THE BIG INTERVIEW

Northern Ireland's Connor McLaughlin
Northern Ireland's Connor McLaughlin
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Craig Salmon talks to ex-PNE and current Fleetwood and Northern Ireland star Conor McLaughin

Former Preston youth team product Conor McLaughlin is braced for a baptism of fire tomorrow.

Conor McLaughlin (far right) with fellow members of the 'Rossendale Eight' Barry Nicholson, Adam Barton and Craig Morgan

Conor McLaughlin (far right) with fellow members of the 'Rossendale Eight' Barry Nicholson, Adam Barton and Craig Morgan

The Fleetwood Town defender 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, on the south east coast of France, in their opening Group C 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, the 24-year-old was tipped for a bright future after working his way up through the ranks at Deepdale.

He was handed his Football League debut – a 2-0 Championship defeat at home to Hull City beamed live on Sky Sports in November 2010 – at the age of just 19 by Darren Ferguson.

Despite Ferguson’s sacking a little over a month later, McLaughlin remained a regular member of the North End squad as ex-Hull boss 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 lame on the sidelines, the young defender had to watch on helplessly as North End suffered the ignominy of relegation.

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

He featured significantly as North End began the new season in fine style – winning seven successive games to top the table.

Against all the odds, McLaughlin earned his first international call-up in October 2011 – affording him the opportunity 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 not a winning one as the Irish went down to a 3-0 Euro qualifying defeat in Pescara, on the Adriatic coast.

Despite the loss, McLaughlin returned to North End on the crest of a wave after representing his country, but the tide soon began to turn for the young Irishman.

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 on a grand scale 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 of League Two.

Still under contract, McLaughin returned to the north west for pre-season training in the summer of 2012 – only to find himself ostracised.

He was one of eight players – which also included Barry Nicholson, Iain Hume, Adam Barton, Danny Mayor, Craig Morgan, Keammar Daley and Paul Coutts – to be informed that he was no longer welcome at the club’s Springfields Training Ground.

They were dubbed the ‘Rossendale Eight’ by the club’s fans because they were made to train on their own in East Lancashire.

Aged just 20 at the time, the episode left McLaughlin on the verge of quitting football and seeking an alternative career.

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

The rest is, as they say, 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 new boss Graham Alexander – a former team-mate of his at North End.

The move to the Cod Army 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 has never looked back since and has become an integral member of the international set-up.

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

McLaughlin cannot help but have a little chuckle to himself now when he recalls his time as one of the ‘Rossendale Eight’.

“It was a difficult time,” McLaughlin said.

“A lot of the other lads who were told by Graham Westley that they weren’t in his plans had been at the club a while and I obviously had come along at 16 and worked my way up.

“I absolutely loved my time at Preston and it was a bitter pill to swallow when all that stuff sort of happened.

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

“We were made to train on our own in Rossendale and we had a fitness coach so we were able to keep our fitness levels up.

“Thankfully all the lads managed to get fixed up with other clubs.

“If I could have stayed at Preston under different circumstances, I would have loved to have done so.

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

“But at that stage I was considering packing it all in.

“I wasn’t enjoying my football any more and I was also coming off the back of a badly broken leg.

“I was just 20 at the time and did not know really what was going to happen.

“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.

“I’ve had a good few years at Fleetwood where we’ve had success.

“On the back of that, I managed to get back in the Ireland squad and here we are in France at the Euros – it’s been an amazing few years.”

A native of Belfast, McLaughlin moved to the north west of England after North End won the race for his signature.

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

Although United did not follow-up their interest, a whole host of other clubs were knocking on his door.

Celtic, Portsmouth, Plymouth all took a look at the Belfast boy, but in the end it was a straight choice between PNE and Lancashire rivals Burnley, who had also offered him a scholarship.

It was the family feel of North End which proved to be key in his final decision and he soon settled at Deepdale.

McLaughlin admits he owes a massive debt of gratitude to his youth coaches at the time – Jamie Hoyland and Dean Ramsdale – who helped him develop into a first team player.

“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.

“They helped me develop and that youth team had a lot of success and Jamie and Dean did a great job.

“They did a great job of getting young players into the first-team squad.

“A lot of my success which is coming now is down to them.”

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.”

Depending on how McLaughlin copes with Lewandowski and company over the next few weeks, Fleetwood might have a fight on their hands to keep hold of their defensive star.

“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,” he said.