Beating Faroe Islands was biggest step for North - McAuley
IT SEEMS so long ago already, that trip to Athens. But if Northern Ireland can take that final step this week, Gareth McAuley will look back on their win in Greece early in the campaign.
The West Brom defender is a veteran of more campaigns than he’d care to remember which stuttered to shuddering halts before the wheels had even begun to turn. But three successive victories, away from home against Hungary and the Greeks and at home to the Faroe Islands in between, pushed the Euro 2016 snowball down the hill.
“That double header, to me the Faroes game before it, those games in the past they were the biggest games. We’ve come unstuck in those games in past groups. If we wanted to do anything in this group, we had to take six points from those two games," McAuley said.
“Going away to Athens after that, then we had three wins on the board. We were on the crest of a wave going out there. So confident. In the past, we haven’t travelled that well, but that seems to have changed now. A lot of things have changed around the camp now. To come away from the first four games with maximum points was incredible.”
McAuley has started all eight qualifying games at the heart of the defence. Now 35, it’s a far cry from his earlier days in the Northern Ireland setup.
“[It was] pure frustration at the start. Coming in desperate to play, you’re not getting a game, played out of position for ages at right back. But I was happy to do it," he added.
“Then, I think I’ve shown what I can do when I play centre-back. If things go to plan then all the high and lows will come together in a trip to the Euros next June.”
Having netted three times in this campaign himself, all against the Faroes, McAuley was full of praise for the way in which Michael O’Neill – with a little help from Kyle Lafferty along the way – has transformed their attacking fortunes.
“In the past campaigns, we’ve been short of goals. Michael has been putting a lot of stuff into us. It’s come together," he said.
“You’re on a hiding to nothing when you’re an international manager coming in trying to change things, change the whole mentality, the way we played. It took time. It took a couple of kicks in the balls along the way.”