Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

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.

More: Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis: We are ready to give the fans our very best for Euros

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.

More: Will Grigg focused on Euros while Brendan Rodgers waits to see if he fires

"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.

More: Live Euro 2016 France v Romania: Scores, results, tables and fixtures - Allez les Bleus or allez les jeunes? French relishing a feast of football

"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."

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.

Belfast Telegraph