Roy Carroll: Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 better than title win
REACHING Euro 2016 with Northern Ireland is a greater achievement for Roy Carroll than winning the Premier League with Manchester United.
"This is bigger," insisted the 38-year-old goalkeeper, "this is Northern Ireland. We're a small country and I have been in the first team squad since I was 18. We had really dark days playing here before and this is a really big achievement for us to get to the Euros."
The Enniskillen man won the English title with the Old Trafford side in the 2002-3 season during his four-year spell there and admits it was a tough environment to play in, but one that improved him.
"When you go to Man United, you have players like Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt: all winners," Carroll said.
"It makes you think that, to go there, you have to concentrate. It's a very difficult place, some players can do it, some can't. When I was there, I learned a lot from the players there and it made me stronger. Made me feel really good.
"Sir Alex Ferguson was the manager and he taught me a lot. The hunger of players like Gary and Phil Neville, Giggsy, Ronaldo came in. It was full of world-class players."
Paddy McNair is the latest Northern Irishman seeking to become a first-team regular, with international colleagues Jonny and Corry Evans, Olly Norwood, Craig Cathcart and Luke McCullough all having left Old Trafford in search of first-team football.
Carroll confirmed he talks to the Ballyclare lad about his club career, saying: "Paddy is a good young lad, he knows what he wants. We speak about Man United, we speak about a lot of things.
"We all do when we are away for 10 days together. There's not a lot else you can do. He has played a few games this season and had a few injuries, then came back in. At his age, you have to keep working. Life is tough, if you want to play at the top, if you want to play at Man U, Barcelona you have to win every game and work."
Carroll himself is putting the effort in, trying to regain a starting slot and says he feels as young as McNair: "I'm like a 21-year-old lad again. It's brilliant. You go training and it's such a pleasure playing for your country and you have to make the most of it.
"It's once in a lifetime, especially for those of us like me who do not have long left. It's a great pleasure playing for your country and qualifying for a major tournament. You can see for yourself that everybody is relaxed and happy and joking, but we are not going to go there like a holiday. We are going there on business as professionals, to do a job and go as far as we can in the tournament."
Having had personal problems at West Ham, Carroll revitalised his career in Greece and is relishing his continuing career: "I'm loving every minute of this. I have had bad times off the pitch, like when I was at West Ham. Everybody knows what happened to me down there. I moved away and played in Greece.
"I ended up playing for Olympiakos. I won the title out there, got back in the Champions League and the Europa League. It changed my life and I came back playing for Northern Ireland and, now, I just can't wait for the summer."
A stomach injury ruled him out against Romania last June and fellow Fermanagh man Michael McGovern took over the number one jersey for the rest of qualifying - and for the Euro 16 squad.
Yet Carroll, who recently signed for Linfield, refuses to regard himself merely as back-up, saying: "It's good to have that challenge, it makes you work harder and play better."
Indeed, Carroll kept clean sheets in the recent friendlies against Slovenia and Belarus, saving a penalty in the former game: "I'm concentrating on this tournament. I missed the last five games and want to get back into the team."