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McAuley is enjoying life with the North

Gareth McAuley never dreamed he would win 50 caps for Northern Ireland but the inspirational defender insists a positive result in Greece would trump any personal milestone.

McAuley (above) is, in many ways, the heart and soul of the national squad - an inspirational figure at the back, a towering presence from set-pieces and a link to the domestic world of the Irish League.

The 34-year-old may now ply his trade in the rarefied air of the Premier League but it was a long road to the top.

He was released by Linfield as a youngster and spent two years apiece with local Coleraine and Crusaders before he finally got his chance across the water.

He was 24 at the time - relatively old to make the move from the local leagues - and the club who came calling were Lincoln City.

But he proved himself again, moving to Leicester then Ipswich before finally graduating to the big time with Roy Hodgson's West Brom.

Tomorrow, if not sidelined by a knock sustained in the 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands, he will win reach his international half-century.

"To reach 50 caps is a great achievement and one I probably couldn't have dreamt about. When I made my debut at 25 against Germany I hoped I would be able to have a long international career but it has been everything I hoped and more," he said.

McAuley scored the opener against the Faroes on Saturday, his fifth international goal, but he has seen his fair share of disappointing nights too.

His previous struggles, both establishing himself in English football then earning a regular shot in his cherished green shirt, makes Northern Ireland's recent victories all the sweeter.

"There have been times during my international career when I wondered if it was ever going to go anywhere," he admitted.

To play in Athens but initially thought he had suffered a serious injury when colliding with the frame of the goal three minutes into the Faroes clash.

"I can honestly say the goal posts aren't very forgiving - I thought I'd snapped my leg because I couldn't feel it afterwards, but thankfully it was an impact injury and I was able to continue and score," he said.