Belfast Telegraph

I can step up to become NI's Jamie Vardy, says Washington

By Marshall Gillespi

Queens Park Rangers striker Conor Washington wants to become Northern Ireland's Jamie Vardy by making it all the way from non-league football to the Euro 2016 Finals this summer.

Vardy, who only six years ago was playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels, looks a cast iron certainty to be named in Roy Hodgson's 23-man squad for France after a sensational season in the Premier League with Leicester City.

Washington has followed a similar path club-wise and is appreciative of the chance he has been given by Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill who drafted the 23-year-old striker into his squad just five years after he was playing for non-league St Ives Town and earning a living as a postman.

"It doesn't seem that long ago I was playing part-time football for St Ives Town, who were five steps down from the Conference, and delivering mail for a living," recalled Washington, who has been under O'Neill's radar for over 12 months.

"In my youth I had trails with Norwich City and, ironically, Peterborough United but unfortunately nothing materialised from those

"To be honest I had more or less given up hope of ever playing the game professionally and had even considered joining the RAF at one stage!

"I was though enjoying my football at St Ives and in one season I actually scored 53 goals in 50 games, then the opportunity arose for me to go to Newport County and I jumped at the chance."

Born in Chatham in Kent, Washington has always been aware of his Irish roots and although he could have also played for Scotland there was never any doubt in his mind who he was going to declare for.

"I've always known that I was eligible to play football for Northern Ireland as my Grandmother was from Belfast," he says.

"I could have also played for Scotland as my mother is from there, but that was never really an option much to my mother's disappointment.

"My gran, who passed away 10 years ago, lived in England, so I've never actually been to Northern Ireland but I still have relations living in and around the Belfast area."

After 16 months at Newport County, Washington was on the move to League One side Peterborough United the club that once rejected him as a teenager.

"I joined Peterborough in the January, but it took me a while to settle in," he explained. "But this season everything just seemed to fall into place and the goals started to come fairly regularly.

"My agent, Kevin Nicholls who used to play with Michael O'Neill, said a few clubs were expressing an interest in me, which was flattering.

"Michael (O'Neill) also came along and watched me in a couple of FA Cup games and I managed to knock in a few goals while he was in the stands."

In 39 games for Posh this season Washington scored 15 goals and speculation was rife that a move away from London Road was imminent before the January transfer window shut.

Once Charlie Austin's departure to Southampton was confirmed Queens Park Rangers made their move and splashed out £2.8million for his services.

"It's a terrific move for me; to go from Conference to the Championship in four years is unbelievable really.

"I wouldn't say there is a real step-up in class from League One to the Championship, I think the main difference though is in the final third where there's a lot more quality. It has been difficult coming into a team in the middle of the season, but I feel I am adapting well and beginning to adjust to the pace of the game, all I need now is a goal to get me on my way.

His former team-mate at Peterborough United, Michael Smith, also received his first call up to the senior side so there will be at least one familiar face when the squad meets up this weekend.

He says: "I'm delighted that Michael will be joining me as well. It will be good to meet up him again as I haven't spoken to him much since I moved to QPR.

"I don't actually know any other players in the panel but I'm obviously aware of who they are from watching the games on TV during the qualifying campaign."

Looking ahead to the Wales and Slovenia games, he is under no illusions just how difficult it is going to be to be part of the Northern Ireland set-up heading to France in just under three months.

"I would love nothing better than to make to the Euros but there are a lot of quality striker's ahead of me at the minute so I have to be realistic.

"Obviously everyone knows about Kyle Lafferty and I've played against Will Grigg a few times and he always seems to score!

"But there is also Liam Boyce, Josh Magennis and Billy McKay who are all banging in the goals up in Scotland.

"The main thing now though is I've managed to get a call up into the squad so it's up to me to show the manager, players and the fans what I can do and that I deserve to be here."

"If I did manage to make it to France with Northern Ireland it would be a dream come true, as everyone wants to pit themselves against the best players in the world."

Belfast Telegraph