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Gareth McAuley

Northern Ireland beating a depleted Bosnia would be a hollow victory because a game without the fans just isn't football

Gareth McAuley


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If games are not postponed, they are likely to be played behind closed doors

If games are not postponed, they are likely to be played behind closed doors

William Cherry/Presseye

If games are not postponed, they are likely to be played behind closed doors

Apparently, Northern Ireland only qualified for Euro 2016 due to it being extended to 24 teams.

I've heard it said countless times, from people outside of Northern Ireland, that we were fortunate to be there.

We took advantage of UEFA chiefs looking to expand their prestigious finals and were the beneficiaries. What absolute utter fantasy and nonsense.

This ignorance of the facts drives me nuts and I'm sick and tired of it.

Northern Ireland topped Group F in qualification and qualified automatically for the tournament. We didn't get in the 'back door' or even via the play-offs - our team went straight to France.

If the finals had been for just the nine group winners, then Northern Ireland would have been there with Europe's elite.

People from outside Northern Ireland seem to forget that.

I feel as a country, in terms of football, we are consistently being derided and belittled, especially from non-Northern Ireland media.

They look at our chances of making it to the Euro 2020 finals through their play-offs with contempt.

Their attitude is, we failed in the Nations League and finished third in our qualifying group, so why should we have the opportunity to make it through to the finals via the play-offs?

Well my friends, it's because those are rules agreed by UEFA and every association taking part in the competition. We don't make them.

If we are to progress to the Euro finals, then I don't want there to be any arguments of unfair advantage. And I'm sure my former team-mates in the Northern Ireland camp would feel the same way

Nothing would give me more pleasure, when the play-offs finally take place, than to see Northern Ireland beat Bosnia and Herzegovina and then overcome either the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia in the Windsor Park showdown to reach the finals. But we need to do it without giving any of our critics ammunition to have a pop at us.

Therefore, as a player, I wouldn't want Northern Ireland's play-off against Bosnia to go ahead if their four Italian-based players - Asmir Begovic (AC Milan), Ervin Zukanovic (Spal), Miralem Pjanic (Juventus) and Edin Dzeko (Roma) - are in quarantine and unable to play.

I'm sure UEFA on Tuesday, due to their video conference call with all the associations, will opt to postpone the play-offs and likely put the Euro 2020 finals back a year.

But even if they do not, I wouldn't be comfortable with the game going ahead.

Sure, if the those four players are suspended or injured, then their absence is just part and parcel of football. But this is about what is right and wrong - and in my opinion it would be wrong to play the match with Bosnia missing four key players because of Italy on lockdown due to the coronavirus.

It's not sport and if we won the match, it would be a hollow victory.

If we are to progress to the Euro finals, then I don't want there to be any arguments of unfair advantage. And I'm sure my former team-mates in the Northern Ireland camp would feel the same way.

Also, if UEFA doesn't postpone the game due to Covid-19, then it's likely to be played behind closed doors. For, me a game without fans just isn't football at this level.

In March 2011 I scored for Northern Ireland against Serbia (left) when the game was played behind closed doors in the huge Crvena Zvezda Stadium in Belgrade. It was the most surreal experience.

Even though I feel the game shouldn't go ahead on March 26 due to the pandemic, I feel desperately sorry for the 900-plus Northern Ireland fans who were set to travel to Zenica to cheer on the boys

There was no reaction and no booing - it was just a weird. It was like under-23 football with your clubs.

You could hear the crunch of each challenge, block and header and the messages from each bench, which are usually drowned out by the noise of the crowd.

Fans at games, in my mind, are integral to the sport. While as professionals we are trained to block out the noise and concentrate on our own game, it is only when they are not there that you miss them the most. Players feed off the crowd, they feel galvanised and they do make you go the extra yard.

It's why as professional footballers we have a love for the game. Fans play such a crucial role. Without them, in big stadiums it is a little bit eerie.

Even though I feel the game shouldn't go ahead on March 26 due to the pandemic, I feel desperately sorry for the 900-plus Northern Ireland fans who were set to travel to Zenica to cheer on the boys. Bosnia is not an easy country to get to from Belfast, so it's incredible that amount of support was going out.

Hopefully they haven't been hit too bad financially and they are able to receive refunds. Once UEFA finalise a new schedule for the play-offs, when this world health crisis is over, they can look forward to heading out to Bosnia, who will have their four Italian-based players back for selection, and helping Northern Ireland to victory.

Completely fair and thus giving none of Northern Ireland's naysayers an opportunity to fire bullets in our direction.

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