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Gareth McAuley: I'm happy not to be playing at Euro 2020 - I want to be there as a fan

Gareth McAuley celebrates after hitting opener against Ukraine at Euro 2016
Gareth McAuley celebrates after hitting opener against Ukraine at Euro 2016
Gareth McAuley

By Gareth McAuley

I never really enjoyed the Euro 2016 finals in France.

You might find that surprising considering it was such a wonderful and historic occasion for Northern Ireland football.

But looking back, I would much preferred to have gone as a fan.

The games were great, magical experiences, while the joy I felt at scoring the goal against Ukraine was simply amazing, never to be forgotten.

As for everything else surrounding that tournament, I don't look back on it with much fondness.

Security was so tight, I was away from my family for a long period, stiff regulations were in place and it felt as though you were living in a goldfish bowl.

As a proud and passionate Northern Ireland fan first and foremost, I must admit I watched on in envy at the social media clips of the Green and White Army enjoying themselves in France.

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Therefore, after the Euro 2020 finals draw in Bucharest last night gave Northern Ireland a glimpse of their reward this summer if they are able to navigate their way through the play-offs in March, I really don't feel like I am missing out.

I have no regrets about announcing my retirement.

The boys will relish playing against Spain, Poland and Sweden on a huge stage, but I had my day playing against the big guns in Europe.

Michael O'Neill tried hard to convince me to stay on. We were in contact right throughout the summer and he wanted me to find a club, so I could continue my international career, with the Euro 2020 finals the prize at the end.

There was a period during those conversations when I was going to play on, give it one last shot.

But as summer drew to a close, I suddenly realised my time was up. And I was content with that decision. I'll be 40 later this week. If I wasn't able to offer up the high standard of performance that I'd set myself over the years, then it was time to walk away.

I'm happy with the contribution I gave as a player, the sacrifices I made and having given so much time and energy to football, I want to enjoy being a fan again.

I was in the stands in Rotterdam when we played there and all this week I've been in Las Vegas for Carl Frampton's fight last night.

Going to the Euro 2020 finals was not that big a deal for me. In fact, I wouldn't have wanted to go as a player. I had my memories of playing for my country at the Euro 2016 finals and to be reduced to a bit-part player, sitting on the bench maybe as a back-up for Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart would have diluted that. I'm not sure Michael entirely understood that. Going to another Euros as a player was not a major ambition for me.

Instead, I want to experience the Euros from a Northern Ireland fan's perspective.

If we do get through, it's going to be a little strange as the games in the tournament are all over the continent and I don't think that is a good thing. We saw in France, with the supporters from all the nations mixing together, what a sensational football spectacle it can be.

From a cost effective point of view, it will certainly suit Northern Ireland fans, if we make it, with two games confirmed for just down the road in Dublin. Hopefully UEFA will play ball and give us the ample tickets we require and it would be amazing to see the Green and White Army descend on Dublin in their numbers and create an incredible atmosphere for the players.

I hope to be right in the middle of it, cheering on Northern Ireland and finally fulfilling what I missed out on at Euro 2016.

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