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Luke McCullough tops table as man to beat when it's time to relax

By Paul Ferguson

Portadown lad Luke McCullough is keeping his Euro 2016 nerves in check by wiping the floor with his team-mates at table-tennis.

Doncaster Rovers centre back McCullough has been brought to France by manager Michael O'Neill to act as defensive cover for Northern Ireland during the finals, but is making sure he shows his prowess in the games room at the team hotel.

Away from the training ground, the Irish FA, much to the delight of the players, have organised for pool tables, table tennis and games consoles to be stationed inside their plush surroundings so the boys don't get bored during their downtime.

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Yesterday the players enjoyed a well deserved rest ahead of the hugely anticipated Euro 2016 finals opener against Poland and this gave tough-tackling defender McCullough even more time to show why he is the Northern Ireland reigning champion at table tennis.

"We work hard as a squad on the training pitch but it's also important to keep focused during your downtime and I've been playing table tennis while the likes of Niall (McGinn) is the king of the pool table. I've beaten all the players I've come up against - Paddy McNair is quite good but I think he prefers playing Fifa on the consoles. I'm not really into that, but the two young Irish League boys Joel Cooper and Paul Smith are. They're always on it.

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"Roy (Carroll) is just awful at table tennis so he doesn't give me too much of a game."

Former Manchester United reserve team player McCullough, who first came to manager Michael O'Neill's attention as a senior international on the South American tour three years ago, is likely to be the second choice centre back replacement in the squad - behind Aaron Hughes.

Having three Premier League centre backs, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Jonny Evans in the team has helped Northern Ireland keep it tight at the back - they have gone 13 internationals without conceding more than one goal in a game.

McCullough would love to be given his chance to shine at these finals, but understands as a young player he needs to be patient, learn from the established players and be ready if called upon.

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"I'm learning all the time from them, I know that I've plenty to learn in this game and there are no better players to take things from than the likes of Gareth, Jonny, Craig and of course Aaron Hughes, who now has 100 caps.

"I've been trying to enjoy the experience but making sure I'm in the best possible shape should I be asked to contribute. There's been so much build-up around this tournament that sometimes you have to sit back and realise you've actually got football to play. There's that much hype around it's easy to forget your job's playing football. That's the most important thing."

At 22, McCullough is one of the youngest players in the squad and this week he has been joined by Cooper (20) and Smith (18) who have been invited by O'Neill to make up the numbers in training.

McCullough says: "They have shown no nerves at all and have just got on with it in training. They are around the boys and seem to be really enjoying the experience."

Belfast Telegraph