Belfast Telegraph

We won't find another Gareth McAuley easily: Michael O'Neill pays tribute to retired Northern Ireland hero

Great times: Gareth McAuley is presented with the man of the match award by Michael O’Neill after beating Ukraine in 2016
Great times: Gareth McAuley is presented with the man of the match award by Michael O’Neill after beating Ukraine in 2016

By Graham Luney

Michael O'Neill has paid a glowing tribute to Gareth McAuley while admitting he didn't want the defender to hang up his boots.

The Larne man won 80 caps and scored nine goals in an international career that spanned 14 years.

McAuley produced one of the iconic moments of sport in Northern Ireland when he scored the first goal in his country's 2-0 win over Ukraine at the Euro 2016 finals in France.

O'Neill, who yesterday named his squad for the Euro 2020 qualifier against Netherlands in Rotterdam on Thursday and the friendly in the Czech Republic the following Monday, joined the chorus of praise following the 39-year-old's decision to quit playing after 23 years in the game.

"Gareth was extremely important for me," said O'Neill. "I remember in my first game I asked Gareth to play right-back, a position he had been asked a lot to play in at that time, because of the options at centre-back.

"It was the last time he played there for Northern Ireland, and I realised to get the best of him we had to play him at centre-back. He certainly responded to that.

"There is no doubt the last five or six years have been the best of his international career and he really showed what a top-class international player he was, both defensively and the goal threat he brought from set-pieces. Also the leadership qualities. He always wore his heart on his sleeve.

"It is amazing to think of a player who was about 24 when he left the Irish League after playing against me in a Cup final, so that shows how old he is, really.

"To get 80 caps is an incredible achievement. From when he got his first, which was pretty late, to where he finished is incredible. It is a shame (he's retired) really.

"I was desperate for him to play on. You won't find another Gareth McAuley easily.

"Physically, I think he could have played on. But you have to respect his decision. His legacy for me is that he will be up there with the best centre-backs we have produced.

"You look at the likes of Gerry Taggart who scored goals as well, Gareth is right in the company of the best we have produced."

St Johnstone winger Matthew Kennedy was called up to O'Neill's squad for the first time.

Belfast-born Kennedy played for Scotland at youth and Under-21 level but has officially switched allegiance to Northern Ireland, having trained with the senior squad last month.

"I think when a player gets to a certain age he needs to be settled, and that's what St Johnstone have given him - a platform," added O'Neill.

"The fact he was born here means there is a strong pull to play for us, that's the reality of the situation. We are delighted to have him in. I still think the best is yet to come from Matty.

"I think some of the games he's played against the bigger teams in Scotland, particularly last season, he really showed what he is capable of.

"Hopefully this will help elevate him as well. We've seen international football elevate so many of our players in their club careers."

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