Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Slovenia: Opposition’s disrespect still gnaws at McAuley

By Stuart McKinley

Northern Ireland have been knocking on the door in terms of qualifying for the finals of a major tournament for some time now.

Since the 1986 World Cup, going through has proved to be a step too far. The Green and White Army have had to watch the big competitions on television rather than being there to back their team on the big stage.

Maybe Nigel Worthington and his players should ask Slovenia about how to get to a World Cup or European Championships.

They’ve been to both in the last decade and they also seem to be quite adept at banging on doors — something which left Northern Ireland players fuming two-and-a-half years ago.

The Slovenians’ antics after beating Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in October 2008 have been slammed by the players who were on the wrong end of that defeat and were used as motivation when the tables were turned in a 1-0 home victory at Windsor Park in April of the following year.

Now, two years on from that game, when Warren Feeney’s header gave Worthington’s side the three points, that behaviour hasn’t been forgotten with a rematch against the former Yugoslav state in tonight’s Euro 2012 qualifying game at Windsor Park being talks about as something of a grudge match.

Gareth McAuley, who will captain Northern Ireland tonight in the absence of Aaron Hughes, revealed that familiarity with Slovenia has begun to breed contempt after being drawn in the same qualifying group twice in succession.

“We’ve had tough games against them over the last two campaigns and there’s no love lost really,” said McAuley.

“They beat us out there in the last campaign and they rubbed it in a little bit.

“We got a little bit of revenge when we beat them at Windsor and then again by beating them at the start of this campaign.

“There’s a bit of friendly rivalry there, let’s just say.

“They were very vocal coming off the pitch after beating us and they were banging on doors.

“We thought it was out of order. You use those sort of things and remember them over your career and try to put them right.”

Jonny Evans claims that having lost to Northern Ireland twice since their door banging celebrations, Slovenia will be wary of the threat they will face tonight from 11 men on the pitch and 14,000 in the stands.

“I remember thinking that Slovenia had battered us in the game we lost, but looking back it was two unfortunate late goals that cost us,” said Evans.

“We’ve got the upper hand on them and they won’t be looking forward to coming back to Windsor Park.

“They were banging on our changing room door, I don’t know why they were doing that, but it upset a few of our lads.

“We got a bit of our own back at Windsor and there were a few things said on the pitch.

“Maybe we’ll go banging on their doors this time.”

McAuley’s goal had Northern Ireland on top against Serbia in Belgrade last Friday night.

A classic game of two halves, the Serbs two goals after the break meant the flight back to

Belfast on Saturday morning was more subdued than it might have been.

And that makes three points tonight even more important, with Northern Ireland having the chance to move into second place in Group C with a win.

“This is a massive game now after losing to Serbia,” admits Ipswich Town defender McAuley.

“Being in the leading position we threw away at least a point in Serbia. It makes this game even bigger. We’ll be going at it right from the start and will not give for the entire 90 minutes.”

Although Cookstown born Hughes has been an integral part of the Northern Ireland team for the last 13 years and the Fulham man has also played his entire club career in the Premier League, with Stephen Craigan ready to return to the team after losing his place in Belgrade and McAuley’s leadership qualities, he won’t be missed too much.

“With Aaron out it’s nice to get the honour of being asked to captain the team,” said McAuley.

“It’ll be a special night walking out, leading the team out at Windsor Park.

“It’s something you dream about as a kid and have a desire to do. It’ll be a proud night with my family there watching.

“It would be nice to look back having won the game. With the history with Slovenia we know we can win the game. Getting the result would be the icing on the cake.

“Knowing the manager has the faith in you to make you captain gives you a lift and having done it at club level it’s nothing strange.

“It’ll be exciting and hopefully it can lift me to a performance that adds to a team victory and three points on the night.”

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