Former Finn Harps and Derry City winger Stephen McLaughlin will fulfil a childhood dream on Saturday when he gets the chance to play at Wembley Stadium.
McLaughlin came off the bench to score in extra-time for Southend United in their 3-1 win over Stevenege FC in last Thursday night’s semi-final second leg of the Sky Bet League Two play-offs.
That sent Southend, who have the 24-year-old on loan from Nottingham Forest until the end of the season, on their way to a 4-2 aggregate win and Wycombe Wanderers now lie in wait.
“I was disappointed not to start,” McLaughlin said of that last fixture. “The gameplan was to get a foothold on the game and we did that.
“But you don’t want to be too down and just want to make sure you make an impact when the chance comes.”
Southend did well not to dwell on their 3-1 loss at Morecambe on the final day of the season - a result that meant they missed out on automatic promotion.
“We messed up,” McLaughlin added. “We weren’t at ourselves and it was very disappointing. We had the chance to go up and we should’ve grabbed it with both hands. But we’ve managed to bounce back and have played ourselves into another chance now. We have to use it to our advantage and use the hurt from that defeat to go that extra step in the final.”
Southend is something of a home from home for McLaughlin, with a host of Irish players on their books. Dubliner Conor Clifford, as well as being captain, scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup final against Aston Villa in 2010 and the midfielder has been named in the Republic of Ireland senior squad. Gary Deegan - another midfielder from Dublin - played for a host of clubs including Longford Town, Galway United, Bohemians, Coventry City and Hibernian.
Defender Cian Bolger from Celbridge, Co Kildare, and Newcastle, Co Wicklow, native Barry Corr has scored 16 league goals this season. Having previously been on loan with Bristol City and Notts County, McLaughlin has fitted in well.
“It helps with there being so many Irish lads in there,” he added. “I would’ve known of the lads before without actually knowing them. But I’ve been on loan before and when that happens you know they’ve brought you on to do a job and you just go in and try and win every game. You don’t go on there and take the back stool as they say, you go in there and talk to everybody.”
Southend are managed by Phil Brown, the former Hull City manager.
“He’s grand,” McLaughlin added of his manager. “He loves his football and can talk a fair bit. He is passionate about the club.”
McLaughlin, from the Isle of Doagh, Clonmany, follows in the footsteps of three Donegal men who have lined up in the play-off final in recent seasons.
Seamus Coleman from Killybegs was on loan at Blackpool as they won the Championship play-offs 3-2 against Cardiff City in 2010, while Lettermacaward native Carl McHugh’s Bradford City won the League Two play-offs in 2013, overcoming Northampton 3-0.
Goalkeeper Conrad Logan from Ramelton was on loan at Stockport County from Leicester in the 2008 League Two decider, in which they triumphed 3-2 against Rochdale.
“It’s going to be an exciting day,” McLaughlin added of Saturday. “There’s 25 or 30 coming over from home on Saturday morning. I’ve never been to Wembley before. Like everyone, I dreamed of playing there.
“There’s a bit of a hype building now with Wembley. We average 6,000 a game and they’ve already sold 18,500 tickets so everyone is looking forward to Wembley.”
Despite his new surroundings, McLaughlin keeps an eye on developments closer to home.
“Finn Harps are getting some great results, away from home and are winning games,” he said. “Fair play to them and I really hope they get promoted.
“It’s also unbelievable to see the Inishowen lads getting into the Oscar Traynor final. It’s a great achievement for a small place like Inishowen and they’d be friends of mine.
“I always keep an eye on a Friday night or over the weekend to see what’s happening between Inishowen, Harps and Derry City.”