Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill will be 'begging' Gareth McAuley to continue career
NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O'Neill says he may be down on one knee begging Gareth McAuley to continue his international career, hopefully with the prospect of the World Cup tournament to entice him.
The big defender, who will turn 38 in December, is back in the squad for the last two World Cup Group C qualifiers against Germany and Norway next month after missing the games against San Marino and the Czech Republic due to injury.
At the other end of the scale, O'Neill has called up English-born midfielders George Saville of Millwall and Kilmarnock's Jordan Jones to a 26-man squad still missing Craig Cathcart, Paddy McNair, and Jamie Ward due to injuries.
Asked about McAuley's chance of being involved in Euro 2020 qualifying, O'Neill said with a laugh: "There's always going to be a conversation – it's more I'm down on one knee, sort of begging 'Please don't retire'."
O'Neill insisted he is "not resigned, no" to the prospect of doing without `Big G' or another 37-year-old defender next year, explaining: "We don't have another Gareth McAuley in the wings, Gareth would be an extremely difficult player to replace, as would Aaron [Hughes]. That level of experience, you look at the two of them, Aaron in the last two games was excellent…
"But these guys have earned the right to make that decision, as Chris Baird did, they've given a long time to international football.
"If Gareth feels it's the right thing for him to do he'll have no problems from me – equally I would love him to play as long as possible. But that's something for down the line.
"I know his focus will be to get himself right hopefully for a play-off game in November – and then hopefully looking forward to the World Cup."
48-year-old O'Neill has personal experience of McAuley's longevity, commenting: "It's amazing, given what age he made his [international debut] at. I remember I played against Gareth in an Irish Cup final [in 2003], that says it all, really.
"Gareth McAuley is the best example you could give to any player here who's still playing in the Irish League who thinks that the chance has passed them by, that it's not going to happen for them.
"Gareth went to Lincoln, it wasn't the most glamorous move you could have had at that point in your career, but what he has done with the opportunity is really an example to any player.
"I've been watching on Sky 'The Jamie Vardy Academy' – McAuley's a centre half version of that…To come from the level of football he came from at 25 to ultimately end up playing in major finals, playing in the Premier League, to work his way there in his 30s…
"To get to 75 caps would be phenomenal. He has been a brilliant player for me, he's hardly missed a game, and his performances for me have been top class."
Seeking a first cap will be Saville and Jones, with O'Neill saying of the former, who qualifies through a grandmother: "We only really became aware of George's eligibility within the past week to 10 days.
"I went and watched George on Saturday for Millwall against Preston. He's a player with considerable Championship experience at the age of 24.
"If you look at the squad we had one player who played in the Premier League on Saturday [Steven Davis], then we have the West Brom players playing [last night – McAuley, Jonny Evans, and Chris Brunt]on Monday, and we had four playing in the Championship.
"He [Saville] is a player who is proven at Championship level at just 24, he's keen to be involved and we're delighted to have him in."
Jones previously represented Northern Ireland at youth level but withdrew himself from consideration as a teenager because he thought he could make it with England.
He has since made a U-turn on that decision and was part of a Northern Ireland training squad earlier this summer.
Northern Ireland host world champions Germany on Thursday October 5 before concluding their group campaign against Norway in Oslo three days later.
O'Neill's men have guaranteed at least second place in Group C and look primed to claim one of the eight play-off berths on offer, with a two-legged tie in November standing between those countries and a place in Russia next summer.
NI squad (v Germany and Norway)
Goalkeepers: Carroll (Linfield), McGovern (Norwich), Mannus (St Johnstone)
Defenders: Hughes (Hearts), McAuley, J Evans, Brunt (all West Brom), C McLaughlin (Millwall), Hodson (Rangers), D Lafferty (Sheffield United), Thompson (Bradford, loan), T Flanagan (Burton)
Midfielders: Davis (Southampton), McGinn (Gwangju), Norwood (Fulham, loan), C Evans (Blackburn), Ferguson (Millwall), Dallas (Leeds), Paton (St. Johnstone), Lund (Burton), Jones (Kilmarnock), Saville (Millwall)
Forwards: K Lafferty (Hearts), Magennis (Charlton), Washington (QPR), McCartan (Bradford)