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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

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.

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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.

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

"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.

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"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