Belfast Telegraph

New formation, new shirt, same old super Gareth McAuley

By Steven Beacom

Gareth McAuley always calls it straight. And he isn't about to change just because Northern Ireland have qualified for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years.

Best thing about Friday's 1-0 friendly success over Latvia at Windsor Park?

"Winning. Clean sheet," he replied succinctly, adding that it was "great" to meet up with his international team-mates again to talk about all that they have achieved in a green shirt.

Against Latvia, the players were in the new green, white and blue strip that caused so much controversy when it was unveiled last week.

There was also a new system adopted by manager Michael O'Neill which saw the home team line out in a 3-5-2 formation.

Defensively the back three of McAuley, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart comfortably coped with the change, though Latvia rarely tested them.

McAuley was a rock playing in every single Group F game as Northern Ireland qualified for Euro 2016, and in the first match since finishing top of the table, the West Brom star was solid again.

"People will say Latvia weren't the toughest of opposition but it was a good exercise for the manager to try something different and hopefully it's something we can use again going forward if needed," said McAuley.

"It needs fine-tuning but it's important that we have different plans to use during games. It's another string to our bow and another tactical option for Michael to deploy.

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"Michael is a deep thinker on the game and he is very good tactically.

"He can see different things and he said to us during the week, if we can switch up like that during games it's something different and something we can use.

"Obviously we can play the 4-3-3 that we've done throughout the campaign, but this is something else we can use.

"It's not about individuals. It's about what we do as a team and we're strong as a team.

"Michael gives us a plan and we work on that plan during the week."

The build up to the victory over Latvia had its distractions, such as civic receptions for the squad to celebrate their campaign.

In many ways being back in Northern Ireland brought it home to the players the feel-good factor they have generated around the country.

McAuley said: "There were a lot of things going on in the background, but we were still doing the work on the training pitch obviously.

"It was nice being recognised for having done something good for the country.

"Different people were coming up to us who didn't even follow football saying how delighted they were that we had qualified. That makes you proud."

No matter the system, McAuley will be one of O'Neill's key performers in France next year.

The man himself will tell you he has a lot of football for his club to think about before then, though he will be suspended for Albion's Premier League encounter on Saturday with Arsenal at the Hawthorns following his red card against Manchester United before joining up with the international squad.

"Lots of people are talking about it, but the tournament is that far away that anything can happen," said the former Coleraine hero.

"I'm not even thinking about it. My focus is on my next time I play for my club and trying to do well, but I will look forward to the group draw for Euro 2016 next month."

Belfast Telegraph