McLaughlin must fight for Northern Ireland starting spot

Fleetwood Town's Conor McLaughlin battles with Barnsley's Sam Winnall  Photographer Bethany Hankey/CameraSport
Fleetwood Town's Conor McLaughlin battles with Barnsley's Sam Winnall Photographer Bethany Hankey/CameraSport

Town defender Conor McLaughlin faces a battle for the Northern Ireland right-back spot for this summer’s UEFA European Championships in France.

McLaughlin started in Northern Ireland’s 1-1 draw against Wales on Thursday but was named on the bench for the 1-0 win over Slovenia at Windsor Park on Easter Monday as manager Michael O’Neill opted to give Peterborough United full-back Michael Smith his first cap.

The 27-year-old gave a composed performance but McLaughlin came off the bench to replace him and played the final 19 minutes as the Irish extended their unbeaten run to 10 games.

Competition for places throughout the side is rife but Town star McLaughlin is still on course to be in the final 23- man squad for France.

And his Town team-mate Jimmy Ryan says the full-back deserves to be on that plane to the Euros.

Ryan said: “We watch them (Conor and striker Wes Burns, who played for the Wales U21s last night). I hope they do well. They deserve it.

“Conor has been a great player for Fleetwood this year and last year, and he deserves his chance. Hopefully he can keep playing and keep fit for the summer.”

McLaughlin has eight games left of Fleetwood’s League One season to impress O’Neill and Northern Ireland have two more friendlies before Euro 2016 kicks off.

The Green and White Army host Belarus at Windsor Park in May and travel to Slovakia in June before they face Poland in their opening Euro 2016 match on June 12.

And Town keeper Chris Maxwell backed the defender to shine if he gets the nod for the big stage.

Maxwell said: “Me and Conor have played together for a long time.

“This is our fourth season together at Fleetwood. Through all of the chopping and changing that has gone on in the last couple of years, we have always stayed together.

“He is a big player for us and he has shown that through his performances here, his performances for Northern Ireland and the summer he has ahead of him. He is a fantastic asset to the club.”

Town’s on-loan Bristol City forward Burns was in action for the Wales U 21 side in their Euro U21 qualifying game away to Romania in Medias last night.

Burns started but Wales lost the game 2-1.

But while the duo have been away, Town’s three- point cushion from the drop has been slashed and they are now level on points with 21st-placed Oldham.

Oldham still occupy the last relegation spot due to Town’s superior goal difference – Steven Pressley’s men are on -5 compared to the Latics’ -13.

Town slipped nearer to the drop without even kicking a ball in anger on Easter Monday as Blackpool leapfrogged them with victory over Doncaster and Oldham’s 1-0 win over Chesterfield saw them join Town on 41 points.

But the results also mean that Doncaster and Chesterfield have been dragged back into the relegation battle.

After Town’s 0-0 draw at Chesterfield on Saturday Fleetwood were meant to play Peterborough at Highbury on Monday but the game was pushed back to next Tuesday because of Posh’s international call-ups.

McLaughlin’s right-back rival Smith, centre-back Gaby Zakuani (DR Congo), on loan duo Harry Toffolo (England U20s) and Martin Samuelsen (Norway U-21s) and Kgosi Ntlhe (South Africa U23s) are all away from Peterborough on international duty.

And ex Scotland defender Pressley says he is proud of McLaughlin and Burns but that he hopes they both return fully fit and ready for the final eight games.

If they do return unscathed the Town boss says both should be involved in the squad for the game at Swindon on Saturday.

He said: “We are all really proud of Conor being involved with Northern Ireland.

“For a club like ourselves it is fantastic.

“But my hope is that he returns unscathed.

“Wes played last night, he will return today and will return to training on Thursday.

“Like Conor I hope he returns unscathed.”