Chelsea teenager Sam McClelland says his dream debut with Northern Ireland has got him thirsty for more action on the international stage.
The 19-year-old earned his first cap as a late replacement for Cardiff City defender Ciaron Brown in Thursday night’s 1-0 friendly defeat in Ukraine.
Centre-back McClelland, who has yet to play for the Blues’ first team, now wants to build on a night at the Dnipro Arena he will never forget.
“To make my debut at this age and so early in my career is such a big thing for me and I just hope it’s the start of many more caps and appearances for my country,” said McClelland, who joined Chelsea from Coleraine Academy in 2018.
“It was a dream come true for me. To make my senior debut for Northern Ireland has been my goal in football since I started playing competitively.
“I want to keep improving because playing at this level is where I want to belong.
“I want to try and make coming with the senior team normality and not just a special occasion, so the focus now for me is to really push on.”
McClelland, who signed his first professional contract in July 2019, has played for the Stamford Bridge club at both U23 and U18 level.
The Limavady native says he was determined to take the big moment in his stride.
“I saw the gaffer turn around and he called me to get ready to come on,” he said after the game. “I looked at it as a challenge to face head on. I wanted to give it my best and not fear anything.
"It’s what I’ve always dreamed of and to get on was a really nice feeling, but it also gives me that feeling of working harder and pushing on to next season. My game has developed. I’ve got bigger and stronger, but also technically and tactically more aware, so my game has pushed on and I just want to continue that progression.”
McClelland was the second Northern Ireland teenager in five days to make his debut after Liverpool right-back Conor Bradley came on in the 3-0 win over Malta.
The 17-year-old, who was fast-tracked into the Anfield club’s U23 squad last season, came on as a late substitute for acting captain Stuart Dallas in Austria.
“When I was first called up to the squad I received a lot of messages from friends and family and I’m sure it’ll be the same after making my debut,” said McClelland. “I’m just sure they’re so proud, like me, and it’s a dream come true.”
Manager Ian Baraclough says patience is required as his young players find their feet in international football.
“You have to have patience,” said Baraclough. “We can’t just expect that these young players come in and hit the ground running, and suddenly are at a level where it has taken years for Jonny (Evans), Craig and Stuart Dallas to be.”