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Gareth McAuley: Our true grit heroes had the last laugh on Koeman

Ronald Koeman praised Northern Ireland (Tim Goode/PA)
Ronald Koeman praised Northern Ireland (Tim Goode/PA)
Northern Ireland's Gavin Whyte with Netherlands' Daley Blind during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast.
Gareth McAuley

By Gareth McAuley

It wasn’t to be in the end for Northern Ireland but every player can hold their head up high after last night with Ronald Koeman forced to eat his own words.

Michael O’Neill got his team and tactics spot on for me, his team was the one that had the better chances to score and Holland were lucky not to lose on the night.

We know the Netherlands only needed a draw from the game, you could tell that from the manner in which they were time wasting and playing for the draw in the game and perhaps Mr Koeman might reflect on that.

The Green And White Army made their feelings on the Dutch manager known towards the end of the game and he had it coming in my book.

I was so proud of my former team mates last night, and I was gutted I couldn’t have been at Windsor Park but I was doing some media work.

It was a magnificent occasion, full of colour and noise and that is something we have come to expect when big teams arrive in Belfast for nights like these.

I wax delighted to see Gavin Whyte in the starting line-up when the teams were announced, it was a bold selection and told me Michael was going all out for victory.

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And what a start from Northern Ireland. Corry Evans was very impressive throughout and it’s just a pity his rebounded effort after three minutes didn’t find its way into the back of the Dutch net.

Every player gave their all and I thought we were in control of the game up until Berghuis had a looping shot come off the crossbar.

Holland saw plenty of the ball was Bailey Peacock Farrell was barely tested in the Dutch goal and we looked the more likely to score.

The penalty? I have to be honest and say I didn’t think it was a penalty, or let’s put it like this, I’d have been gutted had it been given against me.

Our captain, Steven Davis stepped up and you would have backed him to hit the the back of the net from twelve yards and I was getting ready to celebrate but it wasn’t to be.

I thought Steven changed his mind at the last minute, and I know Michael was unhappy about the keeper, Cillessen’s delaying tactics, but I have to say I don’t think a player of the calibre and experience of Steven Davis would let that sort of carry on put him off.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who has managed his last home game at Windsor Park, pictured with team captain Steven Davis after the game finished 0-0. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who has managed his last home game at Windsor Park, pictured with team captain Steven Davis after the game finished 0-0. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who has managed his last home game at Windsor Park, pictured with team captain Steven Davis after the game finished 0-0. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Northern Ireland's Steven Davis misses his penalty after Netherlands' Joel Veltman uses his arm to control the ball during Saturday night's UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Steven Davis misses his penalty after Netherlands' Joel Veltman uses his arm to control the ball during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis takes a penalty which he fails to score as Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk looks on. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pacemaker Belfast 16-11-19 Northern Ireland v Netherlands - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's Steven Davis misses a penalty during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Group C. Northern Ireland Vs Netherlands at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis takes a penalty which he fails to score at NetherlandsÕ captain Virgil van Dijk looks on. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pacemaker - Belfast - -16/11/2019. Northern Ireland v Holland Euro 2020 Qualifier Windsor Park Belfast Netherland's Virgil van Dijk contests the ref penalty decision In tonight"s game At Windsor Park Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press
Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen saves a shot the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 16, 2019. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wireduring the UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifying match at Windsor Park, Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 16, 2019. See PA story SOCCER N Ireland. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
Pacemaker Belfast 16-11-19 Northern Ireland v Netherlands - Euro 2020 Qualifier Northern Ireland's manager Michael O'Neill during this evening's game at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by David Maginnis/Pacemaker Press
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Bailey Peacock-Farrell during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland's Corry Evans with Netherlands' Davy Propper during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
PressEye-Northern Ireland- 16th November 2019-Picture by Brian Little/PressEye Northern Ireland Bailey Peacock-Farrell against Netherlands during Saturday's EURO 2020 Qualifier at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park. Picture by Brian Little/PressEye
Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans with Netherlands' Jasper Cillessen during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Northern Ireland's Josh Magennis during Saturday night's UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier against the Netherlands at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Pacemaker - Belfast - -16/11/2019. Northern Ireland v Holland Euro 2020 Qualifier Windsor Park Belfast Northern Ireland Josh Magennis shot just past the post In tonight"s game At Windsor Park Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press
Press Eye - Belfast, Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 - Photo by William Cherry/Presseye Northern Ireland with Netherlands during Saturday nights UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Northern Ireland manager Micheal O'Neill with Chris Brunt before Saturday night's UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier against Netherlands at the National Stadium, Belfast. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Group C. Northern Ireland Vs Netherlands at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland fans Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th November 2019 UEFA EURO 2020 Qualifier Group C. Northern Ireland Vs Netherlands at the National Stadium at Windsor Park, Belfast. Northern Ireland fans Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Pacemaker - Belfast - -16/11/2019. Northern Ireland v Holland Euro 2020 Qualifier Windsor Park Belfast Dutch fan In tonight"s game At Windsor Park Photo Desmond Loughery/Pacemaker Press

So, we look forward to the last game of the group campaign in Frankfurt on Tuesday night, and beyond that the play-offs in March of next year.

It has been another glorious campaign for everyone involved, the players, management, staff, supporters, everyone, and let’s hope the boys can end on a high in Frankfurt.

Ideally we want a good performance for the players to take through to the play-offs over the next few months, but after this campaign I know they will be brimming with confidence.

