Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland hero Gareth McAuley pondering Final au revoir after European Championships

O'Neill talks to decide future after France

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland hero Gareth McAuley has revealed he will talk to manager Michael O'Neill about his international future after the Euro 2016 finals, insisting that he does not want to start another qualifying campaign unless he believes he can finish it.

Under O'Neill, West Brom defender McAuley has become one of the leaders of the side and is a huge favourite with the fans.

Not only has he emerged as a top class international centre-back, but he also pops up with crucial goals at the other end of the pitch.

The manager would love the 36-year-old to continue after Euro 2016 and play in the World Cup qualifiers, which begin in September, but McAuley admits he has a big decision after the tournament in France.

More: Windsor farewell for NI heroes?

It is possible that tomorrow night's friendly at home to Belarus will be his last international at Windsor Park and he is not alone in that regard with other national heroes Aaron Hughes, Roy Carroll and Chris Baird in a similar situation.

McAuley told the Belfast Telegraph: "I'm actually really excited about the Belarus game. Every time you play at Windsor Park it is special whether it is your first time or your last one. In terms of whether it is my last, I have not made up my mind on that one yet.

"What I'll do is sit down and talk to Michael about things after France. I'll be focused on the tournament and then we can discuss the future."

McAuley added: "Of course I want to play for Northern Ireland, but the thing is can I commit to two years for another qualifying campaign?

"I have it in my head that I am taking a season at a time.

"I've signed another year's contract at West Brom and the last thing I would want to do is start something and then have to retire or leave it in the middle.

"That's a big thing I have to sit down and speak to Michael about.

"He has said to me that I look like I could play for another two years but we'll see."

While there will be serious calls to make and players such as McAuley, Baird, Hughes and Carroll will take time to think things over, Northern Ireland assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl has been telling the players funny tales of how an international's future was decided during his time as a player in the 1980s.

With his face lighting up at the thought of Nicholl's tale, the former Coleraine star said: "Jimmy Nicholl tells a story about coming back from the 1986 World Cup and the then manager Billy Bingham calling players out down the plane and basically retiring them there and then."

McAuley is savouring the prospect of playing in Northern Ireland's first major tournament in 30 years.

He is one of those in the squad who can just about remember the days when the country qualified for the World Cup on a regular basis.

The towering defender, who was outstanding during the qualifying campaign, is determined that it won't be another three decades before Northern Ireland are back in the big time after Euro 2016 and feels what O'Neill's side are doing now can achieve a lasting legacy.

"I'd like to think we are building a legacy for the future," he said.

"I went into JD Sports just before Christmas to try and buy Northern Ireland tops and I had to pre-order them for the next batch, so that tells you how much people are buying into the Northern Ireland team.

"As a player now I want our team to inspire future generations and hope that it is not another 30 years before our next tournament."

Belfast Telegraph