Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland to Euro 2016: Long journey to finals worth wait for Gareth McAuley

By Jonathan Bradley

Still draped in a French flag, an emotional Gareth McAuley insisted he never gave up hope of representing Northern Ireland at a major tournament.

The inspirational centre-back has been a stalwart for Michael O'Neill's men, while even becoming an important goal-scorer during this campaign, and saw last night's 3-1 win over Greece that sealed qualification for Euro 2016 as the culmination of many years hard work in the colours of his country.

"It's been a long, long journey for me in my career," said the West Brom man.

"The chance to play in something as special as a European Championship is going to be the icing on the cake.

"Every time you put on the shirt you believe you can do something extra special to give back to that crowd out there.

"I've got people who have come from England and they've never seen an atmosphere like that. It's incredible.

"We've had one-off games when we've got results, but to qualify for this tournament, we've done it in a bit of style.

"That's a massive credit to Michael (O'Neill).

"When we go out there we've got a plan, and we believe in that plan and we carry it out. It's working so far and long may it continue."

McAuley shed a few tears at the final whistle, embracing long-time teammate Aaron Hughes when their place in France next summer was ensured.

"A little bit at the end with Hughesey," he revealed when asked if he was overcome at the final whistle.

"I've known him since we were nine or ten, that's 25 years. To finally get the chance for something like this…it's special."

McAuley also reserved special praise for his boss O'Neill.

"What Michael does away from when we're with him is incredible," he said.

"The detail he puts into it, what he gives us, he just gets it spot on. He went through a rough time in the World Cup qualification, but we've scored the goals in this campaign that were lacking in the last one and it's all come together."

Such is his respect for the man who has guided Northern Ireland to their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup, McAuley even promised to not spend too long celebrating last night.

"Michael has told us we have to be on the plane for ten in the morning, that's all he's said.

"I thought we'd won the group but Romania have scored late on.

"We're going to need something in Helsinki now to win the group. So we'll celebrate but we want to win the group to put the cherry on top."

Corry Evans echoed the sentiments of McAuley while struggling to put the historic result into perspective.

"It's not sunk in yet to be honest," he said last night.

"It'll probably be tomorrow before we realise what it means to everyone involved but to the country as a whole as well."

The younger Evans brother was involved in the first goal, his brilliant through ball to Stuart Dallas was then squared to Steven Davis, and while thrilled with the memory, he is intent to make more in eight months.

"It's pleasing to play a part in the goal, especially on a big night like this. It's one I can always look back on and be proud of," he said.

"We're going to go (to France) and give it our best shot. Michael has instilled great belief in us."

Belfast Telegraph