McAuley is ‘vital’ for NI, says O’Neill

Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill says Larne’s Gareth McAuley will be a “vitally important” player in the upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign and also insisted former Inver Park favourite Jeff Hughes will always be on his radar.

McAuley enjoyed a solid first season in the Premier League at the heart of the West Brom defence under ex-Baggies boss Roy Hodgson, while Hughes finished last year’s League One campaign as Notts County’s top scorer, finding the net 17 times.

Speaking exclusively to the Times ahead of the friendly with Finland later this month, O’Neill said he admires McAuley who played in the Irish League and worked his way up to establish himself in England’s top-flight.

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He said the 32-year-old defender, who has won 35 international caps, will be a pivotal part of Northern Ireland’s bid to make it all the way to Brazil in 2014, starting with the qualification opener away to Russia in September.

“I like to see players like Gareth who have come up through the leagues and really earned the career they have,” said O’Neill. “He has come through the Irish League and the lower leagues in England and he has worked his way up from there and he is now establishing himself in the Premier League and had a very good season under Roy Hodgson.

“He is playing international football later in his career because of the path he has taken but he is certainly a player who can continue, from a physical and fitness point of view, for a few more years yet and will be a player who will be vitally important to Northern Ireland in the World Cup campaign.”

Former Larne midfielder Hughes was recalled to the Northern Ireland squad by O’Neill for June’s friendly with Holland after a six-year absence from the international scene. His place in that squad came on the back of a sparkling year with the Magpies.

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When news of his call-up emerged, Hughes told the Larne Times he is “happy to play for Northern Ireland at any stage” and O’Neill revealed he is a player he has been keeping a close eye on.

“We had Jeff watched a number of times last year,” he said. “We have a scout in that part of the world. We had Jeff watched maybe as many as five or six times and I watched him personally and he did very well.

“You always hope that players, on the back of the kind of year he had, will get the opportunity to play at the next level in the Championship and I know there was some interest in Jeff but, again, he is certainly a player who will always be on our radar and always come into our consideration for selection.”

Looking ahead to the match with Fabio Capello’s Russia he said: “The Russia game will be very tough. In the Finland game, it’s important we again nail down what we are trying to do with the team. We had big changes in the squad from the Norway match to the Holland game. I would hope that the squad we have available for Finland will be as close as possible to what we have available for Russia.

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“It will be difficult because there has been a change of management and we will probably know a little bit more about them after they play in August but they have some top class players. The Russian league is very strong at the minute, financially, and with the quality of players they have. But we will be well prepared and we will go there believing that we can take a result.”

Report by John Gillespie | Twitter: @Times_Sport