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Big Gareth McAuley continues to defy the odds

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has admitted he is struggling to understand how Gareth McAuley is still packing a powerful punch at the age of 37.

The experienced West Bromwich Albion defender is still hunting down the Premier League's most dangerous frontmen and he's set to put pen to paper on a new deal at The Hawthorns.

He may be the oldest outfield player in England's top flight but the former Coleraine and Crusaders defender's appetite for the game is as strong as ever and his performances for the Baggies and Northern Ireland continue to defy logic, leaving observers - including O'Neill - in awe.

McAuley, who at 36 years and 341 days, became the oldest scorer in European 2018 Fifa World Cup Qualification games when he netted the second goal in a 4-0 win over Azerbaijan in November, is one of the inspirational leaders O'Neill can rely on to produce a big performance when it matters.

The man who scored against Ukraine at the Euro 2016 finals - Northern Ireland's first at a major tournament for 30 years - has established a dependable partnership with Jonny Evans for club and country and O'Neill says the centre-back has never spoken to him about leaving the international stage.

"I've never had a conversation with Gareth about 'can you give me another year?'," said the Northern Ireland boss.

"We have the odd joke about it but we've never had a serious conversation.

"He's never come to me and said: 'Look, maybe this will be the last year.'

"As far as I'm concerned, he's still going and will be for the foreseeable future.

"We've had great centre-halves in the past and Gareth is certainly up there with them, no doubt.

"It's probably slightly different in that there's the goals - nine - he's high up in our goalscoring charts.

"The example of player who didn't get the opportunity of being a professional footballer at a young age, and who never gave up, to have the career he's had - when I took the job he was at Ipswich and he played predominantly at right-back.

"And I played him at right back in the first game.

"After that I played him as a centre-half and he's never not played for me.

"He's amassed a lot of caps in the last five years.

"Nothing has come easy to him, his club career hasn't come easy to him, his international career hasn't come easy to him - I suppose his legacy will be that it's never too late, the perseverance element, the dream.

"To experience what he did at the Euro 2016 finals in France last summer is incredible."

Big G continues to shine for the Baggies too with his appearance tally past the 200 mark since his arrival in the summer of 2011.

O'Neill added: "To me he's a better player for me now than he was when I took the job.

"He wasn't playing in the Premier League then.

"Playing in that league has made him a better defender, to be able to improve at that age is probably very rare.

"At that age - he's the oldest outfield player in the Premier League and he plays every minute of every game for West Brom, plus the goals, he heads it a lot - he relishes the tussles he gets now.

"He gets the chance to play against Diego Costa, (Romelu) Lukaku, it's something he relishes given that he's getting it in the latter stages of his career.

"He's got such a frame. Athletically, he's probably better than when he came into the game."

McAuley will believe he has one more major tournament in him before he finally hangs up the boots.

O'Neill's men can take another step closer to Russia if they conquer Norway in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park on Sunday night.

The big man's still got big dreams.

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