Washington welcomes Kyle Lafferty return to new-look NI squad for Nations League

Northern Ireland's Conor Washington (left) celebrates with team-mate Kyle Lafferty (centre) after scoring his side's second goal during an international friendly against Belarus six years ago.

NEW campaign, new club, new faces - Conor Washington was glad to see a few players he knew as Northern Ireland prepared for their forthcoming Nations League quadruple-header.

The 30-year-old particularly welcomed the return of fellow forward Kyle Lafferty, back on the panel at the age of 34 after impressing in the Scottish Premiership after going back to Kilmarnock.

The Fermanagh man has been at 14 different clubs in his career, including three loan spells, and has constantly courted controversy, but Washington has no concerns about manager Ian Baraclough bringing him back:

“For all that gets said about him off the pitch, he’s still so good at the top of the pitch. If you can get him playing regularly and scoring goals he’s going to be an asset to anybody. Off the pitch he brings what he brings and he’s brilliant to have around the place.”

Washington himself has moved onto his eighth club, signing for English Championship side Rotherham United, a step up from League One outfit Charlton Athletic. He was especially pleased to have his future sorted out so soon:

“It was nice to get it [the move] done early. With that foundation of security that I know where I’m going to be, I don’t have to be worrying about that for the next few weeks and I can just solely concentrate on these games.”

NI host Greece in Belfast tomorrow night before travelling to Cyprus and then on to Kosovo before returning to Windsor Park to face the Cypriots against on Sunday June 12.

Although nine squad regulars are absent for various reasons, including Craig Cathcart, Jamal Lewis, Shane Ferguson, Stuart Dallas, Corry Evans, and Josh Magennis, Washington has been impressed by the quality of the newcomers to the squad.

Teenager Shea Charles really caught his eye at the recent training camp, he admitted: “It’s a totally different standard now. We’ve got players that are at top clubs like Shea, who is at Manchester City, and you can tell he’s been at Man City.

“The technical ability of some of these players is frightening and I think they’re going to be knocking on the door really soon and they’re going to be making sure all of us older lads are on our game still.

“[The camp] was really good. We had players over a lot of different age groups so it was good to get everyone together. You’ve heard these names, of how good he is or how good he is, and they’re going to be the next ones to break through.

“It was great to put faces to those names to be honest and see what they’re doing day in, day out in training.

“The question always gets asked ‘Can the next generation go and be successful?’ because, obviously, the player pool is relatively small, but I think the nation is in safe hands from what I’ve seen in that camp.”

Glentoran attacker Conor McMenamin, Huddersfield Town defender Brodie Spencer, and Rangers midfielder Charlie McCann are others who should get a chance to show what they can do over the next fortnight.

“All of us will be wanting to play 90 minutes in every game,” insisted Washington, “but whether the manager thinks that’s feasible or achievable is a decision that’s down to him. We all understand it’s a squad game and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in recent years.

“Anybody that gets on that pitch will be giving everything and if you get pulled off at 60 for somebody else to come on and do the last 30 minutes or you’re that player coming on to do the last 30 then you give your all. I think the most important thing is that we get a lot of points in these four games.”

Indeed Northern Ireland are in the highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented position of being top seeds in a group, having been relegated from League B, but Washington isn’t fazed by any potential pressure: “I don’t see why we can’t go and win all four games. If you look at it on paper we might be expected to do that.”

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