Fleetwood's Conor faces battle for Euro 16 starting spot
Fleetwood right-back Conor McLaughlin faces a battle to make Northern Ireland's starting XI for their opening Euro 16 game.
McLaughlin had to settle for a place on the bench during Michael O’Neill’s men’s last friendly game against Slovakia as they prepare to face Poland in Nice on June 12.
The 24-year-old came on in added time as O’Neill opted for a 3-5-2 formation in the 0-0 draw in Slovakia.
All three of the defensive trio picked up knocks with West Brom duo Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans getting minor knocks but Watford’s Craig Cathcart hobbled off with what looked like a more serious injury.
McLaughlin could be pushed further forward into a wing-back role but he faces stiff competition from Paddy McNair, Shane Ferguson and Stuart Dallas.
But McLauglin started the first eight qualifying games and only missed the last one due to suspension.
And he says playing alongside Northern Ireland’s core of Premier League players is making him a better footballer and that international football is a big step up from what he faces week in week out with Fleetwood in League One.
He said: “International football is a massive step up. You have to make sure you’re 100 per cent concentrated all the time, which is a hard thing for any player
“Obviously, the quality of the players at international level is much higher, but the lads have helped me massively.
“I’m playing with amazing players – we’ve got a core of Premier League players, so that’s helped me a lot as well.
“Just their experience, talking to me on the pitch and learning things off them in training every time, putting those into my game.
“You’re more likely to get punished if you make a mistake at this level.
“Obviously, that makes you focus more, that’s the main thing.
“It is harder, but you have to make sure you concentrate on playing your own game and not think negatively.”
Whether he starts in six days time or not, McLaughlin has made exceptional progress over the last couple of years to forge his way into international consideration.
He said: “It’s been a mad couple of years… It’s weird, I was thinking to myself before the Belarus game last Friday, to even be involved…
“I wouldn’t have been thinking when I was younger that I’d be playing for Northern Ireland – and now qualifying for a major tournament, considering it’s been a long, long time.
“A lot of other players have had to wait a long time for this and this is my first full campaign.”