Belfast Telegraph

Gareth McAuley determined to reach Russia and prove Euros were no one-off


By Steven Beacom

Gareth McAuley has revealed that a fierce determination to show that Northern Ireland's qualification for the Euro 2016 finals was not a fluke is spurring the team on in the World Cup campaign.

Playing in the glamour stages of the European Championships last year was the first time Northern Ireland had featured in a major tournament for THREE decades.

West Bromwich Albion star McAuley has spoken about his intent on ensuring the Green and White Army don't have to wait that long again.

The inspirational 37-year-old, who with nine goals has scored more for Northern Ireland than any other defender, adds that if the team reach the World Cup finals next year it will make the Euro achievement even greater.

Right now Michael O'Neill's men are in a position to do it. World Champions Germany are running away with the group, but Northern Ireland are in second spot two points clear of nearest challengers the Czech Republic. Stay there and they will earn themselves a play-off with a trip to Russia the prize.

McAuley is proud that Northern Ireland have kicked on after France proving that they are not a one tournament wonder.

"It was something I wanted to happen as I think the better we do in this campaign the better the Euro campaign actually looks," said McAuley.

"Sometimes in football people can be very cynical and they can throw things at you like it was a fluke so the better we can do as a group of players, the more critics can be answered.

"You are always under pressure to perform but it is nice to carry on what we did in the Euros. It's great that there is still a feelgood factor surrounding the team when we go back home and about international football in Northern Ireland.

"Hopefully it is being used to get more kids into football and to bring more kids through who could go on in the future and play for Northern Ireland.

"Obviously our aim is to qualify for the next World Cup, but if we don't hopefully it won't be another 30 years until the country reaches another tournament."

O'Neill was due to name his squad today for Friday's home friendly against New Zealand and the crucial World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan eight days later.

McAuley missed WBA's final two matches of the season due to injury but the manager was hoping the influential defender would be available for international duty.

Down the years qualifying fixtures in June have not always been kind to Northern Ireland, but McAuley has faith that the match in Azerbaijan on June 10 can bear fruit.

"It's a big, big game for us. Conditions will be tough and it will be warm but hopefully most of the lads won't have had too much of a break after their season and we should be fit enough and able to handle the conditions," he said.

"Where we are in the group it is an important match. Take three points and then we have home games to look forward to and our record at Windsor Park lately has been very good."

In the last qualifier in March - a 2-0 home victory over Norway - manager O'Neill chose to play a three man defence with McAuley lining up alongside WBA team-mate Jonny Evans and Watford's Craig Cathcart at the back.

"We have been working hard on the three man defence and it felt comfortable in the last game," said McAuley.

"We have all played it before but when you are playing with other players you still have to get used to it.

"It is another tactic Michael can use. We have worked on the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation as well. It is good to have options because games can be different tactically and the 3-5-2 gives us two players up front which you need at times."

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