ACCRINGTON Stanley striker James Gray has described his first call-up to the Northern Ireland senior squad as ‘the best news I’ve ever had’ – as he prepares to fly to South America for games against Uruguay and Chile.
Gray was woken up yesterday morning by a phone call enquiring about his availability after he had impressed for Northern Ireland’s under 21s team in recent months.
He received confirmation of his selection came hours later, as Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill bolstered his squad following the withdrawal of ex-Burnley forward Martin Paterson.
The 21-year-old could not hide his excitement about fulfilling a lifelong dream to emulate his father Phil, the former Burnley player, who gained 26 caps for Northern Ireland.
“I’ve got to be honest, it’s the best news I’ve had in my career so far and it’s a fantastic moment for my family,” Gray beamed.
“I got a phone call in the morning – it woke me up to be honest! – just checking I was available on the dates of the games.
“Then I had to wait a couple of hours and I got the call from the IFA to say I’d been selected. It’s something I’ve always wanted.
“My dad is really proud, obviously he played for Northern Ireland 26 times so I’ll be following in his footsteps.
“I watched him play at his clubs and I think I went to an international game when I was little but I don’t really remember much about that, I was too young!
“I’d done well in the under 21s, I scored a couple of goals, and the under 21 manager Jim Magilton had said that if I carried on doing well then I could get a chance.
“But I still never expected it now, it wasn’t something that was in my mind.
“Even if I only get on for 30 seconds, if I make my debut for Northern Ireland it will be the proudest moment of my career.”
Gray was born in Middlesbrough after his father had moved to England from Belfast to pursue a career in professional football.
While being called up was exciting enough, he admits the fact the games are friendlies against Uruguay in Montevideo on May 30 and against Chile in Valparaiso on June 4 make the news even better.
“It’s not like it’s Latvia away, it’s Uruguay and Chile in their national stadiums,” Gray said.
“I’ve travelled all over Europe but never to South America.
“I travel on Sunday so I’m just getting things ready now.
“I’ve just got back from Dubai with my girlfriend so the timing has worked out well.
“But to be honest if I had still been on holiday I would have flown back and sacked it off for this!”
Gray had been jokingly nicknamed ‘Zlatan’ by some of his team-mates earlier in the season after briefly modelling his hair on Swedish ace Ibrahimovic.
He has now put one over on his idol – he will be going to South America this summer while Ibrahimovic will not, after Sweden missed out on the World Cup.
Gray is unlikely to face Luis Suarez when Northern Ireland take on Uruguay, with the Liverpool striker currently injured, but the likes of Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan could be involved.
Gray finished the season in fine form for Stanley and, although he is out of contract this summer, he is hoping to come to an agreement over a new deal.
“I scored three in the last two games of the season and that probably helped me with the call up,” he said.
“I’ve had a few messages from the club already about my call-up, news travels fast!
“I’ve been offered a contract so I’m just in negotiations at the moment, trying to get the best deal possible for myself.
“But hopefully it will all be sorted.”
Youth team trio Liam Goulding, Jenkins and Luke Greaves will all become members of Stanley’s first team squad on July 1 after accepting professional deals.
The Reds may have to wait to find out their chances of bringing winger Lee Molyneux back to the club on a permanent basis, after a successful loan spell from Crewe.
Crewe boss Steve Davis says he will discuss Molyneux’s future with the 25-year-old’s agent before assessing the player during pre-season.
Stanley could lose Peter Murphy this summer, with the midfielder unlikely to pen a new deal.