Tom Flanagan still learning with Northern Ireland at 30

Tom Flanagan with previous Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill (left) at Windsor Park in September 2019.

TAKE a century of caps off both Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci and they'll still have more than Tom Flanagan.

The Sunderland player has joined the Italian legends in the thirty-something club now, but his next target is simply to reach double figures for Northern Ireland.

Before Italy there is Lithuania at Windsor Park this Friday night, as World Cup Uefa qualifying group C concludes with a home double-header. Flanagan is keen to play a part to begin undoing the bad memory of the last match, the 2-1 defeat in Sofia, which he started for his eighth cap:

"I want to get that Bulgaria game out of the way and play another one so Bulgaria's not the last one I've played in. We were really in control and definitely shouldn't have lost that game so it was very disappointing. We want to put that behind us and move on now. Hopefully I can be out there on Friday.

"Two 90 minutes would be brilliant. I come into every camp wanting to play. I understand sometime why I don't but I want to play. I've a fairly good record for Northern Ireland."

Flanagan feels he can learn not only from the Italian veterans but the likes of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart with Northern Ireland:

"Absolutely. That's one of the reasons I've stayed in the squad as long as I have, even though I have had players in front of me - I learn from them every day in training, I watch them when I don't play, and then we play against some unbelievable players and I get a 'front row seat'.

"Obviously I'd like to play in every game but that's not the case. To play in the Italy game would be brilliant. They are players, I've seen videos, I've seen games live, and they're the pedestal really, so to be involved would be absolutely brilliant."

After Italy on Monday night it's a long time until the next competitive matches, the Nations League games next summer, then Euro qualifiers in March 2023, so Flanagan says the focus will be on these two matches even though qualification hopes ended last month:

"The group knows that, the next set of games are so far away, so give absolutely everything you've got to be in these two teams.

"Then play well at your club so when it comes to March and the summer you're in a good position, where the manager's looking at you to play more games and get away from six, seven, eight, nine caps and be 10-plus - and be a real, fully-fledged member of the squad."

Manager Ian Baraclough has had to chop and change the team throughout this campaign, due to injuries and absences for other reasons, but at least that has given wider international experience to more players, which Flanagan feels will benefit the panel ahead of Euro 2024:

"Definitely that is massive. People look at teams coming into games and they highlight the players who don't have too many international caps and say 'Oh, it's a different stage for them', they see it as a weakness.

"So the more players we can have with more caps, that will put us in a stronger position going forward.

"With the friendlies coming up [next spring], and these two games being competitive - even if there isn't too much to play for - you're playing for your place for the future campaign. Everyone knows that, it's quite obvious to see in the two days' training we've had, that everyone wants to play, that this is the start of something new now."

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