Belfast Telegraph

Conor Hazard hoping to make the grade at Celtic and push back into Northern Ireland senior squad


Safe pair of hands: Northern Ireland U-21 keeper Conor Hazard
Safe pair of hands: Northern Ireland U-21 keeper Conor Hazard

By Steven Beacom

Highly-rated Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard is relishing the chance to kick-off Northern Ireland's latest European Championship Under-21 qualifying campaign in style tomorrow night.

Hazard is primed to play for Ian Baraclough's side against Malta at the Ballymena Showgrounds and is determined that the class of 2019 can match and better the achievements of their predecessors.

The Downpatrick native was in the Northern Ireland Under-21 squad that produced heroics in the last Euro campaign, almost reaching the finals for the first time ever. Baraclough's boys beat eventual tournament winners Spain in the group stages.

"Our last campaign was absolutely amazing but we are looking to improve on it this time and qualify," the 21-year-old said.

"We want to start well on Friday, deliver a really strong performance and get a win on the board early on."

Hazard has already won a senior cap and insists the Under-21 stars are encouraged that senior boss Michael O'Neill is willing to give youngsters their chance.

"It's very good that so many of the players have kicked on from the Under-21s to the senior squad," said Hazard.

"It's due to the system and we know now that if anyone has a good spell with the 21s they are under consideration to move up.

"That is a great boost for everyone's confidence and gives the players that extra drive to go and perform."

Hazard joined up with his international buddies on the back of his club having their best result of the season so far - a 2-0 league win over Rangers at Ibrox despite much criticism and doubt being levelled at treble-treble winners in the build-up to the Old Firm derby.

"We don't doubt ourselves. Everyone else can talk and if people want to put us down because of the three previous seasons we've had and the record we have that's up to them," Hazard added.

"Obviously people want to try and put pressure on us but we don't look at that and just focus on ourselves and put in performances that will do the job and it did at Ibrox."

Hazard has been at Celtic since he was a teenager and his dream is to become number one for the Hoops. Currently behind new loan signing Fraser Forster and Craig Gordon, Hazard is working hard in training and declares if a first-team opportunity comes his way he will be ready.

"My aim is to make the grade with Celtic. I need to keep my head down, work hard and try to impress in training every day.

"I'm waiting for my opportunity to play and when that opportunity arrives I have to take it. Whenever I'm thrown in I'll be ready to go," he said.

"Working with the other goalkeepers and training with them every day is very good for me because I'm just 21 and I'm still trying to learn and develop."

On loan spells in the past two seasons, Hazard has helped Scottish Championship clubs Partick Thistle and Falkirk avoid relegation. He admits making it a hat-trick of loan deals is a possibility.

"I'll see what Celtic have planned for me but if things don't work out between now and January in terms of matches I would be looking to get more game time out on loan. If that happens hopefully I can get the right club for me."

N Ireland U21 vs Malta U21

European Championship qualifying:

Ballymena Showgrounds, Friday, 7.30pm

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