Belfast Telegraph

Luke McCullough: I'd be cheering Northern Ireland from stands had I missed cut

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's young defender Luke McCullough has revealed that even if he had not been selected for the Euro 2016 squad, he would be going to France this month as a fan.

The 22-year-old Doncaster centre-back was one of manager Michael O'Neill's borderline choices for the 23-man squad and now, having been given the nod, is determined to make the best of the experience.

Instead of being in the stands cheering on the team, McCullough might be on the pitch. He is behind the likes of Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, Craig Cathcart and Aaron Hughes in the pecking order, but as previous tournaments have shown lesser lights can come from nowhere and shine brighter than the rest.

Read more: Everything the Green and White Army needs to know 

"I wanted to make Michael's mind up that I'm good enough to warrant a place in the squad," said McCullough.

"And now that I am in the squad I want to make the most of it. I'd be going as a fan if I wasn't as a player, so I'd be going to France regardless. Going as part of the squad is very special to me."

Portadown native McCullough has played in midfield in the past but prefers the centre-back option and knows that if O'Neill opts for a three-man defence, as has been the case in recent friendlies, there will be a better chance of game time.

"I enjoy both centre-half and centre midfield; I'm not sure I could pick one over the other. Probably centre-half, if I'm being honest, but I wouldn't have a problem playing at either," he said.

"The spine of the team is very strong but centre-back is maybe our strongest position. If there's three centre-halves on the pitch it might mean they need a couple more on the bench."

McCullough played on a few occasions as a substitute during the successful qualifying campaign, most notably for the last five minutes on that unforgettable October night when Northern Ireland beat Greece 3-1 at Windsor Park to make it to the finals.

"I came on a couple of times at Windsor, which was unbelievable with my mates and family there," he recalled.

"Those were definitely good moments. The Greece game was brilliant. We knew we'd done it with half an hour to go, so we could nearly enjoy that last half an hour.

"Being on the pitch when the whistle went, and we knew we'd qualified, was an amazing moment. The memories are brilliant and we'll be hoping to make a few more memories in France."

McCullough's time away with the international team will ease the pain of a disappointing club season with Doncaster, which saw Rovers relegated from League One.

"It definitely wasn't nice, something I don't want to happen again in my club career, that's for sure, but you try to put it behind you and move on," said McCullough, whose love of football began on the streets of Portadown.

"We'll be trying to bounce straight back into League One again. We have to learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again.

"I have the Euros to look forward to and that can take my mind off the club scene for a while, I suppose."

Having started his professional career at Manchester United, McCullough is one of the few players who can say he has worked under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson and his son Darren, who is the boss at Doncaster.

"Darren is very good. He is similar to his dad in many ways. He is a good manager who has lots of passion for the game. He can only help me improve," said McCullough.

"With United I was going over for a few years and then moved there full-time at 16. It was a good start, everything's there for you and the facilities are unbelievable. People say the only way is down from there. It was a good grounding, a good start to try to learn the trade, the game.

"Sir Alex was the manager the whole time I was there. He was at the top of the club so everything was in line under that. There was definitely much to learn from him and down through the club. It was a good grounding for me.

"We saw plenty of him, he would always say 'hello' to you, ask you how you were getting on or ask what's been going on. It was definitely good to have him there.

"Paul McGuinness would have been the youth team manager when I was there. He was very good with me, a good coach who helped me in my early days, helped me with my game.

"I was captain of the youth team there - it's only a youth team, I suppose, but… it was definitely an honour.

"The time came when I thought 'I'm probably not going to play for the first team' so I had to get out and try to establish myself with some first team football and I've managed to do that at Doncaster. I'll just be trying to play more and more games, improve and see where it takes me."

Belfast Telegraph