Belfast Telegraph

QPR's Conor Washington can storm in like Norman Whiteside for Northern Ireland at Euro2016

By Steven Beacom

World Cup hero Billy Hamilton is hoping Northern Ireland new boy Conor Washington can emerge as a modern day Norman Whiteside, coming from nowhere to make an impact at the Euro 2016 finals.

QPR striker Washington has been called into the Northern Ireland squad for the first time by manager Michael O'Neill ahead of a double header against Wales and Slovenia and is expected to make his debut in Thursday's friendly in Cardiff.

For Northern Ireland great Hamilton, who played in the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals, Washington's late run into O'Neill's plans echoes when Whiteside was thrust into the limelight by Billy Bingham.

The then teenage Whiteside impressed in Northern Ireland's training camp prior to the 1982 World Cup and Bingham pulled off a masterstroke by playing him throughout the tournament, with the 17-year-old Manchester United star becoming the youngest player in the competition's history.

At 23, English-born Washington, who qualifies for Northern Ireland through his Belfast grandmother, won't break any records like that but by shining over the next week could break into O'Neill's 23-man squad for France.

"Conor Washington is in the squad for the first time and I'll be really interested to see how he gets on," said Hamilton.

"Michael will have a good look at him in training and in matches. He'll also keep an eye to see how he blends into the environment.

"By giving Washington a call-up, Michael O'Neill has dangled a carrot in front of a player who wasn't involved in the qualifying campaign and it is up to him now to grab it.

"In a way the situation reminds me of Norman Whiteside coming into our 1982 World Cup squad having not played at all in qualifying.

"Before the tournament we had a training camp in Brighton for a few weeks and Norman's performances on the training pitch were so good that he ended up making the squad for Spain.

"The manager Billy Bingham started Norman in our first match against Yugoslavia and it proved a clever move. He went on to become one of the stars of the tournament for us which shows what can happen.

"That can be an incentive for a player like Washington coming in now without any senior international experience in the past.

"It was a fairytale for Norman and it could be the same for Conor. It would be great to see him make an impact and really improve the squad. It's all about taking his chance though."

Hamilton adds that as well as assessing the ability of Washington, O'Neill will use the next two games to find a replacement for left-back Chris Brunt, who will miss the finals due to injury.

"There have been suggestions that Michael will change the formation for these games but come the summer I would be surprised if he didn't operate the system that took Northern Ireland to the finals," said Hamilton (below), who won 41 caps.

"It is tried and tested. I think the question for me is whether he sticks with Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans as his centre-back partnership or brings Craig Cathcart into the middle of defence.

"Cathcart has had an outstanding season for Watford and I could see him fitting in nicely with McAuley and Evans moving to left-back.

"Jonny has played that position before for West Brom and at international level so it may come more natural to him than putting Cathcart there."

Belfast Telegraph