Belfast Telegraph

McCartan out to emulate Northern Ireland legend Jennings

Northern Ireland v New Zealand, Friendly: Windsor Park, June 2, 7.45pm

By Graham Luney

Shay McCartan won't be the first Newry man with a Gaelic games background to showcase his sporting talent with the senior Northern Ireland side, but if he can remain on the same pathway to success that our legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings travelled along then the future's bright for the 23-year-old.

The Accrington Stanley striker, who could make his senior Northern Ireland debut in the Windsor Park battle with New Zealand tomorrow night, was a passionate Gaelic footballer in his teenage years before the lure of professional football brought him to Burnley.

While our country's most capped player has fond memories of honing his ball handling skills as a GAA midfielder, former St Colman's College student McCartan, whose father John played for the Down senior side, also cherishes the beginning of his competitive sporting career which has now brought him to the brink of a senior international football bow.

"I moved to England when I was 16," said Shay who impressed in County Down colours back in the 2009 Milk Cup tournament.

"I played county minors that year. We beat Donegal but got beat by Tyrone. I wouldn't have been able to play in the Ulster final anyway. I played my first season at Burnley. Pete McGrath phoned me and asked if I wanted to play. I thought why not, I might as well keep fit. I played for Down minors and we got beat by Armagh.

"I won the Hogan Cup in 2009-10 and I loved the Gaelic. I probably played more Gaelic than football up until I moved to England.

"I come from a GAA family and background, but once I got the chance to go across the water, I had to take it with both hands.

"I wasn't one for school and obviously GAA isn't professional, so once I had the chance to go across the water, I jumped at it."

McCartan, whose youth career included a spell with Glenavon, is now impressing at League Two side Accrington and his first Northern Ireland call-up, for the friendly against New Zealand tomorrow and the June 10 World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan, has certainly put an extra spring in his step.

Addressing the media at the Culloden Hotel yesterday, the smile on his face meant that no words were necessary but he's still pinching himself he's now part of a group fighting to make the World Cup finals in Russia in 2018.

"I was lying in bed one Monday morning when the call came," he added. "I thought it was my mate ringing me and I thought, 'What does he want?' I was told I had been called up and I thought it was originally for the two games so I was buzzing and rang my father straight away and told him.

"As time went on I realised I wasn't called up for the games so luckily I didn't tell anyone else! I knew I had to impress at the training camp and on the second day when the boys were chilling, having a cup of coffee at the Marriott Hotel in Manchester, Michael (O'Neill) pulled me aside and said, 'You have done really well and impressed us, now you are going to be called up for the next two games'. Michael said, 'Don't be nervous and just keep doing what you are doing'.

"I didn't phone my dad then, I texted him but I had a big smirk on my face. I was meant to go on my holidays to Majorca with my team-mates at Accrington and a few of the club's old boys but I didn't go and wasn't bothered. I'd normally be in the sun somewhere or chilling at home but I'd rather do this all day long.

"I'd be delighted to play on Friday night, it would be the best moment of my career so far. For any player to play international football, that's the pinnacle. I am just looking forward to the experience whether I play or not. There will be a great atmosphere at Windsor Park.

"I watched the Euros back home and obviously looking at it thinking that's where you want to be. You hear the fans and watch the games and even for a player like Jonny Evans with all his experience it is very special to play in a tournament like that. It's the pinnacle and hopefully I can get there."

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