Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Hungary: Conor McLaughlin's relishing mixing it with the best

By Julian Taylor

Exactly a year ago, Conor McLaughlin blossomed for Northern Ireland in Budapest.

Manager Michael O'Neill unearthed an international gem as the defender's assured performance during that fine 2-1 success over Hungary has triggered an "unbelievable" experience, with the national team at the summit of Euro 2016 qualifying Group F. The green shoots of McLaughlin's elevation emerged last summer on tour in South America. Now the Fleetwood Town man wants to meet the Magyars again at Windsor Park.

"To start in that first qualifier was unbelievable and luckily I've stayed in the team," said McLaughlin, who will win his 11th cap tonight. "We've had an unbelievable qualifying campaign and hopefully we can finish that off.

"It was a bit of a blur really, concentrating on that match [in Budapest] solely and not realising probably for a couple of days afterwards what I had personally achieved and what the team had achieved. Even now I've started every game in the qualifying campaign and I can't quite believe it myself but I suppose it'll sink in a few months from now."

Modest McLaughlin, 24, aims to overcome Bernd Storck's side again, with France next year in sight.

"Obviously everyone knows how big it is and we'll be using that as motivation," he added. "We'll be doing all we can, especially in front of a home crowd. I suppose you do have to treat it like another game when it comes down to it, but we'll know what is at stake. It's the pressure you want to have."

Facing Chile and Uruguay last year clearly helped the right-back's development.

McLaughlin admitted: "It was massive. Being away at the end of the season when obviously players are tired and even now the lads have been saying that was one of the best trips they've been on. I enjoyed it a lot.

"Before the play-off final last year, he [O'Neill] said he was going to call me into the squad, but he wasn't sure if I'd be able to go. I said 'I'll get straight on the plane after the match if you want me to' and that's what I ended up doing the morning after. I managed to put myself in those plans after the two matches."

Curiously, the transition from League One football to the Euro scene doesn't faze him.

"I don't really think about it," says McLaughlin. "I suppose playing with players in the Premiership, week-in, week-out they help me along and pass on their experience.

"All the lads made me feel welcome. Obviously I knew some from the under-21s. The style of play is something I'm used to, after playing for the under-21s against foreign teams, but it's a lot sharper [at senior level] because the players are better."

McLaughlin was yellow carded in the second half - and then substituted - during Friday's hardy 3-1 win over the Faroe Islands in Torshavn, but he instinctively understood O'Neill's rationale.

"I took the booking because they were quick on the break," he explained. "I knew straight away and that shows you how good a manager Michael is. It could have been a problem if we had went down to ten, but straight after we scored. It was a massive game and there was no way we were going to take it for granted, especially given what has happened in the past. More so because of what was at stake."

Belfast Telegraph