Northern Ireland star Conor is the one who got away for PNE

IF Bailey Wright is the one who almost got away from Preston, then Northern Ireland star Conor McLaughlin is the one who certainly did.

Saturday, 11th June 2016, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 13th June 2016, 12:24 pm
Northern Ireland's Connor McLaughlin gets away from Hungary's Balazs Dzsudzsak during the UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying, Group F match at Albert Florian Stadium, Budapest.

The pair were contemporaries in the North End youth set-up at one time having arrived at Deepdale as youngsters in the late noughties.

McLaughlin came from his native Belfast, while Aussie Wright had a bit further to travel from his Melbourne home.

Slightly older, McLaughlin was the first to make his first-team debut during the Championship relegation season of 2010/11.

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Wright also made his PNE bow towards the end of that doomed campaign under Phil Brown, who had taken over as boss from the sacked Darren Ferguson.

Both players’ careers at North End were turned upside down when Brown too was dismissed and Graham Westley was installed as manager in the early part of 2012.

McLaughlin was deemed surplus to requirements almost immediately by the ex-Stevenage boss and was loaned out to Shrewsbury Town.

He famously became a member of the ‘Rossendale Eight’ – a group of players banished to train on their own in East Lancashire during pre-season.

And he soon departed the club when he was snapped up by current club Fleetwood Town.

Wright’s treatment was not quite so severe at first but he looked like he was on his way out of the club during the summer of 2012 when he was transfer-listed by Westley.

Fortunately for him – and PNE – there was a u-turn and Wright was offered fresh terms to remain.

He has since gone on to make nearly 200 appearances for the Lilywhites, won promotion to the Championship and was part of the Australia squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Remarkably, McLaughlin’s career has followed a similar trajectory.

He too has enjoyed Wembley play-off final success with the Cod Army and has also earned international recognition.

The right-back is set to face Poland tomorrow in Northern Ireland’s opening group match of the Euro Championships in Nice, France.

McLaughlin believes that he too – like Wright – could have racked-up three figures in terms of appearances for PNE if things had been different.

“I used to share a house with Bailey over my last couple of years at Preston and also when I first went to Fleetwood,” McLaughlin said.

“We were close friends and he has been amazing for Preston, but Graham Westley transfer listed him.

“It just show just how football goes – Bailey has been one of Preston’s best players the last few years and has played for Australia – but he had a difficult time.

“For me personally, I just needed to get away and play football.

“At the time, I didn’t feel like I was playing particularly well.

“I was just coming back from my broken leg and it took me a year really to recover from that.

“Thankfully I got that out of my system and I now playing the best football of my career.”

Why Westley never rated McLoughlin – only he knows.

“I don’t really know why Westley didn’t fancy me,” McLoughlin.

“Different managers have different tastes in players.

“Maybe he just wanted to bring his own players in.

“Every manager has their own ideas.

“Thankfully with Fleetwood, I was given another opportunity.”

McLaughlin has played a major role in guiding Noirthern Ireland to their first major championships for 30 years.

They finished top of their qualifying group and now look to competing against Germany, Ukraine and Poland, with their first game against the Poles tomorrow at the Allianz Arena. (kick-off 5pm).

“It’s been an amazing qualifying campaign for us,” he said.

“Finishing top of the group, we are unbeaten heading into the tournament so everybody’s confidence is up.

“Everybody is buzzing for the game tomorrow and looking forward to going up against the Poles.”

McLaughlin was on the substitutes’ bench for the Irishmen’s final warm-up game against Slovakia, but he is hopeful of being in the starting XI.

“There is a lot of competition for places in the squad,” he added.

“Everybody has been working hard in training to make sure they get in that team for Sunday.

“Hopefully I get selected and it’s going to be an amazing experience.

“I have played against Andre Pirlo and Alexis Sanchez and came off the pitch both those nights wanting to play against those kind of players more often.

“Now I am in the European Championships.The Poles have got some great players and I can’t wait to come up against them.”