Belfast Telegraph

I will beg McAuley to stay on for Euro 2020, says O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has admitted he may have to go down on one knee and beg Gareth McAuley not to quit international football at the end of this World Cup adventure.

Big G is back on the big stage after recovering from a thigh injury in good time to take on Group C leaders Germany on October 5 at Windsor Park and then Norway in Oslo three days later.

The West Brom ace was forced off in the win over Azerbaijan in June but he should win his 73rd cap against the World champions as Northern Ireland look to make a huge statement before gearing up for a likely play-off showdown.

Set to turn 38 in December, the centre-back is probably entertaining a few international retirement thoughts, but O'Neill hopes to banish them.

"I'm not resigned to being without Gareth for the next Euro 2020 campaign as we don't have another Gareth McAuley in the wings," explained the Northern Ireland chief.

"He will be an extremely difficult player to replace, as will Aaron (Hughes) with their level of experience. There's always going to be a conversation, it's more I'm down on one knee begging him not to retire, but these guys have earned the right to make that decision as Chris Baird did.

"They have given a long time to international football and if Gareth feels it's the right thing to do I would have no problem with that, but I would like him to stay with us for as long as possible.

"It's something for down the line. I know Gareth's focus will be to get himself right for hopefully a play-off game in November and then hopefully a World Cup in the summer."

Should McAuley stay on and Northern Ireland were to reach the Euro 2020 finals, he could become the oldest ever player to feature, surpassing Hungary goalkeeper Gábor Király.

McAuley moved from Coleraine to Lincoln in 2004 and was 25-years-old when he made his international debut against Germany in June, 2005 - a 4-1 defeat.

"It's amazing really to think what age he made his debut at, I can remember playing against Gareth in an Irish Cup Final so that says it all," added O'Neill, who enjoyed a brief spell with Glentoran at the end of his playing career. "What he epitomises, and I have said it many times, is he's the best example to a player here in the Irish League who thinks the chance has passed them by and it won't happen for them.

"Gareth went to Lincoln, which wasn't the most glamorous move to have at that stage of his career, but what he has done with the opportunity is an example to any player.

"I've been watching the Jamie Vardy Academy on Sky and Gareth is a centre-half version of that, to come from the level of football he was at at the age of 25 to play in major finals and work his way to the Premier League in his thirties.

"He has been a top player at that level and to reach 75 caps will be phenomenal, he's been a brilliant player for me, hardly missed a game, and his performances for me have been top class.

"It is much better to have Gareth available than not. It gives us a bit more flexibility whether to play three at the back or two centre-backs.

"I know his game time has been limited but Gareth is always a player you want available."

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