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Luke McCullough: I'd be cheering Northern Ireland from stands had I missed cut

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's young defender Luke McCullough has revealed that even if he had not been selected for the Euro 2016 squad, he would be going to France this month as a fan.

The 22-year-old Doncaster centre-back was one of manager Michael O'Neill's borderline choices for the 23-man squad and now, having been given the nod, is determined to make the best of the experience.

The Northern Ireland football squad with manager Michael ONeill before leaving for the Euro Finals.
The Northern Ireland football squad with manager Michael ONeill before leaving for the Euro Finals.
Michael McGovern. Age: 31 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 10 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Like a fine wine, Enniskillen man Michael is improving with age. Experience of Euro 2016 will make him even better.
Roy Carroll Age: 38 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 44 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: I’ve known Roy since he was a kid. Brilliant guy and a top goalkeeper. Now the Windsor penalty king, he is great for team morale.
Alan Mannus Age: 34 Position: Goalkeeper Caps: 8 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Third choice he may be, but if called upon, as he showed versus Belarus on Friday night, Alan won’t let the side down.
Craig Cathcart Age: 27 Position: Defender Caps: 27 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Has established himself as a quality Premier League defender and international. Vital to Northern Ireland now.
Jonny Evans Age: 28 Position: Defender Caps: 48 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Has the ability to have a big tournament and show why Manchester United should never have sold him.
Gareth McAuley Age: 36 Position: Defender Caps: 60 Goals: 7 Beacom’s verdict: Big G has become a huge favourite with the fans and rightly so. Huge influence and dangerous at set-pieces.
Luke McCullough Age: 22 Position: Defender Caps: 5 Goals: 0 Verdict: May not feature in France, but has an important part to play in training and be ready if required. Can learn much from likes of McAuley.
Conor McLaughlin Age: 24 Position: Defender Caps: 17 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Conor has been magnificent since being a surprise choice in the first Euro qualifier. Will relish shining in France.
Lee Hodson Age: 24 Position: Defender Caps: 15 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Clearly impressed manager Michael O’Neill in training to make the trip. Steady performer. Could get some game time.
Aaron Hughes Age: 36 Position: Defender Caps: 99 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Aaron is a Northern Ireland legend. Even when the team struggled he was Mr Consistency. Delighted he is going to the finals.
Paddy McNair Age: 21 Position: Defender Caps: 8 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Looks like a seasoned international when he plays in the holding midfield role for his country. Could be a key player in France.
Chris Baird Age: 34 Position: Defender Caps: 77 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: Another brilliant servant. His vast experience will be needed on and off the pitch. Reliable when the going gets tough.
Steven Davis Age: 31 Position: Midfielder Caps: 82 Goals: 8 Beacom’s verdict: In my view Steven has become one of Northern Ireland’s greatest ever footballers. What a player. And a superb captain too.
Oliver Norwood Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 33 Goals: 0 Beacom’s verdict: How this man has grown under Michael O’Neill. Now an outstanding international and so crucial to how the team plays.
Corry Evans Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 33 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Works his socks off for the team no matter where he is asked to play. Could be a key substitute in group games.
Jamie Ward Age: 30 Position: Midfielder Caps: 21 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: With his energy, this livewire often sets the tone early on for Northern Ireland. Underestimate him at your peril.
Stuart Dallas Age: 25 Position: Midfielder Caps: 13 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Like a few in this squad has flourished under the manager. Seems inspired every time he puts on a Northern Ireland shirt.
Niall McGinn Age: 28 Position: Midfielder Caps: 42 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Showed against Belarus he can make a big impact off the bench. That will be his important role at the Euros.
Shane Ferguson Age: 24 Position: Midfielder Caps: 24 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Has a lovely left foot and an ability to whip in dangerous crosses. Like a few here will be useful off the bench.
Will Grigg Age: 24 Position: Forward Caps: 8 Goals: 1 Beacom’s verdict: Forget the song for a second, if given the chance this guy can be a hit at Euro 2016 because he is a clinical finisher.
Kyle Lafferty Age: 28 Position: Forward Caps: 50 Goals: 17 Beacom’s verdict: Northern Ireland’s main man in attack. Inspirational and influential, Kyle has what it takes to be a star in France.
Conor Washington Age: 24 Position: Forward Caps: 3 Goals: 2 Beacom’s verdict: Sure to get game time at the finals, he could be a surprise element for the team. Certainly won’t be overawed.
Michael O’Neill Age: 46 Position: Manager Verdict: Michael is the manager with the Midas touch. It will take something special for Northern Ireland to make the knockout stages, but with this man in charge anything is possible.

