Veteran McAuley is raring to go for North against Greece
GARETH McAULEY put on a comedy limp and hobbled into Tuesday’s press conference. But he wasn’t fooling anyone.
Wild Greeks on horseback couldn’t keep the West Brom centre-back off Windsor Park on Thursday night as Northern Ireland seek to beat Greece and secure qualification for next summer’s European Championship finals in France.
Now 35, McAuley appreciates what’s at stake more than most. He was 25 before he got a move to full-time football in England – Lincoln City took a punt on the then Coleraine centre-half who’d had spells with Linfield, Crusaders and Ballyclare Comrades. From that modest start he worked his way up through Leicester City and Ipswich Town before a move to West Brom made him a fully-fledged Premier League star. It has been quite a journey.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world,” he said.
“It has made me the person I am. I have learnt from my time playing with the players at home and the coaches right the way through. I am still learning at the veteran stage. I used to go and watch Northern Ireland play and went and watched some of the players playing alongside me play for Northern Ireland before my chance came.
“It means a hell of a lot where I come from and to my family as well. Every time I play I want to do my best and if that produces a connection with people they can hopefully live their dreams through us.”
Greece’s lamentable form is a stark contrast to McAuley’s wholehearted attitude. Last week, eight of their squad played in the Champions League and the closest the Northern Ireland squad got was Paddy McNair making the bench for Manchester United’s 2-1 win against Wolfsburg.
“There is a lot of quality in their team,” said McAuley.
“They are a good side, they have used a lot of players in the campaign and have had a lot of changes and disruption and it looks like they are planning ahead and taking stock for the next World Cup. Obviously they were top seeds in the draw and are going through a difficult stage and hopefully it doesn’t come together for them on Thursday. They can start after that when the play Hungary.”
Greece, the top seeds, sit bottom of the group and the reason for that, according to McAuley, is that they have played like a collection of talented individuals.
“I played against some of their players in club football,” he said.
“Big Sammy [Georgios Samaras] is not in the squad and I played with him at club level. You see the rest of their players - one of their lads [Kostas Fortounis] was on fire for Olympiakos against Arsenal the other week, so certainly they are no pushover and we are not expecting an easy game.
“We are expecting us as a unit and as a team to hopefully have enough to beat them because at the minute they are good individuals, but don’t seem to be playing as a team.”
With two games to go, the North are a point ahead of Romania and four ahead of third-placed Hungary. Both of their rivals for the two automatic qualification spots have winnable home games, but McAuley isn’t worried about what they achieve.
“See to be honest, I don’t really care what is going on at the Hungary game,” he said.
“We are top of the group and I want to win both our games and win our group. Obviously, I want to qualify but we are sitting top of the group with two games to go, so why can’t we win the group? There is every chance Hungary will win both their games [Faroe Islands at home and Greece away], so we are not going out there to play for a draw, no chance.
“We want to win them both. What better way would it be to the end the campaign than to say we won Group F.”