Jon McLaughlin exclusive: Sunderland and Scotland keeper opens up on stellar season and career ambitions in in-depth interview

It's 45 minutes into a pivotal game for Sunderland.

By Phil Smith
Thursday, 28 March, 2019, 12:49

The season is young but Doncaster Rovers are a side in form and there are 4,000 expectant fans who have travelled from Wearside on a Tuesday night.

Doncaster have the better of the first half and in stoppage time they are presented with two major opportunities.

Both Mallik Wilks and Matty Blair spurn their openings, but it's as much about the goalkeeping as it is the finishing.

Jon McLaughlin twice picks his moment perfectly, the calmest figure in the ground as he picks the perfect moment to come off his line and make the block.

Sunderland settle, Chris Maguire scores two minutes after half time and a vital three points are sealed.

You could tell plenty of anecdotes like that one.

McLaughlin has been a revelation since signing for Sunderland in the summer

When the player of the year awards are decided, McLaughlin will not be far away.

Sunderland's number one jersey has traditionally been in safe hands but last season it proved to be a painful burden.

This year, the Scot has proved a very worthy successor to the likes of Jordan Pickford, Mart Poom and Thomas Sorensen.

It's not just the exceptional shot-stopping, either. It's the calm and ease with which he commands his box, and the boost that has given a side not known for its physicality.

McLaughlin's excellence, of course, has often been portrayed by neutrals as a negative. Surely something is wrong with a side if its goalkeeper so regularly catches the eye?

It's for that reason that Jack Ross has always tempered his praise for the Scot, seeking to get the balance right between praising a player he respects immensely, and not detracting from the achievements of the team.

McLaughlin is experienced enough to know that when a manager says he expects nothing short of excellence from his goalkeeper, and that he is 'low maintenance', it is as big a compliment he could pay.

"It’s always nice if you get praise, if you feel as if you’re contributing and people appreciate that, but at the end of the day, managers are right when they say you’re there to do a job and they wouldn’t have brought you to the club if they didn’t feel you were going to perform," he says.

"I’m old enough now to know as well that managers don’t like to have to think about goalkeepers.

"They’ve got enough on their plate with the other ten players and trying to score goals at the other end.

"The main thing they want from a goalkeeper is to take care of themselves, to not have to think too much about them.

"Be there when needed, dependable, to be comfortable that they’ll deliver and to know it’s a position that is ticked off. Hopefully I’ve been able to do that for the manager."

At one stage this season, Ross namechecked Peter Schmeichel when discussing another strong McLaughlin showing.

The implication was that there is nothing wrong in falling back on your goalkeeper every now and then.

If it was good enough for Manchester United, it's good enough for Sunderland.

It's a source of great pride to McLaughlin to be so highly thought of and to have made a big contribution.

There have been few low moments, the Scot even getting away with a rare error in front of 46,000 on Boxing Day when he spilled a shot from Bradford City's Jack Payne, seemingly over the line.

He has been a model of consistency and after what happened in the last campaign, he knows that is a big deal for supporters.

Even so, with a Wembley final and nine crucial league games on the horizon, there is no chance of him dwelling on that praise.

"You understand what managers mean when they say they don’t want to be praising their goalkeepers all the time, that means there’s been too much happening at the wrong end," he says.

"They want to be talking about scoring goals and winning games at the other end. You have to squeeze the praise out of them!

"It’s nice to get that but at the end of the day, I’d happily sit back and watch a team dominate the other end if it means we win a cup final and get promotion.

"You enjoy those saves when you make them and it makes a difference to the result. There’s been highlights this year but I never concentrate too much on that, to be honest you’re more happy if you don’t make mistakes," he adds.

"If you shout too much everyone will be waiting to point that finger when you make a howler!

"I’m just happy that mistakes have been at a premium, and when they have come along we’ve even got away with them. That’s been the best part!

Sign up to our daily newsletter

"I knew that was the pressure coming into this season, with what had been said and the expectations for the goalkeeping position, what people were wanting. I’m just happy to have cemented the place."

Such is the poise and composure with which McLaughlin has gone about his business so far, it's easy to lose sight of what a remarkable journey it has been for him.

It is only 11 years since he was playing non-league football for Harrogate Town, impressing enough to land a contract with Bradford city.

His career progression from there has been steady, measured and calculated, his personality off the pitch a mirror of his goalkeeping on it.

"It’s always nice when the decisions you make are vindicated, and you can reflect on making the right choices," he explains.

"Every club I’ve been at, I’ve been in a situation where I could have stayed and signed new contracts, taking the easier option if you like of improving the contract but not fulfilling everything I was looking for, taking that risk of uprooting, moving the family and starting again at another club.

"When you fit somewhere, especially as a goalkeeper it’s tough to move, you have to prove yourself again and earn the respect of fans and team-mates, you have to create that bond with the defenders again.

"It’s a challenge to do that but you hope that it leads you in the right direction.

"When you end up here, and see where it could go, you’re confident that you made the right decisions.

"Sometimes you do have to reflect on those early years, the way you would have looked at a club like this, how out of reach it would have seemed," he adds.

"Even though you’re playing for a large club [Bradford], down in the lower leagues you wouldn’t have dreamed of being part of a club like this.

"In the last few years I’ve been lucky to enjoy success at the club’s I’ve been at, that sense of progression that has led to this point and means that you’ve earned your place here, that you belong at a club like this.

"To potentially be part of its journey back to the very top is a massive incentive."

It's not lost on McLaughlin that Sunderland's season could not be more delicately poised.

A cup win and a promotion to the Championship would be an outstanding success; failing to land the latter a bitter disappointment.

Throughout the campaign, he has spoken well of the unique challenges face Sunderland every week. After Bradford finally lifted themselves out of League Two through the play-offs in 2013, he gave an interview speaking about what a tough journey it had been.

Every team raising their game, every team wanting the scalp of the biggest team in the league.

It has been the same again this year, but McLaughlin knows what will open up for both him and the club if they can get over the line.

"I’ve seen both sides of it," he says.

"Playing for Burton, there were no expectations.

"Even when we’d won League Two and were sat in the automatic positions in League One, maybe like Luton this year, people are waiting for that drop off, so there’s no pressure.

"Here and when I was in League Two with Bradford, there’s that expectation and that pressure both within the club and outside, just because of the size people will assume that it’s straightforward.

"It’s not, look at Sheffield United, who were stuck in League One for five or six seasons, but if you can do it then you see that they can progress quite quickly and build that momentum.

"It’s a challenge and it will continue to be so because every game now has massive relevance.

"Everybody's ambition coming here was promotion," he adds.

"If you were a new player, manager or member of staff coming in, or one already here, it was about making sure you helped turn the club around at the first time of asking.

"It would be very different to when I was there with Burton, where the only goal was to survive.

"This club, the minute you stepped into the Championship you would be one of the biggest clubs, with the resources to be competitive straight from the off.

"It’s a huge carrot for everybody if you can achieve that promotion, to then belong to one of the biggest clubs in the Championship straight away, which you might not have had the chance to do had they not been relegated last season.

"It’s a massive incentive for myself and everyone else at the club."

Starting at Wembley on Sunday, there remains so much work to do to turn this promising position into tangible success.

One thing Jack Ross doesn't have to worry about, though, is his goalkeeper.

You can't pay Jon McLaughlin a better compliment than that.