Belfast Telegraph

Conor McLaughlin: Euros are big shop window for NI stars

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland defender Conor McLaughlin believes the Euro 2016 finals are a shop window for him and his team-mates to try and earn a move to a higher level.

The 24-year-old is currently playing with League One outfit Fleetwood Town but knows the world will be watching in France.

McLaughlin excelled for Northern Ireland during the successful qualifying campaign after surprisingly starting in the opening match when Michael O'Neill's men came from behind to win in Hungary.

More: Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 France Finals: Everything the Green and White Army needs to know

Perhaps an even bigger shock, given his international displays, is the fact that McLaughlin is still a Fleetwood player.

"I want to play at as high a level as I can. There'll be a few of the lads like that and there is no better stage than a major championship to show what you can do," said McLaughlin.

"Obviously I'm grateful for what Fleetwood have provided me with, playing week in, week out, that's what I needed when I was younger, and that's what helped me get into the squad.

"I'll always be grateful to them but obviously I want to push on."

McLaughlin admits that with the Euro finals just over a week away, it is a surreal feeling knowing he will be part of a major tournament.

"It's weird to even be involved. It's been a mad couple of years," said the defender in reflective mood.

"I wouldn't have been thinking when I was younger that I'd be playing for Northern Ireland and now qualifying for a major tournament is incredible. A lot of other players have had to wait a long time for this and this is my first full campaign.

"We will go to France thinking anything is possible. We've shown that in qualifying and the confidence we have after qualifying helps our self-belief.

"The lads are absolutely buzzing going into this tournament. Hopefully we can get through the group stage."

McLaughlin admits he is learning constantly at international level and is delighted to be alongside Premier League defenders like Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans.

He said: "When you play for Northern Ireland it is a massive step up. You have to make sure you're 100 per cent concentrated all the time, which is a hard thing for any player. Obviously the quality of the players at international level is much higher but the lads have helped me massively.

"I'm playing with amazing players - we've got a core of Premier League players who have helped me a lot with their experience. They talk to me on the pitch, and I learn from them in training all the time which helps me when we go into games.

"At international level you're more likely to get punished if you make a mistake at this level. Obviously that makes you focus more; that's the main thing.

"It is harder, but you have to make sure you concentrate on playing your own game and not think negatively."

For some of the qualifier squads Conor was joined by his brother Ryan, but the Liverpool defender didn't make the final cut for France.

"We've both supported each other all the way through our careers. I'm looking forward to helping him back into the squad in the future. He's just been unfortunate with injuries," said the big brother, who is expected to play in Saturday's friendly in Slovakia.

Slovakia

N Ireland

International friendly:

City Arena Stadium, Trnava , Sat, 7.45pm

Belfast Telegraph