EURO 2016 QUALIFIERS: ‘Proud’ Gareth McAuley determined to realise dream with Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley knows how much qualifying for Euro 2016 would mean to the Windsor Park faithful – because he used to be one of them.
Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuleyNorthern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley
Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley

The West Brom defender may be a Premier League regular and a leading light for his country but he was not always involved at such a rarefied level.

At 23 he was a latecomer to full-time football, playing in the amateur Irish League with Linfield, Coleraine and Crusaders before Lincoln came calling in 2004.

Back then he would watch Northern Ireland from the stands, paying to see the likes of current team-mates Roy Carroll and Aaron Hughes.

So helping the side book a place at Euro 2016, which would be guaranteed with victory over Greece on Thursday, would cap a remarkable rise from terrace to tournament.

“I spent a lot of time playing over here as everyone knows...I probably came up the hard way,” said the 35-year-old.

“I’m proud, there’s no hiding that or denying it. I actually watched some of the lads who I play beside representing Northern Ireland before I moved across to England.

“I’m a fan. It means a hell of a lot given where I’ve come from, and to my family.

“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.

“As players we feel exactly the same as the fans. Until qualification happens we can all think about it but putting words to it is difficult to do.”

Anticipation for the Greece match has reached fever pitch in Belfast, with an additional allocation of 1,500 tickets selling out in just three minutes.

The game has been billed locally as the biggest in Northern Ireland’s history but McAuley counsels caution on the pitch regardless of the decibel-level in the crowd.

“It’s got to be cool heads, we have to be relaxed,” he said.

“The crowd will be going daft and getting right behind us. Sometimes when that happens you make crazy decisions on the pitch.

“There will be emotions on the pitch..but we’ve got to play our own game, deal with that atmosphere and there’s enough experience in the squad to do that.”

Northern Ireland go into the penultimate round of qualifiers sitting at the top of Group F, a point clear of Romania and four above Hungary in third, with their nearest challengers having respective home matches against Finland and the Faroe Islands on Thursday.

Qualification by any means would represent a stunning achievement for a side who entered the draw as fifth seeds, but McAuley wants to get the job done in style.

“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?” he said.

“What better way would it be to the end the campaign than to say we won Group F?”