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Northern Ireland v Greece: Fired-up Gareth McAuley to give fans plenty to roar about in crunch Euro qualifier


Raring to go: Gareth McAuley can’t wait to get onto the pitch against Greece at Windsor Park

Raring to go: Gareth McAuley can’t wait to get onto the pitch against Greece at Windsor Park

?William Cherry / Presseye

Raring to go: Gareth McAuley can’t wait to get onto the pitch against Greece at Windsor Park

Gareth McAuley limped into the press conference. Worry not. Northern Ireland's inspirational defender was having a laugh relating to concerns over a calf injury.

Asked about his fitness, he said: "I've still got two feet and a heartbeat so I'm good to go." Big smile to follow.

Typical of 'Big G'. Great guy. Great form in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and blessed with a great sense of humour.

He's been the same since his Irish League days. He may be in the Premier League now starring for West Brom, but the Larne man could never be accused of becoming a big time Charlie.

That down to earth attitude is one of the reasons why the Green and White Army love him. Ironically, the relationship has become stronger since McAuley asked the fans to be more vociferous in their support of the team when Northern Ireland were having a difficult time in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.

It was put to McAuley yesterday in his press briefing ahead of tomorrow's vital Euro 2016 qualifier at home to Greece that he was like a representative of the fans out on the pitch. He accepted the tag, making sure to point out that the Windsor Park faithful were behind all of his team-mates too.

McAuley, like Northern Ireland under manager Michael O'Neill (right), has come a long way from starting out at Linfield as a teenager, moving on to Crusaders and then to a talented and spirited Coleraine side led by Marty Quinn.

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From there he made the move to full-time football, gradually stepping up the ladder with Lincoln, Leicester, Ipswich and latterly WBA in the top flight, where the 35-year-old has excelled since 2011.

On his relationship with the fans, McAuley said: "Every time I play I want to do my best and if that produces a connection with people that's great. Hopefully they can live their dreams through us and what we are trying to achieve in this campaign. I'm a fan as well and feel excited like our fans right now.

"I spent a lot of time playing here and probably came up the hard way and I am proud of what I have achieved. There is no hiding that.

"I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. It has made me the person I am.

"I have learnt from my time playing with the players at home and the coaches right the way through. I am still learning, even at the veteran stage.

"I used to go and watch Northern Ireland play and cheered on some of the players playing alongside me for Northern Ireland now before my chance came.

"It means a hell of a lot to me, my family and where I come from to play for Northern Ireland."

McAuley was measured and sensible in his approach to questions yesterday, coming across as the elder, experienced statesman ahead of a match which if won by Northern Ireland sees them qualify for next year's finals.

He spoke clearly about the danger of Greece, despite their bottom of the table status, stating: "In their last game they had something like eight players in their starting XI that played Champions League football last week and the closest we got was Paddy McNair on the bench for Manchester United, so there is a lot of quality in their team."

And on Northern Ireland's approach?

"It's got to be cool heads, we've got to be relaxed about it," he warned.

"I know the crowd will be going daft and getting behind us and sometimes when that happens you make crazy decisions on the pitch.

"We've got to play our own game and try and deal with the atmosphere. There's enough experience in the squad to do that."

It's good to know influential McAuley is 'good to go'.

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