West Belfast lad is so proud of a great career sadly cut short by injury at just 30
Budapest, September 7, 2014 and a star was born for Northern Ireland. It was the start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers with Michael O’Neill needing to hit the ground running following a poor World Cup campaign.
He chose Fleetwood Town’s Conor McLaughlin at right-back. McLaughlin made his international debut as a substitute versus Italy and Andrea Pirlo three years earlier in Nigel Worthington’s last game in charge and featured under O’Neill against Uruguay and Chile in a summer tour a few months before but even so this was a shock call.
The inspired move was rewarded with a composed, controlled and confident display by the then 23-year-old in a dramatic 2-1 victory over Hungary that set the tone for a spectacular qualification for the country’s first major tournament in three decades.
McLaughlin was magnificent throughout playing in nine out of 10 group games. Highly impressive on the pitch, his genuine and friendly nature earned him respect off it amongst more established team-mates.
At that time it seemed he would be around with Northern Ireland for many years to come. Today he is retired at the age of 30 due to injury with football fate showing while it can give it can also take away.
We are chatting one month after McLaughlin announced he was quitting the game, reflecting on a career that led him from the Glen Road in west Belfast to Preston, Shrewsbury on loan, Fleetwood, Millwall, Sunderland and Fleetwood again plus 43 Northern Ireland appearances, including a few with brother Ryan, a match in the Euro 2016 finals and nutmegging a couple of German players in the blink of an eye in a memorable moment at Windsor Park.
“There were a lot of ups and downs like any football career but looking back on it now with the messages I’ve had I achieved quite a lot to be fair,” says McLaughlin.
“I’m grateful for that and really proud of my time with Northern Ireland. I was thinking recently about some of the times Northern Ireland fans had in the past, like when they were waiting to see the team score their next goal never mind winning the next game, so to come into a squad that ended up qualifying for the Euros after those difficult times was a huge deal.”
McLaughlin started against Poland in the Euro finals but after a 1-0 defeat in Nice, O’Neill shuffled his pack with Conor missing out on the second group game when Ukraine were defeated 2-0 in a Kings of Lyon coronation and the rest of the tournament.
“The Euros was probably the best time and the worst time in my career,” states McLaughlin.
“On a personal level it is very disappointing when you don’t play and it was frustrating to be left out in France but the lads went on to get through to the knockout stages and we were a really close group so whoever was playing everybody supported each other.
“In the World Cup qualifying campaign that followed I had to work my way back into the team. To lose out in a play-off (against Switzerland) at the end was gutting.”
Much more pleasing was playing at the highest level with his younger sibling.
“We played football all our lives together and at the time we thought it was just a continuation of playing on the streets as kids but when I look back now it was brilliant brothers playing for Northern Ireland. Jonny and Corry Evans were doing the same. It’s crazy to think we went from playing football in the streets, at school and in junior sides all the way to Northern Ireland’s senior team,” says Conor who along with Morecambe’s Ryan is starting up a property investment company called ‘Pitch to Property’ directed mainly at sports stars and footballers but open to everyone else.
Husband to Rebecca and doting dad to Niall (6) and Mila (3), McLaughlin, who has an older brother Cormac, throws bouquets at parents Colm and Moya for the positive role they played in his sporting life.
“Without my family my football career wouldn’t have happened,” he says.
“My dad used to bring me and four other team-mates to training every night of the week. When I was playing for different teams or doing different sports he would finish work, get in the door at quarter to six and be straight out with me to eight or nine at night.
“Him and Mum literally used to slave away and bring me everywhere. I really appreciate all that they have done for me.
“My wife Rebecca has also been a huge support and gave me the chance to move around the country to different clubs putting her life on hold. Without that backing, things would have been a lot harder.”
Another Conor, in the shape of Liverpool star Bradley, looks destined to be Northern Ireland’s right-back moving forward.
McLaughlin says: “Conor is obviously a good player being at Liverpool and you see the tenacity he has. He’s fearless and is not worried about who he goes up against. It’s great having a player like that coming through.”
Just as it was when Conor McLaughlin did so. He was a fine performer for Northern Ireland and his vital role in helping take the nation to the promised land of Euro 2016 should never be forgotten.
