Belfast Telegraph

I'll drop to West Brom Under 23s to help Northern Ireland if I don't make the first team, vows McAuley

 

By Paul Ferguson

Influential Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley will ask his club boss Tony Pulis if he can play with the West Brom kids over the next few weeks - should the Baggies manager continue to exclude him from the first team.

After Michael O'Neill's men confirmed their place on Sunday night in the 2018 World Cup play-off, McAuley, who was forced to sit out the first six weeks of the season with a thigh issue, is desperate for regular football to make sure he is in the best condition for the two-legged shoot-out which will decide if Northern Ireland are to reach Russia and their second major finals in a row.

With McAuley's fellow 37-year-old international Aaron Hughes currently sidelined due to a calf complaint and his participation in the play-offs uncertain, and Craig Cathcart ruled out until January, boss O'Neill will require a fully fit Big G if Northern Ireland are to stand a realistic chance of making their first World Cup in 31 years.

Since returning from injury in the middle of September, McAuley has only played once for the West Brom first team - a 60 minute run-out against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.

Manager Pulis hasn't even included the highly-experienced centre back, who played in 38 games for the Baggies last season, on the bench recently for their Premier League games.

But having played the full 90 minutes in Northern Ireland's final two qualifying games against Germany and Norway, McAuley hopes to regain his place at the heart of West Brom's defence alongside international team-mate Jonny Evans.

If not, then McAuley wants to be in the under-23 games.

"Obviously not playing and being injured at the start of the season was not ideal - not being able to challenge for a place," concedes McAuley.

"Now I've got two games under my belt here I just have to go back, train well and see what happens. I'll try and get some football anyway, even if it's with the under-23s or with the first team.

"I need to make sure I maintain fitness going into the games next month."

With Sunday evening's 1-0 defeat in Norway likely to push Northern Ireland down the Fifa rankings from their current position of 20th when they are released next Monday, the men in green are unlikely to be seeded for the play-offs - the draw of which takes place in Zurich 24 hours later.

McAuley is expecting a European heavyweight with Italy and Portugal in the mix and freely admits with the prize on offer should they win, whoever Northern Ireland are drawn with, they will have to treat it like "two cup finals".

"It's going to be tough no matter who we get, over the two legs it's going to be tough," stresses McAuley, who is enjoying the greatest experience of his career in his twilight years.

"I'm not sure what the turnaround between games even is. We've got it to look forward to, to get our teeth into, and the prize at the end of it will be massive so therefore the games will be two massive cup finals.

"In terms of who we get, I've not even sat down and really looked at it over the last 24 hours as it was chopping and changing and teams were jumping in and out. I'm not even sure who is involved in it. Obviously Portugal and Italy are very strong nations."

Northern Ireland going into their final World Cup qualifying game were on 19 points following six victories and a draw - an incredible achievement considering Group C included world champions Germany, the Czech Republic, Norway and Azerbaijan. They had only conceded goals to and been defeated by the Germans.

Seven clean sheets was a proud record for goalkeeper Michael McGovern and his defenders and, after the defeat to Germany last Thursday night, all the players as they flew into the Norwegian capital on Friday morning were determined to finish on an almighty high.

But just under an hour before kick-off at the Ullevaal Stadion, news filtered through to the dressing room that their play-off place was assured after Scotland could only draw 2-2 with Slovenia in Ljubljana.

The relief was palpable, but it also had an adverse effect on the players - especially those six players who were on yellow cards and in danger of missing the first leg of the play-offs through suspension. Understandably, Northern Ireland produced their worst performance of the campaign with poor Chris Brunt putting the ball into his own net after a mistake by reliable keeper McGovern.

McAuley admitted: "In the dressing room lads were looking at their phones.

"We tried as much as we could to focus and cut that out but news filters through.

"It changed the mindset a little bit. It makes it easier for the lads on yellows to get through the game without picking up another one.

"The defeat maybe took an edge off it a little bit but we've got a play-off to look forward to.

"The lads are disappointed, flat, but we've got the play-off and that's a massive positive.

"We've got a chance and I don't think anyone should be too disappointed with the campaign. At the start of it, after the draw (in the Czech Republic on September 4, 2016), you'd have taken it all day long."

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