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Why new-look Northern Ireland should never drop below Germany benchmark, explains Gareth McAuley

Gareth McAuley
Gareth McAuley

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland's current players set the standard for themselves and future generations with their performance against Germany at Windsor Park, according to retiring hero Gareth McAuley.

The 39-year-old, who won 80 caps and scored nine goals at international level, called it a day on his playing career earlier this week having left boyhood club Rangers at the end of last season.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill would have liked the ex-Lincoln, Ipswich, Leicester and West Brom ace to carry on to cover for Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart - and the defender did have offers to continue with one English Championship side extremely interested - but he decided his time was up and that he wanted to spend more time with his wife Fran and children Bobby and Alexis.

Watching Northern Ireland's 2-0 defeat at home to Germany from afar last month, McAuley says he was hugely impressed by the way the team approached the Euro 2020 qualifier going toe-to-toe with Joachim Low's superstar side.

"After the Germany game, I saw the players express disappointment because they lost and I was thinking 'yes that is the case but you've just set a benchmark'. Standards in all games shouldn't drop below that now," states McAuley, who rocketed himself to legendary status with his iconic goal in the 2-0 win over Ukraine in the Euro 2016 finals.

"It gives players outside the senior squad at the moment like the under 21s and under 19s a picture of the levels they have to reach to make the squad. I'm hoping the future is bright.

"A lot of things have been put in place with Michael and the staff and the players buying into making us a real professional outfit. Obviously the Association has backed that as well with all the things needed behind the scenes to have the players in the best condition.

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"It's still a big ask against superpower nations with the players and resources they have. Being able to compete is one thing. Being able to beat them you need everything to go right for you but I thought our lads should have been more proud of their performance against Germany rather than be disappointed."

Next up for O'Neill's men, minus the experience and influence of McAuley, is Holland away on Thursday. To have a shot at finishing in the top two of Group C and qualifying for the finals automatically Northern Ireland could do with avoiding defeat.

"The last few years the Dutch teams in their own league and the Champions League have been playing some phenomenal stuff," says McAuley.

"Their front players are frightening. They have some of the best young players in the world so it's going to be a formidable task out there.

"There will be a plan in place. Michael always has a plan that everyone believes in going into any game. That's why we have had so many positive results because everyone buys into it. I don't know want it will be away from home to Holland but I'm sure he will have the players ready."

On Netherlands and Liverpool hero Virgil van Dijk, now viewed as the best defender on the planet, McAuley says: "I think since he moved to Liverpool he's gone on to another level. When we (WBA) played against him when he was at Southampton I remember Salomon Rondon giving him a right hard time. He ran him all over the place and a lot of the time van Dijk was relying on his athletic ability.

"Now he reads the game so well and together with his athletic ability he never looks like he is out of first gear and is rightly getting all the plaudits."

McAuley points out in Watford's Cathcart and Leicester's Evans, Northern Ireland also have quality at the back.

"Both are great guys, great players and both play in the Premier League. They are a massive part of our squad and what Michael is doing," states the Larne man, who played 699 club games.

"We have three massive games left in the group and the other lads will be looking to them to put in big performances and try to keep it water tight at the back and hopefully we can create something at the other end and get some results."

Since he announced his retirement, McAuley has received a host of warm tributes from supporters and ex-team-mates alike with Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis hailing him as one of the country's all-time greats.

Modestly he says: "I'm a bit embarrassed with praise to be honest. I never did it for that. I did it to win. It's nice to hear things like that but it's a weird feeling. I'm also aware that what is today's news is tomorrow's chip paper!"

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