Instead of being in the stands cheering on the team, McCullough might be on the pitch. He is behind the likes of Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Aaron Hughes in the pecking order, but as previous tournaments have shown lesser lights can come from nowhere and shine brighter than the rest.

Read more: Everything the Green and White Army needs to know  

"I wanted to make Michael's mind up that I'm good enough to warrant a place in the squad," said McCullough.

"And now that I am in the squad I want to make the most of it. I'd be going as a fan if I wasn't as a player, so I'd be going to France regardless. Going as part of the squad is very special to me."

Portadown native McCullough has played in midfield in the past but prefers the centre-back option and knows that if O'Neill opts for a three-man defence, as has been the case in recent friendlies, there will be a better chance of game time.

"I enjoy both centre-half and centre midfield; I'm not sure I could pick one over the other. Probably centre-half, if I'm being honest, but I wouldn't have a problem playing at either," he said.

"The spine of the team is very strong but centre-back is maybe our strongest position. If there's three centre-halves on the pitch it might mean they need a couple more on the bench."

McCullough played on a few occasions as a substitute during the successful qualifying campaign, most notably for the last five minutes on that unforgettable October night when Northern Ireland beat Greece 3-1 at Windsor Park to make it to the finals.

"I came on a couple of times at Windsor, which was unbelievable with my mates and family there," he recalled.

"Those were definitely good moments. The Greece game was brilliant. We knew we'd done it with half an hour to go, so we could nearly enjoy that last half an hour.

"Being on the pitch when the whistle went, and we knew we'd qualified, was an amazing moment. The memories are brilliant and we'll be hoping to make a few more memories in France."

McCullough's time away with the international team will ease the pain of a disappointing club season with Doncaster, which saw Rovers relegated from League One.

"It definitely wasn't nice, something I don't want to happen again in my club career, that's for sure, but you try to put it behind you and move on," said McCullough, whose love of football began on the streets of Portadown.

"We'll be trying to bounce straight back into League One again. We have to learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again.

"I have the Euros to look forward to and that can take my mind off the club scene for a while, I suppose."

Having started his professional career at Manchester United, McCullough is one of the few players who can say he has worked under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson and his son Darren, who is the boss at Doncaster.

"Darren is very good. He is similar to his dad in many ways. He is a good manager who has lots of passion for the game. He can only help me improve," said McCullough.

"With United I was going over for a few years and then moved there full-time at 16. It was a good start, everything's there for you and the facilities are unbelievable. People say the only way is down from there. It was a good grounding, a good start to try to learn the trade, the game.

"Sir Alex was the manager the whole time I was there. He was at the top of the club so everything was in line under that. There was definitely much to learn from him and down through the club. It was a good grounding for me.

"We saw plenty of him, he would always say 'hello' to you, ask you how you were getting on or ask what's been going on. It was definitely good to have him there.

"Paul McGuinness would have been the youth team manager when I was there. He was very good with me, a good coach who helped me in my early days, helped me with my game.

"I was captain of the youth team there - it's only a youth team, I suppose, but… it was definitely an honour.

"The time came when I thought 'I'm probably not going to play for the first team' so I had to get out and try to establish myself with some first team football and I've managed to do that at Doncaster. I'll just be trying to play more and more games, improve and see where it takes me."

Belfast Telegraph