Belfast Telegraph

Stand-in skipper Gareth McAuley vows to march towards history in Euro qualifier

By Paul Ferguson

Proud new skipper Gareth McAuley surveys the site where Northern Ireland recorded one of their greatest ever victories away from home.

On October 16, 1985 at the national stadium in Bucharest, a Jimmy Quinn goal and a monumental Northern Ireland defensive effort secured a 1-0 win over star-studded Romanian outfit and passage to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.

Now just over 29 years later, McAuley is honoured to be bestowed the captaincy in Steven Davis’s absence and believes Northern Ireland can create their own history in the magnificent redeveloped 55,000 stadium by taking another giant step towards the European Championship finals.

Northern Ireland have never achieved the feat of qualifying.

Victory over Romania tonight would register four wins out of four in this campaign and cap a sensational 2014 for Michael O’Neill and his players.

McAuley said: “We feel Romania are the strongest team in the group. They will be our biggest challenge.

“We have had two great wins away from home and we are confident of winning but also respect Romania as a team. It’s going to be a tough game. We’ve looked at Romania, we’ve analysed them and we know exactly what will be in store for us out there.

“If we follow the instructions given to us by Michael, then we know we can come away with a positive result.”

West Brom defender McAuley (34) has captained his country on three previous occasions — in 2011 when he skippered Northern Ireland in three games in a row — Slovenia, Republic of Ireland and Wales.

Manager Michael O’Neill insisted last night McAuley was the stand out choice for his leadership skills, displays in a Northern Ireland shirt and because of his unselfish act in Greece.

On his 50th appearance for Northern Ireland, McAuley was invited to wear the captain’s armband, as is tradition within the squad. Yet for the good of the squad he politely turned it down so that it would disrupt any momentum.

“With Steven unavailable there was a decision that had to be made,” admitted O’Neill, who has, along with Davis, Jonny Evans, Jamie Ward, Shane Ferguson and Ryan McLaughlin out injured.

“I think Gareth made a very unselfish act in turning down the captaincy on his 50th cap in Greece. Normally a player who reaches that milestone would captain the side but Gareth didn’t want to upset the momentum we had so he passed over that opportunity.

“There were one or two players capable of being captain but I just felt it was fitting (to choose Gareth).

“Over the last campaign and certainly in this campaign if we look at our top performers and our consistently best players, Gareth has been in there.

“He has natural leadership qualities and the respect of every member of the squad. It’s fitting for Gareth to get the chance to captain the team in a game of this stature.

“It’s testament to his career to get to this level and what he’s done to get here.”

Belfast Telegraph