Luke Southwood on international duty for Northern Ireland
Luke Southwood earned a first call-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the recent World Cup qualifiers against Lithuania and European champions Italy. He told ONE Glove about his time on international duty...
It would be fair to say there was a mix of excitement and anticipation as I set out to meet up with the Northern Ireland squad for the very first time. After Reading’s excellent win at Birmingham, I travelled down to Bristol Airport the following morning, boarded a plane to Belfast, and was at the team hotel on the outskirts of the city by the early afternoon.
With this being my first call-up, people have asked if I was nervous, but having had a number of loan spells already in my career, I know what it’s like to enter a changing room full of players you don’t know – and that stood me in good stead this time.
As we had two home games coming up against Lithuania and Italy, the hotel was our base for eight days, and we all met up for the first time that evening for dinner. I didn’t know anybody on a personal level – although I had played against a few of the lads before – so it was a case of meeting everybody and introducing myself.
I was also expecting to be standing on a chair for my induction song at some point in the evening and when the glasses started clinking, I thought this was my time. I had already prepared to sing ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis, but the speeches were made, dinner was had, and then everyone started drifting off. I quickly followed suit. I’d got away with one there!
The following morning was my first training session and obviously it was important to make a good, early impression. Our goalkeeping coach is Roy Carroll, a Northern Ireland legend, and he was great to work with. In that very first session we went straight into little six-a-sides, which is what I love doing in training anyway, as it always gets the best out of me. My team ended up winning as well, so it was a good start and helped me settle right in straight away.
From there, training was geared around the two games and, as we would be playing Friday and Monday, it was all about managing loads in terms of the goalkeepers. It was more match-prep routines: technical rather than up-downs, up-downs, which was not a bad thing given the intensity of games which many of us had experienced with our league clubs, playing Tuesday-Saturday, for a number of weeks. The first couple of days were a bit heavier but then it was all about making sure we were match sharp. The standard, though, from every member of the squad, was really high.
For our first game, against Lithuania [W1-0], we knew the team the day before, but for the Italy game we didn’t know until the day. As it was my first camp, I didn’t expect to come straight into the team, which proved to be the case, but I still had to prepare as if I was playing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As this was all about new experiences for me, I have to say I was massively impressed with the atmosphere our fans generated at Windsor Park. The stadium only holds around 18,000 fans but it was the loudest crowd I’ve ever heard. It was just incredible; the fans were unbelievable.
That first game really had the ‘wow factor’ for me as it was my first taste of international football, whereas against Italy I could take it all in a bit more. As I sat back in the dugout, I had a feeling of pride that my career’s taken me to a place where I’m now in a matchday squad against the European champions.
While the game ended in a [0-0] draw, thanks to a superb team performance from our lads, you could still see the Italians’ class. Being on the bench, I got to watch them more closely and the quality they possess on the ball is incredible. On the night, we limited them to half-chances while we had the two best chances of the game: Gianluigi Donnarumma made a great save and then Leonardo Bonucci cleared one off the line.
Talking of Donnarumma, I tried to watch as much of his warm-up as I could, just to see what he did, while during the game I also took in a lot of what he was doing. Again, seeing him that close up was a learning experience and also a real eye-opener; you can see why he’s already done so well in the game and the fact that he’s only 22 is frightening.
On the day we left, I spoke to Ian Baraclough who said, “Well done, I thought you did brilliantly” and he added that he wants me to get minutes on the pitch. I also got a text from Roy Carroll upon my return to Reading who reiterated those words. He also said it looked like I’d been with the group for years, which was nice to hear, some really good feedback. They were both great guys to work with.
Longer term, I want to become my country’s number one, but I know only too well that I must keep working hard and maintaining my form at Reading for that to happen. I therefore have to box off this fantastic experience, put it to the back of my mind for now, and make sure all my focus is on my club football. If I do that, then hopefully my dream of playing for Northern Ireland will take care of itself.
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