Stanley striker James Gray believes that captaining the Northern Ireland under 21’s is the proudest moment of his career so far but doesn’t want it to be the peak of his international achievement.
The former Middlesbrough man wore the armband as his country were beaten 4-1 at home to Serbia in their final European Championship qualifying match last night.
“It was a huge honour to wear the armband,” said Gray. “We found out the team on the morning before the game and Jim Magilton (Under 21’s manager) said that I’d be captain because I’ve been doing well and (senior manager) Michael O’Neill had said I’d done well when I went away with the seniors.
“When I walked into the changing room the armband and the pennant were with my shirt and it felt really special. Everyone congratulated me and it was a really special moment. I think captaining your country is as good as it gets.
It’s the end of a chapter in his career for Gray, who is now 22 and too old to play at this level.
“It’s tinged with a bit of sadness because I’ve played with these lads for two years now and have some good friends in the squad but it’s just a shame that I can’t play at the Under 21’s level any more,” he explained.
“Out of the squad of 18 I think there are only three players who won’t be able to play in the next qualifying campaign and I’m one of those. It was a tough test for a lot of the lads but I think it’ll stand us in good stead. It was a tough group and I think the lads are well prepared for the next campaign.”
Now, after travelling to South America with the senior team in the summer but not getting onto the field, Gray’s aim is to become involved on a more regular basis at the next level of international football.
“I can’t play for the 21s now so I have to look towards the seniors. They’ve started their campaign really well with a win in Hungary but hopefully I can play some part in their qualifiers and help them get to the Euros.
“Michael O’Neill was there (last night) so it was good for me. I just need to keep my club form and goalscoring up and I think that’ll help my chances of making the seniors.
“From a Northern Irish point of view there aren’t a huge number of players to choose from so if you play regularly and do well for your club then you always have a chance. That’s what the senior management have told me.”
Now Stanley’s top scorer is concentrating on his performances in the red shirt as he looks to catch the eye of the Irish scouts, starting this weekend against AFC Wimbledon.
“I’ve got four goals in seven games and if I carry on like that I should end up with a lot of goals. The performances have picked up now and we just need to keep it going. A win on Saturday will be big as we’d like to follow up three points with another win. We need to get those two good results on the bounce to climb up the table.”