Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has hailed the maturity of Luke McCullough after the Doncaster Rovers defender’s impressive international debut on Friday night.
The 20 year old, who made 13 appearances for Rovers last season, with the last coming in March against Watford, looked every inch the seasoned campaigner in front of over 50,000 fans at the Estadio Centenario where Northern Ireland were unlucky to lose 1-0 to Uruguay.
McCullough, playing at the back alongside Aaron Hughes and Chris Baird, kept England’s World Cup opponents, including Paris St Germain’s Edinson Cavani and former Manchester United front man Diego Forlan, at bay for much of the match only for his side to slip to a goal by Christian Stuani.
And O’Neill, who was missing Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Alex Bruce and Craig Cathcart from the trip, poured praise on McCullough for his assured display.
“We were asking a boy to do a man’s job in front of 60,000 people against a team who are highly fancied to do well at the World Cup,” he said. “He played as if he’d played in that situation throughout his career and he hasn’t, he’s played about a dozen times for Doncaster.
“Against that level of opposition - Cavani and Forlan - he was fantastic. A couple of the older lads, Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes, were fantastic in beside him and Roy Carroll behind him, but it really was a high level performance. Luke is very good positionally, has good self assurance and uses he ball well.”
Captain Steven Davis was one of the first to congratulate McCullough at full-time.
“I was delighted with Luke. I went to see him after the game and said ‘well done on a great debut’,” added the Southampton midfielder.
“It will give Michael something to think about in the future if he can put in performances like that in the future.”
On his Northern Ireland bow, McCullough said: “That’s the biggest crowd and the best atmosphere I’ve been part of. it gives you the bug for it, big time,” said the former Manchester United trainee.
“It definitely gives you a taste for more.
“Now that I’ve won my first cap I’m hoping it’s the first of many. I want to be a regular international.
“The lads beside me, Chris and Aaron, are both quite senior and there’s a lot of caps there so they talked me through the game and helped me along.
“We had a game plan to try and get a result and it worked for a long time.”
McCullough, from Portadown, and his Northern Ireland teammates now move to Valparaiso where they will finish their two-match trip to South America by taking on another World Cup finalist, Chile, on Wednesday night.