IF a strong character is one of the most important things Millwall look for in a new recruit then they have made a sound investment in Conor McLaughlin.
McLaughlin left Belfast when he 15 to go on trial with Preston North End, and when he was offered a scholarship he left behind formal education to try to make it in the professional game.
He made his debut aged 19 but in February 2011, in just his eighth outing as a senior professional footballer, he broke his leg in a 4-0 defeat at home to Bristol City.
Preston were relegated to the Championship that season but McLaughlin recovered and played just six months later, becoming a regular in the team again and making his Northern Ireland international debut against Italy in a European Championship qualifier.
But Preston boss Phil Brown was then sacked in early 2012, Graham Westley took over and soon loaned McLaughlin to League Two Shrewsbury before later transfer-listing him.
All of that would have broken most and convinced them it wasn’t meant to be, but McLaughlin hadn’t made all those sacrifices for nothing.
“It’s tough moving away from home at that age, though I was lucky because I knew a couple of people,” McLaughlin said. “It’s difficult getting used to a different country and different life, being involved in football 24/7.
“But it’s what you want to do. I finished my GCSEs and then came straight over. You end up doing a B-Tech during your scholarship. It’s not much but it’s still a little bit of further education.
“It’s a sacrifice, you’re ending your education after GCSEs which isn’t ideal. But if you want to pursue a career in football you have to make sacrifices.
“Before I made my debut Preston were struggling down near the bottom of the table and had a lot of injuries. I ended up making my debut against Hull and I think it was on Sky. I was only nineteen so it was difficult circumstances to come into.
“At that age you don’t really think about it, you just want to do well and I managed to stay in the team for a number of games before I broke my leg.
“I had managed to play really well in those games and was looking forward to seeing what was going to happen. Unfortunately the break was bad timing.
“At that age it was a huge disappointment, but I thought once I got back into it it would be the same. But it wasn’t like that. You come back, you have to build yourself up, your legs aren’t the same as they were before.
“It probably took me a season to get back fully to where I was.
“But it makes you mentally stronger. When I came back I wasn’t hitting the same form, I wasn’t as sharp as I had been and it makes you doubt yourself. When you come through it, though, you’re stronger for the next challenge.”
After he left Preston he signed for upwardly mobile Fleetwood Town. But even then it wasn’t immediate plain sailing.
He explained: “It was amazing there, I signed for them after they had been promoted to League Two. I was in and out of the team the first year but cemented my place the second year.
“We got promoted that season and were going from strength to strength every year. It was a brilliant experience.”
With McLaughlin on the way to being named the best right-back in the division last season, Fleetwood unexpectedly reached the play-offs, where they lost to Bradford, whom Millwall went on to defeat in the final.
He credits Fleetwood boss Uwe Rosler with helping his career.
“He was a manager in the Championship so he brought that experience and knowledge. He played for Man City as well so he knows what he’s talking about. You learn a lot from someone like that.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to do what we did last year but once the team was settled you could see how strong we were.
“I’ve wanted to push on for a couple of years now. When you play for Northern Ireland with people at a higher level it makes you want to play as high up as you possibly can. It’s been an ambition of mine to get back to the Championship after experiencing it with Preston.
“You play against unbelievable international players and it’s something you want to do every week. This is another step-up for me and I want to prove myself.”
Fleetwood offered McLaughlin a new deal but withdrew it when it became obvious he was set on leaving.
And like Tom Elliott and James Meredith, he revealed he was impressed with how Neil Harris went about convincing him to join the Lions.
He explained: “It was towards the end of the season when my agent told me about Millwall. I met the manager just after the season ended, it was really good and I came away thinking it would be a really good move.
“He went into a lot of depth. He showed me clips of how they play, and showed clips of me to show how I would fit in. When a manager goes to those lengths it makes you feel wanted.
“There were a few clubs interested but when I met the manager here that was the most exciting one.”
He also talked to Shane Ferguson, whom he has played alongside since they were both Northern Ireland under-16 internationals.
“Fergie said it was a good club, and a squad that will make you feel welcome. Obviously the manager is really good. What he said reinforced my decision to come here.
“[Northern Ireland boss] Michael O’Neill was really helpful as well, he told me to go for it here.”
McLaughlin had a hectic summer, playing twice for Northern Ireland in early June before getting married to Preston-born Rebecca and going on honeymoon all while deciding whether they would move the family – they have a boy, Niall, who is almost two – down south.
“When you’re making big life decisions in a short space of time it’s stressful,” McLaughlin admitted. “But that was really the only big decision I had to make, moving down here and starting a new life.
“The club have been really good, they’ve been helping us try to find somewhere so hopefully we will soon.
“I’d only visited London a couple of times but anyone I’ve spoken to who’s lived here has said they don’t want to go back up north.”
The next challenge will be establishing himself in the Millwall side and helping the club establish themselves in the Championship.
McLaughlin has gone through enough in his career to take it up with determination.
“It’s a difficult league, every week there’s going to be a hard game but it’s a strong squad here. We’ll take it one game at a time and see where that takes us.”
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