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Gareth McAuley: My Christmas wishes include Larne Cup run, new Northern Ireland manager and Rangers closing gap on Celtic

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill
Gareth McAuley

By Gareth McAuley

MY hometown team Larne are currently the best of the rest in the Danske Bank Premiership.

For a newly promoted club, that would usually be deemed more than acceptable.

But following major investment in recent years, the quality players manager Tiernan Lynch has been able to bring in and a business brain behind the structure and running of the club, coming sixth in the League would be the minimum requirement.

It's hard to see them breaking into the top five, especially with a resurgent Glentoran looking in fine form.

But that has to be the aim. Larne are ambitious and want to be challenging for honours, so they need to push on during the second half of the season and prove why they belong with the elite of the Premiership. Consistency will be key.

But maybe with being a serious title contender this season out of their reach, the Irish Cup in 2020 can provide the glory for the Inver Park side. That would be incredible and would create such a buzz around the town. In recent times, they've managed to get to the odd Final and Semi-Final but never quite crossed the line. If they are able to despatch Belfast Celtic in the fifth round then a good draw will be crucial to their hopes. Cup success could certainly be a launchpad to something special for Larne.

But more importantly for me in 2020, I want a pathway opened up at Larne for young players from the area to succeed.

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I'm aware of local lads having to play their football elsewhere and I hope that would be addressed in the coming year.

I want boys to be totally immersed in the system at Inver Park, to be part of the development programme so that they can continually improve and be real assets to the club. Hopefully if they've come through all the stages, they can play for the first team and then use their performances in the Premiership to get a move across the water.

But if not, then Larne will still benefit considerably and I feel focusing on the local talent should be a major aim in 2020.

IRISH FA NEED TO MICH A BIG DECISION

THE Irish FA need to be pro-active in their search for a new international manager during the early stages of 2020.

I know there is an agreement in place for Michael O'Neill (right) to manage Northern Ireland in the play-off game in March against Bosnia and possibly the Final five days later. I think that's great from a Northern Ireland perspective, but if Stoke City continue to lose matches like they did against Middlesbrough on Friday night and languish in the relegation zone of the Championship, Michael will be in the firing line of Potters fans.

They will be demanding their boss put all his focus into pulling Stoke away from the dreaded drop.

If it stays the way it is, I think it will be very difficult for Stoke to release Michael or for him to even agree to switch his attention to Northern Ireland.

And therein lies a massive problem for the Irish FA.

Where is the IFA's plan? What are they waiting for? I know there has been talk about continuity, but do they just expect a manager to fall into their lap?

I want to see action.

Plan A is having Michael in charge of such a huge game against Bosnia, however it's vital there is a Plan B. March 26 will come around very quickly and with so many tough games on the horizon for Stoke, will their position in the Championship change anytime soon? The Irish FA must be prepared for that.

Bosnia will be a tough test for us and if we are able to get through, I hope the Final will be against Slovakia.

I'm just not sure the country is ready for a Northern Ireland v Republic Final at Windsor Park.

Football in Northern Ireland is in such a good place that I would hate for it to be ruined by an element who aren't interested in the actual football.

I would back our fans to behave themselves and be respectful but if the game is avoidable, then I would prefer it if we played Slovakia at home for the right to go to the Euro 2020 finals.

Not from a football perspective but because of all the nonsense that will be dredged up to go along with the game.

There would be so much riding on the game and I would be concerned about what it could spark off.

It can be leagues apart for starlets

I want to see Northern Ireland's top young players at clubs in England playing games that actually mean something in 2020.

They will learn very little from playing Under-23 football, performing in a comfort zone where there are no consequences.

But if Ethan Galbraith (Manchester United), Alfie McCalmont (Leeds United) and Daniel Ballard (Arsenal) are able to go to a League One or League Two team on loan, then I'm convinced it will blow their minds in terms of football development.

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Northern Ireland youngster Ethan Galbraith is also part of the squad for the clash with Astana.

