Northern Ireland v San Marino: We'll ignore Windsor circus and get job done, says Gareth McAuley
Gareth McAuley has insisted that the Northern Ireland players will NOT be distracted in their bid to beat San Marino in tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier by events surrounding the official opening of the new Windsor Park.
The straight-talking West Brom defender is pleased that the international stadium is now a state-of-the-art arena but is clear that the only thing that really matters tomorrow evening is a Northern Ireland win as Michael O’Neill’s men endeavour to qualify for their second major tournament in a row following the unforgettable experience of the Euro 2016 finals.
Fifa President Gianni Infantino has been invited to attend by the Irish FA, along with a host of Northern Ireland sporting heroes, musicians and television stars, but all the razzmatazz won’t be on McAuley’s mind.
“I hope it’s not like a circus, we just want to focus on the football,” said the 36-year-old centre-back.
“I’m sure there will be things going on which are great for supporters and the IFA, but hopefully we will be left to concentrate on getting a victory. That’s our priority.”
McAuley added: "We're here to try to achieve the impossible again. We've built a squad capable of getting to a major tournament and, although that was a long and tough road, it was absolutely fantastic to be involved in and everyone would love to do it once more."
The former Coleraine hero has played at Windsor in its different forms over the years and says while the fans have always been the heartbeat of the stadium, he believes modernising the place can benefit football in the country long-term.
"It will be different at Windsor Park now. It will be closed in again which is good, and the crowd will be right behind us," said McAuley.
"We'll enjoy it as well as the supporters. It is a fantastic stadium and I'm sure it will generate a great atmosphere.
"Over the years they have been with us they've been fantastic. Even in the last campaign when it was half a stadium or three quarters it didn't feel like that.
"It'll always be Windsor Park to me. It may not look like the one I grew up wanting to play at, but we have been crying out for years and years to move the football on and the stadium helps us do that.
"I've spoken to a lot of people in England and they talk about the atmosphere in Belfast and how special it is, especially under the lights.
"The stadium is much nicer for supporters now, it's much more comfortable and the pitch is much better. It will be great to have 18,500 people in there. Tickets are hard to come by and long may that continue."
The team have the stadium. One wonders if there will now be a move to set up top-class training facilities in Northern Ireland to prepare for games rather than have training camps in Dublin?
"The reason we're at Carton House is because the training facilities are on-site. Obviously we don't have that in Northern Ireland," said McAuley.
"Being down here isn't ideal, I'd rather be in Belfast or Northern Ireland, but the bigger picture is that the facilities are here and it makes it easier to get the work done."
Fans have been asked to be in the stadium at 6.30pm tomorrow to witness a 'Lap of Legends' which will see Northern Ireland greats Harry Gregg, Peter McParland, Pat Jennings, Mal Donaghy and Sammy McIlroy be joined on the pitch by the likes of World boxing champion Carl Frampton, former World snooker champion Dennis Taylor, Paralympics gold medal winning star Bethany Firth as well as Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol and TV actor James Nesbitt.