Football/Soccer

Saville happy with pragmatic Pulis and O'Neill for club and country

Northern Ireland's George Saville is pleased with his recent move from Millwall to Middlesbrough. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

THE last question was probably the most difficult for Northern Ireland’s George Saville – had he asked Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans about playing under Tony Pulis?

The new Middlesbrough midfielder dealt with that awkwardly bouncing ball as adroitly as he receives and uses possession, replying with a smile:

“Yeah, we touched on it a little bit obviously, but they were wishing me the best going into it and, speaking to them, they told me what I needed to know and be ready for…”

The 25-year-old insists he has no concerns about playing under a boss who’s known for by-passing midfield by getting his defenders to kick long and early, as was the case with Evans, less so with McAuley, who didn’t even get picked by Pulis often at West Bromwich Albion.

However, Saville preferred to focus on Pulis’s desire to pick up points more than plaudits:

“The style of play is not like the fantastic football Manchester City will play, but he is effective and he knows how to win football matches and in the Championship that’s what it is about and getting out of the league.

“You have two games every week and it’s non-stop for the nine months. For me, Tony knows how to win football matches and that’s all I care about.”

Saville sees certain similarities with NI boss Michael O’Neill’s approach, saying: “We are a nation that concedes very few goals and to get that core of your team and strength from there gives you an opportunity to win games and it allows you to nick a goal and get three points.

“You can play as well as you want and look as good as you want, but at the end of the day we are here to win football matches with Northern Ireland and Middlesbrough.”

As someone who made his senior international against then World Cup-holders Germany just a year ago, it’s fitting that Saville is setting his sights on playing at a higher level:

“Millwall was fantastic for me and gave me the stepping stone to get to the next level. For me, Middlesbrough is a club that is a Premier League club, so I didn’t need that much convincing of that move.

“It is the right move for me at this time and I feel under a manager like Tony Pulis I can thrive off that and get myself and the football club into the Premier League.

“Yes, the focus is on getting promotion and there will be a different pressure on me but one I think I’m ready for. It’s like when you go somewhere new.

“When I started with Northern Ireland there was a pressure on me to perform on the international stage and I felt I have handled that well so far. When you have that new challenge you have to take it with both hands.”

Saville is also relaxed about any potential pressure associated with technically becoming the most expensive Northern Ireland player ever, assuming his loan move becomes a permanent £8m deal in January as planned.

Neil Lennon’s £5.75m from Leicester City to Celtic way back in 2000 would have been worth far more in today’s money and market, and anyway Saville sensibly says:

“To me it is just a figure. In this day and age football is growing and transfers are becoming more expensive. For me it is just a positive move and an opportunity to go and progress in my career.

“I am a London boy so that [moving to Middlesbrough] will be a challenge in itself, but the family I have and friends I have, I’ll be fine. The move is one I’m ready for. I’m 25 now and I’m looking forward to it.”

He’s also anticipating adding to his international caps, a certain starter against Bosnia & Herzegovina this Saturday in NI’s Uefa Nations League opener, barring injury or illness.

The competitive element to the new competition is one he welcomes: “Obviously you want to win friendlies but there is an edge taken off them. But with the Nations League, it gives you another opportunity to play in games that mean something.”

The World Cup would have been the pinnacle of that, but although Saville played well on his first start for Northern Ireland, away to Switzerland in the second leg of the play-off for Russia, he could not help the visitors get the goal that would have forced extra time – and that still hurts:

“It was a blow watching Switzerland play at the World Cup in the summer. I was quite bitter watching them play, if I’m being honest, knowing ifs, buts, and maybes - but that’s gone now.

“I know we didn't get there but that will give us the experience and things we need to learn ahead of the next campaign, which is the European Championships”.

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