You will be playing with guys who depend on a win bonus to pay the bills, who have to be ruthless in order to earn a living and they will soon find the mentality and desire is completely different at Football League clubs. It will be a football education.

I remember when I joined Lincoln City in League Two, there were young guys who came in on loan who quickly found out how much winning a game of football really mattered. You simply had to win and the result affected the mood of the club for the following week.

Daniel obviously tried to go out on loan to Swindon Town but was then struck down by a serious long-term injury. But I trained with Daniel during his time with the international set-up, and I really liked his character and work ethic. He was always willing to learn and I was impressed he wanted to go out on loan to improve his game. I only hope he can come back stronger from his knee injury.

If Ethan (18), Alfie (19) and Daniel (20) are able to develop quickly then it will not be long before they are the backbone of Northern Ireland and they can be for the next decade. That's the potential of these young players, but they need to be exposed to unrelenting football.

Gerrard's men must find range

THE only way Rangers can close the gap on Celtic is sustained pressure.

Too often this season Rangers have promised much but failed to deliver when it really counted.

The games against Aberdeen and Celtic both spring to mind.

Dropping points or not taking opportunities has allowed the Hoops to open a five-point lead over Steven Gerrard's men which may prove a real struggle to draw back.

Celtic have proved to be, especially domestically, utterly ruthless.

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Right direction: Steven Gerrard has breathed new life into Rangers

They very rarely slip up while Rangers, on occasions, have pressed the self-destruct button.

However, Rangers have definitely improved this season and the only way to make Celtic crack is by upping the intensity of the chase and that means nothing less than victory in every Scottish Premiership match they play in.

Europe could also have a factor now they are both through to the knockout stages.

Games on a Thursday and then Sunday can take their toll as the season progresses - especially as a lot of travel could be involved.

It will be interesting to see who can cope with it better, especially if they go on a bit of a run in the competition and there is a real chance of that happening with Celtic playing Copenhagen and Rangers meeting Braga in the next stage of the Europa League.

I would also like to see some of the Rangers youth being given their opportunity in 2020. When I was there last year there were some decent prospects and I would hope they could be given a push in Gerrard's first-team squad as the season progresses.

I'm having to manage options

I'M at a crossroads with my coaching badges.

I really feel I should do all my badges with the Irish FA and last summer I completed my 'B' Licence with them.

However, they only run one course a year in early summer, so I would have to wait until then but that is a lot of wasted time.

Also, to work in Academy football in England, you need a youth diploma which can't be obtained through the Irish FA. You can only do that in England.

So now I'm thinking, should I just get myself organised with the youth diploma and 'A' Licence over there and jump ship?

If I crack on, it would quicken the process and allow me to have the qualifications I need to look seriously at coaching opportunities.

So I have a decision to make because I really see coaching and hopefully being a manager as my future.

STU LEEDING WAY TO THE VERY TOP

UNLESS you are Jonny Evans, Premier League clubs are not going to buy Northern Ireland players.

Therefore, promotion is the best way for a player from here to play top-flight football.

I moved to West Brom on a free transfer when they were already in the Premier League, while Craig Cathcart came up with Watford and just last year, Ollie Norwood played a key role as Sheffield United returned. Now look at the Blades go with Ollie in their midfield.

I know Leeds United slipped up yesterday to Fulham but they are still in an automatic position for promotion and if ever a player deserved to reach the Premier League, then it's Stuart Dallas.

After his displays this year he should be on the radar of every Premier League club, but they'll not go for him, so his best bet is to come up with Leeds.

Stuartie is more than ready to take the leap, his game has improved immeasurably and he's a great testament to the Irish League and Crusaders.

It also shows Irish League players that there is a pathway to the top flight and that talent alone will not see you flourish - you need to have a strong work ethic, desire and take your opportunity.

Leeds are in a great position and Northern Ireland would only benefit from another key man in the top flight.

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