Belfast Telegraph

Conor McLaughlin relishing chance to impress Michael O'Neill after Wembley joy

By Liam BLackburn

Wembley winner Conor McLaughlin had a spring in his step as he boarded a 13-hour flight bound for Uruguay yesterday, where his brother and the rest of his Northern Ireland team-mates were awaiting his arrival.

The 22-year-old Fleetwood Town full-back capped a memorable six days by following his call-up to Michael O'Neill's squad with victory in the League Two play-off final against Burton on Monday.

Most of his family were present to see what McLaughlin termed his "best feeling in football" at Wembley, but there was one notable absentee, with younger brother Ryan, who is on Liverpool's books, already in South America with his international colleagues.

The elder sibling will not have to wait long to receive his congratulations in person, though, after his long-haul flight for Uruguay, which followed a night celebrating Fleetwood's sixth promotion in nine years.

"He rang me up actually when I was coming back in from the pitch at Wembley and told me I'll be rooming with him when I get over to Uruguay," said Conor.

"It's a very proud moment for my family and they were all over at Wembley, they're very proud of what I've achieved."

While the rest of the Cod Army team are now planning their holiday getaways this week, the McLaughlins will instead be focused on Northern Ireland's friendly fixtures against World Cup opposition in the shape of Uruguay and Chile – whom they face on Friday and next Wednesday respectively.

Conor has just one international cap to his name so far, a baptism of fire which came as a 20-year-old when he was at Preston against four-time world champions Italy in 2011, six months before the Italians reached the final of Euro 2012.

Now the likes of Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Alexis Sanchez await, but the full-back is at least able to face up to such daunting challenges on the back of glory with his club.

"It's really hard to believe," he said.

"It's the best feeling I've had in football so far, I'll soak it up and I'm looking forward to getting a rest. It's a plus and we'll celebrate, but it's a happy feeling going away.

"I'm off on a 13-hour flight to Uruguay so I can't rest just yet. Obviously I'm looking forward to that and then a good rest after it is over."

With a host of senior figures such as Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty not available to O'Neill, the likes of the McLaughlin brothers, uncapped defensive duo Luke McCullough of Doncaster and Liam Donnelly from Fulham, Dundee United midfielder Paul Paton and Accrington forward James Gray will be given opportunities to earn their international spurs when they face two teams who are in the final stages of their preparations for Brazil.

The news that Conor was in the squad was greeted with delight by Fleetwood last Wednesday as it provided a further indication of their remarkable growth over the past decade.

However, McLaughlin himself was unaware that he was making history by becoming the first player to receive an international call-up while on the club's books.

"Actually one of the lads said that to me a couple of days after I'd got called up," he admitted.

"Obviously it's a great honour and I'm looking forward to joining up with the lads.

"It's been a while since I have been involved, because I am too old now for the under-21s and I am looking forward to getting back in.

"The matches are important and I want to make the most of any minutes I get on the pitch."

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