Conor McLaughlin has detailed the ‘scary’ 16 month period when his football career was shattered by a series of injuries, setbacks and worry ultimately leading to him retiring from playing in April at the age of 30.
To the outside world, professional football is all glitz, glamour and glory, but for Northern Ireland hero McLaughlin his final days as a highly respected defender at club and international level brought nothing but pain, forcing him into a decision that was made with his future and family in mind, the Belfast man admitting he didn’t want to be left “crawling up the stairs” in later life.
Reflecting on a testing and difficult time, that started in January last year when he was at Sunderland, McLaughlin told Sunday Life Sport: “I had a couple of hernia surgeries and some complications from that. At the time Sunderland had a defensive crisis. I had my second hernia surgery and rushed back from that in two weeks when the average recovery time is a month to six weeks.
“I played half a game still in pain and started the last game of the season before the Play-Offs and felt something crack at the end of the first half.
“I thought that was weird and came off thinking it was a trapped nerve. I got a scan when it wasn’t clearing up and I had a stress fracture of my sacrum, which is the weirdest bone you can fracture. It’s in your pelvis area and when I went to see a specialist he said he’d never ever seen it before in a footballer, so I knew that wasn’t good news.
“The recovery from that actual bone injury was 12 weeks after I’d been released by Sunderland. That was a scary time because you don’t want to be injured for a long time and out of contract.
“I managed to get in some sort of shape to go to Fleetwood to train for a week to see where I was at. The day I signed for Fleetwood earlier this season I tore my groin!
“Then after getting back I was only able to train two days a week at Fleetwood and having injections to play on a Saturday, repeating that process for about eight to 10 weeks.
“I got another groin tear on Boxing Day and had a lot of pain. Over that whole process I was obviously thinking ‘how long can this go on for?’. I was thinking when I was older I didn’t want to be in a position where I would be crawling up the stairs.
“Early this year I went to see the guy who had done my hernia surgeries and he diagnosed me with a couple of things that would make it near enough impossible to continue playing and referred me to another specialist, and he talked about retirement.
“I had never had that many injuries, so having to retire was a shock to the system, especially at 30. But I had to think about my future and my family.
“I think I have now come to terms with it.”
The first Euro 2016 qualifying game in Hungary when we won 2-1. Before it I felt a little bit of nerves but not as nervous as I thought I might which is probably why I felt comfortable during the match. Even though we lost I also enjoyed facing Germany at home because it was the first big team with big starts that I played against.
Best moment in your career?
Reaching the Euros. That whole qualifying campaign was amazing and the party we had in Finland at the end of it was unbelievable. Another was my first goal for Northern Ireland against Azerbaijan and winning at Wembley twice, once with Fleetwood and once with Sunderland.
Worst moment in football?
Having to retire and being dropped after the first group game versus Poland in France at the Euros. That hurt a lot. After playing nearly every game in qualifying, any footballer will tell you something like that would hurt.
At international level, Germany’s Thomas Muller for his movement or Erling Haaland when we played Norway. Haaland is a beast. He stood offside all the time and then you’d think you were going to win a header and he’d come and nudge you out of the way and you wouldn’t know what happened. He is going to destroy the Premier League with Manchester City next season. At club level, Diogo Jota, now at Liverpool.
Best player you played with?
Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes, Chris Brunt and a lot of the players in the Northern Ireland squad in my time were quality, but if I had to narrow it down I’d say Davo and Jonny. Davo was class and, for someone who played at such a high level for so long, there was nothing big time about him. He’s a hard working, humble guy who has not forgotten where he came from. Jonny’s the same. He’s played in Premier League winning teams at Manchester United and you wouldn’t know it. He’s such a nice guy. As a young player, playing with both of them they just wanted to help you, which tells you a lot about them.
Most influential manager you played under?
Michael O’Neill for Northern Ireland. He gave me a chance when I don’t think many other managers would have done and bringing me through the whole Euro 2016 qualifying campaign was unbelievable. At club level I would say Graham Alexander and Uwe Rosler at Fleetwood. Rosler was probably the best man manager that I had. He was sort of crazy but he knew how to get the best out of you.
The first Euro 2016 qualifying game in Hungary when we won 2-1. Before it I felt a little bit of nerves. Even though we lost I also enjoyed facing Germany at home.