Manchester United)
McNair is also making waves at a top Premier League club, already earning his Red Devils debut this term aged just 19. Following in the footsteps of compatriot Jonny Evans, the sturdy centre back has risen through United’s academy and taken advantage of the senior side’s recent rearguard crisis.

Composed, reliable and comfortable on the ball, the Ballyclare-born youngster is also able to play as a holding midfielder, and has now edged his way into the Green and White Army’s Under-21 team.

With rumours of a new bumper contract heading McNair’s way at Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal’s faith in the youngster may see him earn a senior Northern Ireland call-up before too long.

Left Back – Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United)
Despite facing signifcant hurdles to his progress at St James’ Park, with the likes of Davide Santon and Paul Dummett ahead of him in the pecking order, Ferguson remains an O’Neill favourite.

Impressive spells on loan at Birmingham City during 2013 and earlier this year saw the attack-minded and versatile 23-year-old force his way into the Northern Ireland first XI. Ferguson has built on what O’Neill described as “90 minutes of the really highest quality” against Russia in 2013, to be a key component in his nation’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, with one assist in two caps so far this term.

Midfield – Oliver Norwood (Reading)
Norwood has been one of the stars of Northern Ireland’s most successful ever starts to a qualifying campaign, providing assists from set pieces in both important wins against the Faroes Islands and Greece.

The former Red Devils academy product is Burnley-born, qualifying for the Green and White army through his heritage, but is still yet to break his duck for his adopted country.

Despite failing to make the grade at Old Trafford, Norwood’s performances for Huddersfield Town earned him a summer switch to Championship rivals Reading. At just 23, however, there is still more to come from the midfield schemer.

Striker – Will Grigg (MK Dons)
Another English-born star, forward Grigg is currently plying his trade in League One. Following a disappointing spell at Brentford, the 23-year-old has finally found his form on loan with the Dons, netting four in nine appearances.

Grigg hit the headlines with a Man of the Match performance and brilliant brace in MK Dons’ most famous giant-killing. After playing an integral role in Man United’s Capital One Cup downfall, Grigg has enjoyed another chance at international level, but is yet to net for O’Neill’s men.