Billy McKay ready to play his way into the reckoning for Euro ties
Billy McKay is determined to make the most of his big chance to stake a claim for a first competitive start when Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifying campaign kicks-off away to Hungary in September.
After winning his first five international caps as a substitute, Michael O'Neill handed the Inverness striker his full debut against World Cup-bound Uruguay in the early hours of Saturday morning and his performance didn't disappoint.
McKay wasn't able to break Northern Ireland's long run without a goal in an away friendly, which stretches back to a game in Finland in August 2006 – also the last friendly victory on foreign soil – but he has been a prolific scorer for Caley over the last two seasons while waiting patiently for O'Neill to give him his chance on the international stage.
It has been difficult for McKay to lay down his claims so far, especially with his appearance in the last friendly against Cyprus in March lasting only 17 minutes before he returned to the bench after Gareth McAuley was sent off.
Kyle Lafferty, Martin Paterson and Jamie Ward haven't made the trip to South America and, while it is expected that O'Neill will turn to more experienced men when the European series kicks off, McKay has another opportunity to force his way into the manager's thinking in the tour's second game against Chile on Thursday morning (1am).
"It was good to get a start against top-class opposition," he said.
"I've been in and around the squad for 18 months or so now and I think the time was right for me to get a start.
"Hopefully I've done okay and I'm in the thoughts of the manager now. Every time I come away I want to impress as much as I can, whether it's in training or matches.
"Hopefully I've done that this week and there's another game to go so there's another chance to go again.
"If the manager picks me I'll be ready to go."
McKay led the attack alongside Aberdeen's Niall McGinn in Montivideo, but couldn't add to his tally of 49 goals over the last two seasons with Inverness.
That is more than any of the strikers he is competing with for a place in the Northern Ireland team and now the target for the 25-year-old is to carry his club form onto the international stage and get off the mark in the green shirt.
There was, however, more to the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay for McKay than simply the result.
"I'm a striker, I want to go out and score goals and it would be nice to grab one in Chile," he said.
"I thought we played well, kept the shape and there were positives to take."
McKay's accent gives away the fact that he was born in the English midlands – he qualifies for Northern Ireland through Belfast-born grandparents. That was discovered by former under-21 manager Steve Beaglehole, who was the player's manager at the Leicester City Academy, before he was released by the Foxes five years ago.
He spent two years at nearby Northampton Town before heading north of the border to Scotland and, after a difficult first season, his 27 goals in 2012-13 sparked interest, with former Caley boss Terry Butcher turning down a £750,000 offer from a mystery club.
McKay has another season left on his deal with Inverness, but if he can net against Chile further offers could come in.
"Maybe (Chile) are a step up, they finished higher than Uruguay in qualifying so we'll need to be on it again," said McKay.
"Hopefully we can go one better and get a goal there."