Belfast Telegraph

We have reached a whole new level

McAuley is relishing fierce battles on big stage

By Steven Beacom

When Gareth McAuley walks out at the Stade de Nice tomorrow in front of 35,000 people, it will be the proudest moment of his career.

From starting off as a kid at Linfield and playing on loan at Ballyclare Comrades before going to Crusaders and then Coleraine and on to the professional ranks and up the divisions with Lincoln, Leicester, Ipswich and West Brom, the 36-year-old has had quite a ride.

But nothing will compare to when he takes his place in defence to tackle Poland and the great Robert Lewandowski in Northern Ireland's first match in the European Championship finals.

For 30 years the country has waited for its national team to play again in a major tournament and McAuley feels privileged to be part of the select group who will represent the hopes and dreams of thousands of fans in France and even more back home.

"For every player in our squad this is the biggest international they will have played in their lives," said McAuley.

"I would say it is the biggest game ever for us all too. Jonny (Evans) has played in the Champions League on numerous occasions for Manchester United but when it is your country it is different and there will be emotions and passion. It will be on another level."

So, just how will McAuley, a dyed in the wool Northern Ireland fan turned player, keep those emotions and that passion in check?

Well, he will remember a piece of advice given to him by goalkeeping icon Harry Gregg, a hero of Northern Ireland's 1958 World Cup side.

"Back in 2003 when I played in the Irish Cup final for Coleraine, which was my biggest game until that point, the legend Harry Gregg gave me good advice. He said 'listen, just play your game, forget the occasion'.

"It's stuck with me right throughout my career and I'll stick with it against Poland.

"We also have to stick to Michael O'Neill's plan, stick to our game and forget everything else. If we get carried away we'll lose sight and focus and if we do that, that will be a weakness."

And McAuley knows that in Lewandowski, Poland have a player who will take advantage of any weakness.

"You do your homework and look at his movements and what things he favours, one touch finishes or two touch finishes, little things like that," said McAuley.

"We are strong as a unit. If we stay tight and compact hopefully we can nullify the threat. There's all the talk about Robert and how good he is and rightly so but it is a bit disrespectful to the other strengths that Poland possess.

"If you focus on one player too much they have other players there who can hurt us."

The target for Northern Ireland is to reach the knockout stages. McAuley says to do that the team must play the match of their lives three times over against Poland, Ukraine and Germany and bring their A game every time.

He adds that the closer tomorrow has come the more tempo has increased in training.

"Once it gets started it will be over in a flash really. We want to hit the ground running," said McAuley, ahead of today's chartered flight from base camp in Lyon to Nice.

"There's a little bit of edge now, a little bit of tension building, it's a nice feeling. When we leave for Nice it will really start to build up. The focus is there, determination is there, once we get in the stadium and see the crowd we'll be bang at it."

McAuley is aware of the fervour and excitement in Northern Ireland and the legacy playing in a tournament like this could leave for future generations.

He said: "Back home there's a lot of interest, a lot more kids are getting involved in football and there are Northern Ireland shirts everywhere, which is fantastic to see.

"You talk about leaving a legacy from the tournament, that would be to produce more players and to get back to more major tournaments."

While the battle will be fierce on the pitch, the WBA defender feels off the pitch it will be just as competitive between both sets of vociferous supporters.

"It's going to be noisy. Our supporters against the Poland supporters will be a good one in terms of atmosphere," said the big man with a big heart and a big part to play at Euro 2016.

N Ireland


Euro 2016 Group C:

Nice, Sunday, 5.00pm

Belfast Telegraph