Belfast Telegraph

Gareth McAuley determined to give his everything despite unclear future

By Steven Beacom

Gareth McAuley is not considering hanging up his boots, but his future at club and international level is now uncertain.

The 35-year-old hasn't yet put pen to paper on a new deal at West Brom with Leicester City and Leeds United waiting to pounce.

McAuley and Chris Baird are included on the Baggies' release list and they have big calls to make regarding their futures.

At international level, both men are desperate to make it to the Euro 2016 finals in France next summer and a victory at home to Romania on Saturday night would leave Northern Ireland tantalisingly close to realising their dream.

"Playing on after this campaign is going to be a big ask," admitted McAuley.

"To be honest though, I can only assess that at the time and it is probably best to do that on a yearly basis.

"When I was at Ipswich, Sammy Morgan said to me, 'let your country retire you'.

"That has really stayed with me.

"What I can say for sure is that I will do everything to give myself every opportunity."

Romania are the only side in qualifying Group F to get the better of Michael O'Neill's men to date.

A 2-0 loss in Bucharest threatened to disrupt the feelgood factor but former Coleraine and Crusaders defender McAuley says a different Northern Ireland side will run out at the new-look Windsor on Saturday.

"We have worked on things that we believe we can improve on from the defeat in Romania," he added.

"Having said that, we were without a few players.

"Steven Davis was injured, as were Jamie Ward and Shane Ferguson and Jonny Evans hadn't been available at that stage.

"I wasn't playing regularly at my club at that stage and little things went against us that night.

"I still don't believe we played anywhere near the level we are capable of. We have a clean bill of health for this game and the lads have looked after themselves well since the end of the season."

After an uninspiring World Cup qualifying campaign, the Green and White Army weren't anticipating many heroics along the road to France.

But the mood music is different now after four wins from five matches and the supporters are daring to dream.

Expectation levels have shot up and O'Neill is faced with the unlikely challenge of keeping his players' feet on the ground.

McAuley is just thrilled that hope and belief is sweeping the country.

"The supporters probably didn't expect to qualify but there is a hope and a belief now," he added. "You never expect to win games, but we believe we are good enough to do it.

"Anything can happen in a game, and has done for us, good and bad in the past, but the pressure on us comes from ourselves.

"We want to deliver results. We have had a little rub of the green in this campaign whereas in the last couple of campaigns we haven't at all.

"This game is big because it is a home game and we are in a strong position but there is a massive double header in September, too."

He added: "It is easier for us to detach ourselves from people talking about qualification back home.

"Our minds are focused on winning games. If we go and lose the next five games we aren't going to qualify for anything.

"That is something which can drive us on during games. It's important we treat this game just like any other. The preparation has been exactly the same."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes has not ruled out playing abroad as he seeks to extend his club and international career.

The 35-year-old is searching for a new club after being released by Brighton.

"I've played in England my whole career so it might be a nice change to go somewhere," said Hughes.

"Getting the chance to play somewhere different, somewhere new, getting a chance to maybe learn a new language, is something I've kept trying to do and been too lazy to actually get round to doing it. That sort of appeals to me."

Like every Northern Ireland supporter, Hughes is licking his lips in anticipation of ending a dose of major tournament blues which has existed for nearly 30 years.

"The excitement of thinking what could be ahead, I think, is what gets me most," he added.

"Without getting ahead of ourselves, we're just in a fantastic place in the group where we can make a push."

Hughes is only four games away from clocking up his 100th appearance for Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland vs Romania

Euro 2016 Qualifiers  Group F: Windsor Park, Sat 7.45pm (Sky Sports)

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