Dion Charles is determined to grasp his opportunity with Northern Ireland after rising from non-league football to the international game.
The 25-year-old last week received his first senior call-up and will be swapping Accrington’s League One fixture away to Peterborough on Saturday for a trip to Parma when Northern Ireland begin their World Cup qualifying campaign away to Italy on Thursday night.
The call-up was recognition of form which has seen Charles score 18 goals in 39 appearances this season, but also of the progress he has made since joining Stanley from non-league Southport in August 2019.
“It’s something I’ve been working towards for the last 18 months,” Charles said.
“Once I got my move to Accrington I realised that’s a decent enough platform for me to show the international manager what I could do.
“I spoke to my agent at the time – it was still under Michael O’Neill at the time, but there was so much riding on those games (at the end of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign), it probably wasn’t the right time to get a call-up.
“For me personally I just had to knuckle down and play consistently to get that recognition and so far this season I’ve done it well and been rewarded.”
With Conor Washington ruled out through injury and Liam Boyce not scheduled to join up with the squad until later in the international window, there could be early opportunities for Charles.
“The manager basically just said to me, ‘Don’t play any different to how you’ve been playing at your club. Just come in and work hard’,” he said.
“That’s what I base my game around, hard work. It’s just about fitting in and learning as much as I can from them.
“There’s always going to be opportunities. I’ve worked hard to get in here but that hard work doesn’t stop now.
“It’s all right being called up but I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder, I want to be in and be a mainstay in the international set-up, so I need to work hard and, if I’m given the chance, I’ll show everyone that I’m ready.”
It is only four months since Northern Irish hearts were broken by Slovakia in their Euro 2020 qualifying play-off, but Ali McCann said the squad were approaching the new campaign with a positive mindset.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to go and try to put the Euro disappointment behind us and try to qualify for a World Cup starting on Thursday,” the St Johnstone midfielder said.
“We don’t want to get caught up in (the Euro 2020 disappointment), we need to focus on the games up ahead, but there is that wee reminder in the back of your mind that we don’t want to go through that again.
“It’s definitely not an easy start, but I wouldn’t put it down as a free hit. We need to go into every game going for a result at the very least. We’ll go there and be as positive as we can be and try to come away with something from the game.”