Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill sees similarities between Eoin Toal and former West Brom defender Gareth McAuley.

McAuley earned 80 caps for his country and was also a regular starter for the Baggies in the Premier League.

The defender impressed for the likes of Crusaders and Coleraine before an opportunity in English football came along with Lincoln.

He also had spells with Leicester and Ipswich before finishing his career north of the border with Rangers.

Toal has followed a similar path in the early years of his career, catching the eye of Wanderers after impressing for Derry City in the League of Ireland.

The 24-year-old has quickly adapted to the challenges of League One football, becoming an important member of Ian Evatt’s first-team squad.

He has also popped up with a few goals, including a pinpoint strike during the 3-0 win against Portsmouth back in January.

McAuley has scouted Toal and O’Neill has also watched the defender in action for the Whites on several occasions this season.

“Eoin Toal is a young player who I have watched quite a bit,” the manager explained. “He has had kind of a similar route to Gareth McAuley in terms of having to wait for his chance. I remember him playing for us at under-19 and under-21.

“Every time I have seen him for Bolton this season, and I have seen him four times now since I came into the job in December, he has played very well. He is versatile – he can play on the right, he has played on the left.

“He is playing in a good Bolton team at the minute who are obviously challenging for promotion, and he has really made that transition into English football look very straightforward.”

O’Neill’s side head to San Marino on Thursday, March 23 (7.45pm) before hosting Finland on Sunday, March 26 (7.45pm).

They will also take on Denmark, Kazakhstan and Slovenia in Group H for a chance to compete in next year's finals in Germany.

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