BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Conor McLaughlin knows that pre-season is a major chance to stake a claim for a starting spot at Millwall – and admits he did not make the most of his opportunities in the second half of last season.
The 26-year-old, signed on a free transfer from Fleetwood Town last summer, made 23 starts for the Lions in the 2017-18 campaign.
That was McLaughlin’s lowest amount of starts for five years – he accrued 19 in his first season with the Cod Army.
One of the reasons why the Belfast-born defender got so few outings in 2018 was because of the assured displays by Mahlon Romeo, the Lions recently moving to secure him on a new long-term contract.
McLaughlin played just once after early February, and that was when Romeo came off at Middlesbrough in the penultimate fixture of the season with a groin problem.
McLaughlin had played all but two minutes of the league schedule before a fifth booking earned him a one-match suspension – a hugely soft penalty award in a 1-0 loss at Fulham in late November.
He would appear just five more times in Championship matches.
“It went really well in the first half of the season,” said McLaughlin. “I got too many bookings, which obviously came back to bite me. Mahlon came in and did brilliantly in a couple of games. I did have a chance to get back in but I didn’t really take it myself and play as well as I can.
“It’s up to me. I need to make sure I do everything I can to make sure I start the first game of the season.
“The Fulham booking was harsh. There were a couple of others before that which were counter-attacks and I had to stop the play, which you can’t really do anything about – you’re helping the team.”
McLaughlin would have started on the final day at The Den against Aston Villa if he had not torn two ligaments in his ankle in training.
Instead he was on crutches for the lap of appreciation post-match.
But he recovered ahead of schedule to make a little bit of history with Northern Ireland – featuring in a 3-0 defeat against Costa Rica with younger brother Ryan in May. With Jonny Evans and his sibling Corry also in action, it was the first time that two sets of brothers had been on the pitch at the same time for the country.
“Luckily with the help of the physio here and Northern Ireland I got fitter quicker than expected,” said McLaughlin. “I ended up training inside three-and-a-half weeks and I was meant to be out for at least six weeks before I even trained.
“One of the injuries was an old one that hadn’t healed properly, it’s fine now. That’s probably why it didn’t take so long.
“I didn’t think I was going to be fit [for Ireland’s tour of Central America]. It was a race against time. I managed to train a few days out there and get on in the second game, which was probably four weeks from when I got the injury.
“I was buzzing just to be able to play. I came on for the last half an hour with my brother. That was special for my family.
“Being away and getting fit for Ireland meant I didn’t lose too much fitness over the summer. That helped me get back into the thick of things in the first few days back at Millwall.”
McLaughlin laughs when asked if he enjoys the pre-season grind. Millwall play their first pre-season friendly at Dartford tomorrow.
“Any footballer who says he likes pre-season is lying,” he said. “The first week or two, it’s tough. After that it is about getting game time and that’s not too bad.
“When the games start coming you wind down the running, which is a good thing. You need to get that base in because when the season starts and you have competitive matches then training isn’t the same.
“Pre-season is a massive chance to stake a claim for a starting place. You want to be in the best form possible. I have to get as fit as I can, put in the performances and hope that is enough for me to start.”
McLaughlin and James Meredith were both captures from League One following Millwall’s promotion. And once again Neil Harris has dipped into the division below to pluck another standout performer – with Murray Wallace joining from Scunthorpe.
“I’ve played against him a few times and he is a really solid centre-half,” said McLaughlin. “He’s shown already in the running that he is fit – one of the fittest I’ve come across.
“He flew past us on the first run – that sort of made us take notice.”
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