Gareth McAuley reveals his Northern Ireland Team of the Decade
I thought the process of selecting my Northern Ireland Team of the Decade would be relatively quick and stress-free.
I know we have used 84 players over the last 10 years, but the nucleus of the team hasn’t changed a great deal.
So, with a small pool of players to choose from, and with Northern Ireland greats David Healy, Maik Taylor and Stephen Craigan able to be discounted due to the fact they were coming to the end of their careers at the start of the decade and therefore not in their prime, surely it would be a straightforward exercise?
But then I came to the first position on my teamsheet, the goalkeeper, and I was immediately stumped and had to deliberate for considerable time.
Michael McGovern appeared to me to be the obvious candidate, but then I remembered about Roy Carroll making some crucial saves, including a penalty against the Faroes at Windsor Park during the opening games of the Euro 2016 qualifiers. He was a huge presence in goal for us, and only for illness ahead of the Romania game at Windsor Park, Roy could have kept his place and likely been the No.1 at the Euros in France.
Defender Craig Cathcart should not be left out of any Northern Ireland side, but yet, I simply have to include the ever dependable Aaron Hughes in my team. Craig suffered with injuries during qualification for Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018, while Aaron stepped up every time he was asked by Michael O’Neill.
I would be more than happy to stand aside but colleagues have told me, due to my contribution to the team over the last 10 years, I have to keep myself in.
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In midfield, Chris Baird, so underrated at club level, would always be in my team, especially as he excels playing just in front of the defence and my 3-5-1-1 formation will play to his strengths. Skipper Steven Davis has been without a shadow of a doubt the most influential and talented player in the Northern Ireland set-up and he takes his place in the middle of the park.
For his goals alone in Euro qualifying, Kyle Lafferty is selected up front.
This was a close call with Roy Carroll, but for the fact Mickey played well in Northern Ireland’s biggest games of the decade – the Euro 2016 finals, World Cup 2018 qualifiers and play-offs – gives him the edge. Mickey took his chance in June 2015 against Romania when Roy was unexpectedly sidelined and kept it to be one of our heroes at the Euro 2016 finals. Roy, just like following that game against Romania, should consider himself extremely unfortunate not to be selected again.
Right wing back
Stuart, from the Euro 2016 qualifiers onwards, has progressed dramatically, and he now developed into a vital component of the Northern Ireland team. So versatile, Stu has terrific work ethic – a huge amount of energy, desire and a genuine will to win. His engine gives him the drive to be a fantastic right wing back for Northern Ireland, and even though he was always an attacking player, he has worked hard on the defensive aspect of his game that he offers us so much on the right flank.
Aaron was steady, consistent and produced the performances we required and craved at either centre back or right back. I loved playing alongside him. When called upon, Aaron always delivered for his country. He reads the game so well, and that was a terrific asset throughout the decade for him. For a large part of the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Aaron played alongside me in the centre of defence. Then when Jonny Evans returned and Craig Cathcart came back for the finals, Aaron was asked to play right and had an unbelievable tournament in that position. So dependable, he continued to give solid displays when required in the World Cup qualifiers and play-offs.
Michael O’Neill allowed my international career to flourish by playing me at centre half. Before that, I was all over the defence, but centre back was where I felt I could make most of an impact for Northern Ireland. It was during this time that my club career picked up and the confidence I gained at international level helped me enjoy a stellar period with West Brom. Michael was keen for us to be a real threat from set pieces, and we worked hard on them in training. I was more than happy to be the beneficiary of the set pieces, with Chris Brunt and Ollie Norwood producing excellent deliveries for me to attack in the air. I am very proud to have scored nine goals for my country – beating Gerry Taggart’s goalscoring tally.
Jonny has always been a quality performer for Northern Ireland, but I felt he took his international displays up a notch when he returned from long-term injury against Finland at Windsor Park in March 2015. It was his springboard to excel during the finals in France, followed by the World Cup qualifiers, play-offs and the Euro qualifiers that have just concluded. A natural centre back, he was often pushed out to left back through necessity, and he always gave his usual high standard of performance. Having played alongside him at club and international level, it was always a pleasure. We trusted each other in terms of cover, and we certainly had some sort of telepathy going on. A crucial player for Northern Ireland this decade.
Left wing back
Brunty, along with Ollie Norwood, was responsible for delivering the bullets that I could head home into the net. His crossing accuracy was outstanding, and I felt he really excelled when Michael O’Neill gave him a more defensive role, while not overly diluting his attacking responsibities. A player with Premier League experience, he was a vitally important player during the transition years this decade. He was bitterly disappointed to miss out on the Euro 2016 finals through injury; that hit him really hard, and we certainly missed his presence in the team on the left. But he came back for the following World Cup qualifiers and gave us what we needed down the left.
The man who made the holding midfield position his own, and the only player I can remember being sent off for receiving two yellow cards in the one phase of play. As he sat in front of the defence Chris, full of energy, read the game so well, cut out numerous attacks and made our jobs so much easier. He was technically brilliant, and I really don’t think Bairdy has ever been given the immense credit he deserves. A lynchpin for Northern Ireland, he was cut adrift from the team too soon.
A colossus for Northern Ireland. Steven just oozes quality, and we have been so fortunate to have him in our midfield and as captain. A player who leads by example with his performances on the pitch, it came as no surprise to me that the only defeat for us during Euro 2016 qualifying came in Romania when Davo was ruled out injured. I wouldn’t have a Northern Ireland team without Steven Davis in it. The contribution he has made to his country has been immeasurable. The relationship he formed with manager Michael O’Neill was extremely strong, and with his influence on the pitch, the team was able to reap the benefits.
When Ollie retired, I read so many negative comments that his contribution to Northern Ireland was minimal over the years, and it wasn’t a big loss. Nonsense! Ollie, as a young lad when he came into the squad, had to do his football growing up while playing international football. His range of passing, the ability to switch play, was grossly overlooked. He was a flair player, but knew in our team that he had to dig in and tackle hard, which he did. The other week I was talking to him, and for the first time I thanked him for providing the inch-perfect free kick that I was able to score from against Ukraine at the Euros. Ollie gave so much which he has never been credited with.
Before Northern Ireland started playing the high-press game in recent years, Jamie was the attacking player who gave us an incredible tempo. With his small stature and hunting technique, he was a defender’s nightmare, giving us a platform to feed off. He scored a few crucial goals for us and, in the big games, he could be dependable. Playing off the striker and using the flanks, Jamie was quick, nimble and gave us an attacking threat that troubled the opposition.
Many times over the last 10 years we wanted to kill him, but when it mattered most during the Euro 2016 qualifiers, he delivered. Kyle maybe wasn’t playing brilliantly during games, yet if he was given a chance, he scored. I remember during the game against Hungary, the one we drew 1-1 at Windsor after having Bairdy sent off, I along with a few others were screaming at Michael to take him off. He was giving us absolutely nothing. But Michael kept faith, and what does Kyle do? Pop up at the end to score the crucial equaliser. When Dave Healy left, we needed someone to step up. Kyle took on the mantle, and his goals in qualifying merit him being on this team.
Roy Carroll, Craig Cathcart, Conor McLaughlin, Corry Evans, Paddy McNair, Conor Washington and Josh Magennis
I have included Conor McLaughlin as he played so well for us in Euro 2016 qualification, having made the huge jump up from League One football, and then was simply cut adrift after one game. I thought that was harsh. Corry can play the defensive midfielder role well, and Paddy McNair has only come to the fore since being deployed in his favoured midfield role. Conor and Josh give us different attacking options from the bench.
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