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

Fleetwood ace admits he is amazed by his journey from obscurity to the big stage

By Steven Beacom

Published 08/06/2016

Cool customer: Conor McLaughlin, training in France, says he is relishing the thought of taking on Poland superstar Robert Lewandowski
Cool customer: Conor McLaughlin, training in France, says he is relishing the thought of taking on Poland superstar Robert Lewandowski

Conor McLaughlin's story is one that perfectly illustrates the rise and rise of Northern Ireland.

He's the 24-year-old defender playing for League One outfit Fleetwood Town who openly admits that a couple of years ago, nobody knew who he was.

Today, the Belfast man is just a few days away from representing his country at one of the biggest sporting tournaments in the world.

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

McLaughlin appreciates where he has come from more than most and is determined to continue a startling run of success with Northern Ireland at Euro 2016.

Having made his international debut in 2011 away to Italy under Nigel Worthington, it took McLaughlin three years to win another cap when he went on the summer tour to South America.

A few months later there was much surprise when Michael O'Neill named him at right-back for Northern Ireland's first Euro qualifier in Hungary.

McLaughlin was sensational. He continued to excel throughout the successful campaign and the record-breaking 12-match unbeaten run. Now he is hoping to be included in the starting XI to play Poland in Nice on Sunday.

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

As he says himself, he has come a long way.

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.

"It's been an amazing journey. A couple of years ago, nobody would have known who I was," said the Fleetwood ace.

"Probably even some of the more experienced Northern Ireland players didn't know who I was at the start.

"When we went to South America on tour two years ago, though, it was mainly younger lads so it was easy to settle in because I had played with some of them before.

"All the lads, including the experienced ones when they came back into the squad, have been great. They have made me feel a part of it straight away and it's been easy to settle.

"It really has been brilliant to be a part of this group and making history nearly every week. We've got an unbeaten run going and it's been amazing to be part of it.

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

"It's like a club atmosphere, the way the team is. The team spirit is unbelievable, there's no cliques, everyone socialises with each other. Hopefully we can do well in the tournament."

Poland's kingpin is Robert Lewandowski. McLaughlin would savour taking him on at the weekend

"When you're younger growing up, you want to play against the best players in the world like Lewandowski," he said.

"I came into this squad when we played Uruguay and Chile in South America and playing (Alexis) Sanchez and (Arturo) Vidal. Coming off the pitch, I was thinking I want to play against these players more often.

"Comparing Sanchez and Lewandowski, they are different sorts of players but in the top bracket of players in the world. Sanchez was really quick and did about seven step-overs in five seconds over in the game in South America and Lewandowski is a goalscorer and poacher and a different sort of threat.

"He is obviously Poland's biggest threat but there are a lot more players than him.

"We will have to watch out for him and the rest.

"You have to give Poland respect because they are obviously good players but you just have to treat it like any other game and try to do your best.

"The quality of players at this tournament will certainly be higher than what I am used to in the league I play in but I showed in the qualifiers that I can cope with that.

"We'll all be relishing the tests ahead, starting with Poland. We won't give them or anyone else an easy game."

McLaughlin says he would be happy to play in the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that O'Neill went with during qualifying or the 3-5-2 system operated in recent friendlies.

Comfortable at right-back and wing-back, McLaughlin admits that competition for places has grown over the past two years and will be well aware that Manchester United's Paddy McNair had a notable game in his position in Saturday's 0-0 draw in Slovakia.

"Competition is really heating up for selection. There are going to be a few problems for Michael to decide but all the lads are training hard to try to make sure that they are in the team," stated the former Preston player.

McLaughlin was involved in yesterday's training session which was open to the public when hundreds of Lyon locals turned out in the sun to welcome their visitors.

"That was pretty strange but very welcome," added McLaughlin.

"Even driving through the town with all the Northern Ireland flags in the windows gives you a feel for the country and how excited they are for the tournament.

"Four years ago I was watching the Euro finals on television when I was on holiday probably thinking I would never play in one.

"I remember sitting watching England's opening training days before at tournaments and now we have that experience which is brilliant."

Belfast Telegraph

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