Fleetwood Town defender ready to realise Euro dream

Conor McLaughlin addresses the media this week ahead of Northern Irelands Euro 2016 campaign
Conor McLaughlin addresses the media this week ahead of Northern Irelands Euro 2016 campaign

Fleetwood Town defender Conor McLaughlin is braced for a baptism of fire tomorrow.

The 24-year-old is a probable starter for Northern Ireland when they open their Euro 2016 Championship campaign.

The Irish take on Poland at the Allianz Riviera, home of Nice, in their opening game.

If McLaughlin makes the starting line-up, he is set to come up against one of Europe’s most feared strikers – Robert Lewandowski.

A prolific scorer for both his club – German giants Bayern Munich – and country, 27-year-old Lewandowski can boast 34 goals to his name from 76 international appearances.

It will certainly be a far cry from the standard of strikers McLaughlin regularly goes head to head with on a weekly basis for the Cod Army in English football’s League One.

But rather than feel daunted by the prospect, the Irishman will relish the challenge of pitting his wits against one of Europe’s finest exponents in front of goal.

After all, it was not too long ago that McLaughlin was researching university courses as he contemplated giving up the game for good.

A promising young player at North End, he was tipped for a bright future and was handed his Football League debut at the age of 19 by Darren Ferguson.

Despite Ferguson’s sacking, McLaughlin remained a regular member of the North End squad as Phil Brown took over as manager.

However, disaster struck in a home game the following February when he broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in a 4-0 defeat to Bristol City.

Sitting on the sidelines, he watched on helplessly as North End suffered relegation.

Out of the game for six months, McLaughlin recovered for the start of the following season to become a prominent member of the squad.

He earned his first international call-up in October 2011 – earning the chance to share the same pitch as legendary Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo.

Handed a dream debut as a 74th minute substitute by then Irish manager Nigel Worthington, McLaughlin’s first taste of the international scene was a 3-0 Euro qualifying defeat.

Despite the loss, McLaughlin returned to North End on the crest of a wave but the tide soon began to turn.

Brown was unable to turn around PNE’s fortunes in spite of the promising start and they plummeted down the table.

He was sacked in the December and subsequently replaced by Graham Westley – and that’s when it all threatened to turn sour for McLaughlin.

From being an integral member of the squad, he would go on to make just three substitute appearances under the ex-Stevenage boss and was quickly farmed out on loan to Shrewsbury Town.

Still under contract, McLaughin returned for pre-season training in the summer of 2012 – only to find himself ostracised. He was one of eight players to be informed they were no longer welcome at the club’s Springfields training ground.

Aged just 20 at the time, the episode left McLaughlin on the verge of quitting football.

Fortunately, a route away from his ‘Westley nightmare’ was forthcoming as Micky Mellon took him to Highbury.

The rest is history.

McLaughlin nailed down a regular first-team place on the Fylde coast – appearing at Wembley as the club won promotion to League One via the play-off final under Graham Alexander – a former North End team-mate.

The move also rekindled his international career and, nearly three years on from his first appearance, he won a recall for friendlies against Uruguary and Chile.

He played in Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifiers as they topped Group F and sealed their place at a major international tournament for the first time since the World Cup, in Mexico, in 1986.

“I absolutely loved my time at Preston and it was a bitter pill to swallow when all that stuff sort of happened,” said McLaughlin of his problems with Westley.

“Westley started saying in the papers about the players being disruptive and rebellious, which wasn’t true.

“It was difficult to leave, but I had to get away and I made the right decision in the end.

“Thankfully Fleetwood gave me a chance and the last couple of years or so have been crazy to say the least both at club and international level.”

A scholar of Manchester United’s Irish-based soccer academy, McLaughlin was invited across the water for trials with the Red Devils.

Celtic, Portsmouth and Plymouth all took a look at the Belfast boy, but in the end it was a straight choice between Preston and Burnley.

McLaughlin admits he owes a massive debt of gratitude to his youth coaches at the time – Jamie Hoyland and Dean Ramsdale.

“North End gave me a great welcome when I came over at the age of 16,” McLaughlin said. “It felt like a family club.

“I got to work with Jamie and Dean – they have been two of the biggest influences in my career so far.”

Over the past year, there has reportedly been interest in the Town defender and while he is keen to test himself at the highest possible level, he is more than happy to remain with the Cod Army.

“It’s been a real honour to be part of the club’s recent success,” he said. “Obviously, winning promotion in the play-offs at Wembley under Graham has to be the highlight.

“But you just look at the club with the new training facilities, it’s just getting bigger and bigger. With the chairman’s ambition, the club wants to go even further.

“Last season was a bit of a blip with a lot of players coming and going, but we are looking to push on again next season. I have played in the Championship before and I would love to get back there at some stage.

“Whatever happens in the future, I will always be grateful to Fleetwood for handing me a opportunity and giving me the games to get my career back on track again.”