I thought it was fitting to see Michael and Steven, manager and captain, walk off the Windsor pitch arm in arm at the end of the game.

That shows the bond there is within the camp, and long may it continue.

Blighted nations

I have found the Nations League to be a shambles, because the whole format was convoluted.

Even though we lost four times we still managed to get a second bite of the cherry to qualify for Euro 2020 through the play-offs. I still don’t understand how you work that one out but I must admit I am glad of it.

It’s great that we do but why not just give the team that qualifies third in qualifying the opportunity?

Then we had the actual draw for this campaign where the Republic were drawn with the Germans and Holland but, because of the silly host ruling, there had to be a redraw.

The Republic then Switzerland and Denmark while we ended up with the European heavyweights. Hardly fair and a mockery of the draw process.

Davo's ideal middle man

You will never meet a more selfless player than Steven Davis.

It’s only right that he now has the accolade of the United Kingdom’s most capped international midfielder after making his 116th appearance for Northern Ireland last night.

Davo takes it all in his stride and is as good now as he was in his younger days.

He is our leader on the pitch, he gels the team together and is crucial to Northern Ireland’s fortunes.

He was there through the struggles and dark times for Northern Ireland so deserves this incredible honour.

A wonderful servant to Northern Ireland football.

Northern Ireland job focus on Nelson

Northern Ireland have a decent salary to offer a new manager to replace Michael O’Neill and could look to some high-profile personalities in England.

But managing Northern Ireland is not just about the senior team and dealing with 24 players in a squad six times a year.

As Michael has proved over the years, you need to be involved in the grassroots game, under-age teams and be prepared to battle hard and argue your corner in the committee rooms.

For me, Stephen Robinson is therefore the ideal candidate to succeed Michael. Having been on Michael’s coaching staff for Euro 2016, he has witnessed first-hand the demands of the job, the battles he faces and must overcome, plus knowing Robbo this will only excite him rather than put him off.

It’s a decent job, there will be a high level of interest in it but IFA Chief Executive Patrick Nelson is paid the big bucks to make the big decisions.

No major pros in a new look full time all-island league

Linfield's 6-0 hammering by Dundalk in the second leg of the Unite the Union Champions Cup highlighted a major issue with regard any future All-Island League — you simply cannot flick a switch and turn Irish League sides into full-time teams.

I was initially shocked at the heavy defeat, but when I reflected, the major difference was recovery time.

It’s only natural for full-time players to respond better to a quick turnaround (first leg on Friday, second leg on Monday) than their part-time counterparts.

Also, Dundalk are at the end of their season while the Blues are stuck in the middle of a busy period when they are playing catch up in the league due to their European excursions. But this game proved to me that an All-Island League is further away than ever.

To compete in this proposed league you would have to be full-time, but how many players, crucial to their relevant clubs, of say 27, 28, 29 years and upwards are going to take a gamble if they have a decent job outside the game.

The Danske Bank Premiership may get six teams in the top flight at the start but that could be whittled down to three in just a few years.

Full-time football may not be sustainable outside the top division and therefore the players have given up jobs for nothing.

There is also the prospect of those players being pushed out by players coming in from England and Scotland.

Some of the clubs, unable to cope with the demands, could fold like a pack of cards as not every club will have a major investor, say like my hometown club of Larne with Kenny Bruce.

An infrastructure needs to be created from the bottom up, but that will take time.

Bring the kids in at 17, 18, 19 on full-time contracts in maybe a reserve league, dedicate resources, energy and time developing them and then they can be the foundation if the clubs choose to go down an All-Island route.

It can take years as I honestly don’t think you can flick a switch and make it work.

I felt Gareth Southgate added fuel to the fire this week by publically flogging Raheem Sterling after his physical confrontation with Joe Gomez in the England canteen last week.

Sure, Sterling’s actions were unsavoury, unnecessary and totally out of order, but we are dealing with grown men full of ego, emotions and a constant desire to be the very best. The pressure, which they burden themselves with, is enormous.

Sometimes it does boil over.

I have seen it many times during my career — usually on the training pitch or inside the dressing room.

Northern Ireland have certainly not been immune to the odd skirmish, but maybe we don’t have the superstars of England, so there isn’t the same level of scrutiny and we necessarily don’t make front page news.

What happened between Sterling and Gomez is not unusual between team-mates, what is unique is the fact it was carried over from the previous day during a club game.

But was a suspension for Sterling really the best way to handle the situation?

Surely it just exacerbated the incident.

Most of their team-mates would have been laughing their heads off — some maybe trying to separate them, others egging them on.

Sterling maybe deserved a dressing down, however a hand shake between the pair should have been sufficient.

Instead, Sterling’s forced absence became the story ahead of the match, there was a focus on Gomez and how he would respond, Southgate’s decision making was called into question and England’s 1,000th anniversary was largely forgotten. Of course, England romped to a 7-0 win over Montenegro so Sterling not being selected mattered little, but Gomez was roundly booed by his own England fans, an aftershock of the spat.

There was never a case that the incident would have been kept from the media or public attention, everything leaks in football. I was in the West Brom dressing room in 2014 when James Morrison punched Saido Berahino after a game and before we left the stadium, the media had the full story.

Southgate, in this instance, could have easily put this story to bed by saying how Sterling and Gomez had patched up their differences, had shaken hands and were now looking to take out all their aggression on Montenegro. All kept internal with the players in agreement.

Southgate chose the academy route of punishment, rather than how I would expect international stars and grown men to be dealt with.

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