Glentoran’s Luke McCullough hoping for European springboard
Luke McCullough, in conversation covering a first season at Glentoran decorated with personal plaudits and praise, mentions the benefits of “having everything in front of you”.
It is a tactical point in reference to his role at the heart of the Premiership’s meanest backline - but one which could certainly serve as a metaphor for his future prospects.
For a player who has had past progress punctuated by high points such as the Academy captain’s armband at Manchester United or Northern Ireland squad selection for EURO 2016, the 27-year-old can also point to the dark days of two cruciate injuries inside three years.
In the context of such uncertain times, it is therefore understandable if his focus is on looking forward rather than back.
And it is a future full of optimism following an Irish League season in which McCullough started 39 of Glentoran’s 46 fixtures across 40 demanding weeks - a significant signal he can embrace and endure the physical demands of a club expected to go deep in every domestic competition.
This week he will turn his attention outside the Irish League towards helping Glentoran advance European ambitions.
Wales’ TNS (The New Saints) arrive at the Oval on Thursday for the first leg of the Europa Conference League that McCullough is hoping can result in benefits both short-term and long-term.
“Last year I was involved in Europe but only just at the club, so it’s completely different now I’ve a full season of fitness behind me and as part of the team,” said McCullough, who had his consistency rewarded recently with a fresh contract running to 2024. “I felt sharp going from the last campaign into games to prepare for Europe.
“For us, we managed to get through one round in Europe last year so will certainly be trying to improve on that this time.
“Last season I would have liked it much more if my efforts helped the team get silverware.
“Now it is about improving again, individually and as a team, so it’s all exciting.
“I think there are benefits from playing in Europe, with results and confidence, that can help carry you into the Irish League campaign.”
There is a sense of growing momentum around Glentoran thanks to outside investment resulting in internal assets of which Portadown-born McCullough appears central.
“I never felt like coming home from England to sign for Glentoran could be viewed as a backwards step,” he said. “Glentoran are so ambitious and the professionalism across the clubs here now is so much higher a standard than the past.
“It has opened up such a wider pool of players looking at the Irish League as a good option.
“Taking that into Europe, the gap is so much smaller between our clubs and the opponents than it was before really.
“Irish League clubs can now look on chances of progressing as a more realistic target rather than simply a bonus.
“Of course, none of it is going to be easy given the improvement across the Irish League we’ve talked about.
“Certainly we feel our final league position was disappointing and something which can improved for next season.
“I’ve enjoyed playing at centre-back with Glentoran and having everything in front of you, even if it had been a few years since that position when in England.
“Moving back into defence from the midfield role I was probably used to across the water has been enjoyable certainly.
“I got the feel of it and Mick McDermott wants us on the ball to start attacks from the back.
“In that position it’s all in front of you, you are facing forward and can see the game.
“But we also showed we can mix it up and adjust our playing style to suit different opposition.
“That ability to play in different ways can also hopefully help us in Europe and it’s always great to take on that challenge.
“You want to test yourself as much as possible and keep on improving.
“For me, there’s only one way things are looking at this club.”
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