BY CHRIS MCNULTY
STEPHEN McLaughlin was sat in the away dressing room at Elland Road on Monday when the sound of his name being read aloud by Gary Brazil, Nottingham Forest’s temporary manager, made him jolt upright.
Brazil, who recently took over from the departed Billy Davies and who will oversee first-team affairs until Stuart Pearce takes over in the summer, was announcing his team for Forest’s crucial game against Leeds United. The realisation dawned pretty swiftly for McLaughlin. He’d just been selected for his debut.
There was just enough time to shoot a quick text message to his girlfriend, Shauna Kelly, who passed the good news on. As luck would have it, Sky Sports were showing the game live.
“We’re still looking for promotion, the game was live on TV and it was a game away to Leeds United – what a game for the debut,” he reflected to the Donegal News this week.
“It was a massive game.
“I was left out of the squad on Saturday (a 1-0 win against Birmingham), but he told me that I’d be involved for the game on Monday. I had no idea that I’d be starting.
“I didn’t know about it until the manager named the team in the dressing room. Once my name was read out I couldn’t believe it. I just had to put it to the back of my mind and concentrate on the game.”
As he pulled the famous Garibaldi Red shirt over his head, McLaughlin didn’t need reminding of what was at stake.
Forest were missing the likes of Henri Lansbury, Andy Reid, Karl Darlow, Dorus de Vries, Danny Fox and Lee Peltier, but just over a minute in McLaughlin made an instant impact, setting Matt Derbyshire up for the opening goal.
“I continued my run, no-one tracked me and I just found myself in acres of space,” he recalled.
“All I had to do was slip Matt through. That really settled me down, to be involved in the opening goal so early.
“The manager showed good trust in me so I needed a good performance.
“I had to repay his faith. Thankfully it went well. I had to show that it didn’t faze me to be involved in a game like that.”
Two goals from Derbyshire secured a 2-0 win that keeps Forest in the hunt for the play-offs, although they are looking for favours with two games remaining.
McLaughlin could feature again on Saturday when they travel to Bournemouth while the final home game of the season sees them take on Brighton at The City Ground.
McLaughlin’s time in Nottingham has not been straightforward. Injury troubles are now behind him, though, after ankle and knee ligament ailments held him back initially and also put an end to a loan spell at Bristol City. Three managers have come and gone since McLaughlin first reported for duty by the Trent.
Forest legend Pearce will take charge in the summer and the hope remains that stability will follow.
Interest in McLaughlin was initially made by Sean O’Driscoll, but a period of upheaval saw him replaced by Alex McLeish and the then Derry City winger was unsure as to where his future lay.
He just let fate take over.
He said: “I had a week of a trial and was back over for another week. They said that they really liked what they’d seen and were going to sign me. They sent me home for the Christmas period because I couldn’t sign until January anyway. Sean got the sack and I didn’t know what was going to happen. Forest rang and told me to still go over – thankfully Alex McLeish gave the go-ahead.”
McLaughlin’s dream was always to be a professional footballer. He’s had a series of big moves in his career: First from Clonmany Shamrocks to Finn Harps; then to Derry City; and the 2012 FAI Cup winner headed for Forest in January 2013.
During his second season at Derry, McLaughlin gave up his job as a greenskeeper in Ballyliffin Golf Club: “I really wanted it – that’s what I left my job.”
The City Ground in Nottingham reeks of history. This is a club that won back-to-back European Cups, in 1979 and 1980. Those wins, against Malmö and Hamburg, were masterminded by the great Brian Clough, whose legacy lives on at the club.
McLaughlin hadn’t the door closed behind him when he was given a reminder about Forest’s stature.
He said: “It’s a massive club.
“When I was signing, they took me around the stadium and showed me the European Cups. It’s a great stadium, too, an old, traditional stadium. Even around the training ground, you can see how big a club this is.
“You can see it with the fans too and the atmosphere they create at games. It’s great to be a part of it.”