Conor McLaughlin seeking to promote himself at Euro 2016

Conor McLaughlin in action for Northern Ireland against Hungary during Euro 2016 qualifying
Picture by Cliff Donaldson

PLAYING alongside Premier League regulars for Northern Ireland has convinced Conor McLaughlin he can cut it at a higher level too.

The Fleetwood Town right-back has not looked out of place - or been caught out of position - next to West Bromwich Albion tro Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans, the now-injured Chris Brunt and Watford’s Craig Cathcart.

Now, the 24-year-old is aiming to feature higher than the third-tier of English football by continuing to impress at Euro 2016. Several squad members have talked about the tournament being a ‘shop window’ and the west Belfast man agreed with that description.

“Yeah, exactly. I have to treat it like that. I want to play at as high a level as I can, there’ll be few of the lads like that. No better stage than a major championship," he said.

“Obviously, I’m grateful for what Fleetwood have provided me with, playing week in, week out, that’s what I needed when I was younger and that’s helped me get into the squad. I’ll always be grateful to them - but obviously I want to push on.”

McLaughlin acknowledges he has made exceptional progress to become a regular, starting the first eight qualifiers before suspension ruled him out of the clincher at home to Greece.

“It’s been a mad couple of years… It’s weird, I was thinking myself before the [Belarus] game [last Friday], to even be involved… I wouldn’t have been thinking when I was younger that I’d be playing for Northern Ireland - and now qualifying for a major tournament, considering it’s been a long, long time. A lot of other players have had to wait a long time for this and this is my first full campaign.”

His attitude impressed manager Michael O’Neill, exemplified by Conor flying out to Uruguay two years ago for a South American tour, just days after winning the League Two play-off final with Fleetwood.

Even that elevation has left him far away from the top-flight and he admits international football “is a massive step up. You have to make sure you’re 100 per cent concentrated all the time, which is a hard thing for any player," he added.

“Obviously, the quality of the players [at international level] is much higher, but the lads have helped me massively. I’m playing with amazing players - we’ve got a core of [English] Premiership players, so that’s helped me a lot as well.”

Asked how they have helped, he responds: “Just their experience, talking to me on the pitch and learning things off them in training every time, putting those into my game."

And the biggest thing learned with Northern Ireland: “That you’re more likely to get punished if you make a mistake at this level. Obviously, that makes you focus more, that’s the main thing.

“It is harder, but you have to make sure you concentrate on playing your own game and not think negatively.”

He practices what he preaches, on the subject of what he and his team-mates can achieve in France: “Anything’s possible. We’ve shown that in qualifying and the confidence and belief that we have after qualifying top helps with that - the lads are absolutely buzzing going into this. Hopefully, we can get through the group stage.”

Next up is the last pre-tournament friendly, on Saturday away to Slovakia, who beat Germany, the favourites in the North’s Group C, 3-1 last Sunday: “Slovakia is going to be a tough game,” says, McLaughin, “they’ve beaten Spain [in qualifying].

“We know it’s going to be tough and, obviously, momentum has been a massive thing for us during the campaign, so we’ll be looking to go there and pick up a result."

Further into the future, he’s confident he’ll be joined in the squad by his younger brother Ryan, who has arguably attracted more attention than Conor: “That’s more to do with the club he plays for [Liverpool],” says his protective sibling.

“It’s not Ryan’s fault, he’s going to go on to have a massive career, I know that myself. We’ve both supported each other. I’m looking forward to helping him back into the squad in the future, he’s just been unfortunate with injuries.”

Barring any such problems, Conor should start against Poland in Nice on June 12 - a high profile opportunity to show prospective employers what he can do.

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