Football/Soccer

Conor McLaughlin understands squad role for Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's Conor McLaughlin up against Austria's Reinhold Ranftl during the Nations League match at Windsor Park.

DEDICATION to the collective, and honesty, explain Conor McLaughlin acknowledging Stuart Dallas as Northern Ireland's first choice right back now.

However, you can't blame him if he were dropping a subtle hint that he didn't want to be up against Erling Haaland, a striker he rates in the same bracket at Robert Lewandowski.

The Norwegian prodigy brought his Nations League tally to six goals with a hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Romania on Sunday, adding to his brace in the 5-1 victory at Windsor Park last month.

McLaughlin reckons that the 20-year-old is "right up there" in comparison to other top European strikers, adding: "He's probably one of the fastest players I have seen live, his finishing as well.

"When I went back to my club after the last game, I said to a couple of the lads him and Lewandowski, when we played against him for Poland, they are two of the best strikers I have seen…

"The thing that stood out for me was just the ruthlessness. The standard of finishing from Haaland was unbelievable. Any sniff he got, he put it away.

"He scored another three so it's not going to be easy when you're playing against players like that.

"But we've got a Premier League back four, it's good to have Jonny [Evans] back in the team which helps, so we just have to do as best as we can against him."

Stopping Haaland will obviously be difficult but not impossible, with McLaughlin recalling the Euro 2016 opener against Poland:

"It has to be a team effort and if we have a good shape, it makes it hard for teams.

"When we played against Poland, Lewandowski didn't score in that game, and it is possible to shackle players like that if the team works hard and keeps in a good shape. But they are quality players and on their day, they are very hard to stop.

"His size and strength struck me, his movement as well. Those type of players, they are always on the move, they never stand still compared to those I'm used to playing against.

"You have to be concentrating 100 per cent of the time. You can't afford to lose any focus or they're away."

The 29-year-old had a solid return to the NI starting side against Austria on Sunday night, up against Hoffenheim's Christoph Baumgartner and Bayern Munich left-back David Alaba, then later on LASK winger Reinhold Ranftl, but believes he can offer more, despite the trying circumstances:

"I think I can do a lot better than last night. I was alright but rusty in bits, first half especially, although that is to be expected as I have not really played much football club-wise or in internationals for the last while. It is enjoyable when you get to play against those types of players. I'm just disappointed the way the result went.

"Stuarty is first-choice and we have a Premier League back four, so it is going to be hard for me to get back in…

"It is unbelievable how he has been doing at Leeds and in the Premier League. He is someone you have to look up to and learn from. I played with Stuarty since I was 10.

"I know I am not first choice anymore. My job now is if I get the chance in any games it is up to me to give the manager something to think about. When you have Stuarty doing as well as he is I can't complain."

Having hardly played for Sunderland this year either, McLaughlin admits it has been "difficult, especially with the club side of things as well, because over the years I was used to playing regularly - but you just have to keep your head down, work hard, and get back to the way you know you can play and keep believing in yourself."

As well as getting back in himself, he's hoping fans can return in greater numbers to matches soon: "We obviously want fans in. Even on Sunday night with 600 supporters there it made such a difference.

"Personally, when you have different things open which aren't as safe as an open-air stadium with a lot of space, it's mad how there aren't more fans allowed in.

"Obviously safety and health comes first, but if you're going to have cinemas open, I don't see why there can't be a bigger capacity under the limitations."

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