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Northern Ireland star Conor Washington savours journey to big league from the non-league

By Steven Beacom

Published 08/06/2016

Rise: Conor Washington played for St Ives Town during the last Euros in 2012
Rise: Conor Washington played for St Ives Town during the last Euros in 2012

The last time the Euro finals were played in 2012, Northern Ireland striker Conor Washington was a non-league player.

Turning out for St Ives Town was quite the experience.

Washington has many happy memories from his time there. This is his favourite and when you read it you'll understand.

More: Some of the Northern Ireland stars didn't know who I was: Conor McLaughlin

"In one of the last games I played, my brother drove me to the game but took me to the wrong stadium to start with. Well I say stadium, it was more like a park pitch," recalled Washington.

"I was in the running for the golden boot and I turned up at 2.57pm. It was just ridiculous. I ran into the changing rooms, the manager is screaming at me saying 'Where have you been? What are you doing?' He told me to get my kit on because I was starting and I thought I can't be starting, it's only three minutes to go before kick-off.

"Funnily enough, from the kick-off, the ball's come to me about 25 yards out and I've just hit it and it's gone straight into the top corner. Maybe I should play without warming up more often!"

There's something about Washington. A rawness to his football that makes him play without fear.

More: Barry Hunter sure that Northern Ireland can disarm Euro superpowers in the finals

Since making his international debut in March in Wales, he has scored twice in four games for Northern Ireland, both at Windsor Park, and there is a feeling in the squad that the 24-year-old could make a real impact in France if given the chance.

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.

You know starting against Poland on Sunday, Ukraine or Germany in any of the group games would not faze him.

Now with QPR after spells with Newport and Peterborough, Washington worked as a postman before making the breakthrough into professional football.

He's reminded of his previous occupation in just about every interview he does, but takes it in his stride.

"I value those experiences. They made me the person I am today, kept me grounded. It's one of those tags that is going to stick with me forever but it's not the worst one in the world," he said.

More: Kyle Lafferty scare is first bump on our French Euro 2016 adventure

"It does seem a lifetime ago now. Back then I'd be up at 5am and then in for 5.30am-6am. Depending on what kind of day it was, a heavy day or a light day or whatever, we'd be done for midday, 1pm or 2pm at the latest.

"Then it'd be some gym, golf or some sleep in the afternoon depending on how I felt. Tuesday nights would be playing for St Ives or training if we didn't have a game."

Poland's ace striker Robert Lewandowski never had to go through that regime.

Washington added: "This is all dreamland stuff for me. Four years ago I was a postman and now I'm at the Euros with Northern Ireland.

"This is what I've worked towards for the last couple of months since there was a sniff of a call-up.

"We maybe won't have the quality of some other teams at the tournament but I think you'd go a long way to find one that's more unified."

More: French legend Alain Giresse writes off 'limited' Northern Ireland in Euro 2016 finals

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