We'll meet Russia head on, says Gareth McAuley
Gareth McAuley has never been one to shirk an issue. His thoughts in this newspaper today on the Northern Ireland fans and the atmosphere at Windsor Park in recent times are evidence of that.
Back in March when he criticised what he felt was a the lack of support from the stands at Windsor during the World Cup qualifying defeat to Israel, the emails and calls flooded into our office.
One angry block booker for internationals 'for years and years' shouted down the phone at me that the West Bromwich Albion player had become a "big time Charlie" raging 'Who does he think he is having a go at the fans?"
I told the caller that in my experience Gareth McAuley was no 'big-time Charlie'. Far from it.
Since I first got to know him when he was playing for Coleraine, 'Big G' may have become a much better footballer, had a family, bought a bigger house and now has more money in the bank, but McAuley the man hasn't changed. Still a down to earth lad full of Ulster craic!
Much like the way he has played his football for WBA in the last two seasons, McAuley's answers in yesterday's press conference were thoughtful and hit the mark.
Apart from the noise levels of the fans – hopefully Windsor will be rocking tomorrow night – McAuley spoke about how playing international football boosted him, offered advice to Liverpool's Ryan McLaughlin who has turned down a chance to be part of this squad, admitted that his chances of playing in the finals of a major tournament are over and revealed how he feels Northern Ireland can shock Russia, who overcame Michael O'Neill's side 2-0 in Moscow at the start of the World Cup qualifiers.
How's that then Gareth?
He said: "To me this game's winnable. We had chances in Moscow and I had a few myself.
"We were disappointed with their first goal and hopefully we'll learn from that for this game.
"They'll be neat and tidy around the box and have creative players.
"It is up to us to deal with that and then hurt them at the other end.
"They'll press us high and that will give a chance for Kyle Lafferty to do a lot of damage in behind.
"He has been in good goalscoring form for his club and it would be great if he could keep that going on Wednesday."
Pressed again on his confidence about getting a positive result for a team with no wins in their last 13 games, McAuley insisted: "We can win. It would be nice to get an early goal or something positive happening to get the crowd with us and then we can grow from that."
McAuley, now 33, says he will continue to play for his country for as long as he is "feeling fit and fine" but has resigned himself to not making it to a World Cup or Euro finals.
"We have been close a few times since I made the squad, and we need to get back to those days when everyone was buzzing about Northern Ireland," he said.
"In this campaign we need to restore some pride. We haven't got results when we should have done and everyone has been frustrated."
None more so than O'Neill, still bemused that Ryan McLaughlin (pictured) told him he wanted to concentrate on his club career with Liverpool rather than join up with the international squad.
McAuley is also perplexed by the youngster's decision.
"To me international football is a massive shop window," said McAuley.
"Lads who maybe aren't getting a sniff in the first team have a chance to play on a world stage against great players.
"If you can do it at this level not only will your club take notice but other teams will take notice and perhaps take you on loan and give you first team experience.
"It's a no brainer for me, but then I don't know how Ryan is being advised behind the scenes.
"The chance to play international football at such a young stage is something you can't really turn your nose up at.
"I know Ryan and he's a good lad but I find it hard to understand his decision. It's disappointing.
"I don't think I would have had the career I've had now had I not played international football.
"People started taking notice of me for Northern Ireland and from that they maybe thought that I could do a job for them.
"At the time when I was coming to the end of my contract with Ipswich there were a few teams around the Premier League interested because they had seen I could do it at international level.
"Hopefully Ryan will take time away and come back and play for us."