Saturday 17 March 2018

Gareth McAuley: Faroe Islands clash is "pivotal" for Northern Ireland

Gareth McAuley's Northern Ireland are second in their Euro 2016 qualifying group
Gareth McAuley's Northern Ireland are second in their Euro 2016 qualifying group

Gareth McAuley believes Northern Ireland's trip to the Faroe Islands should be viewed as the "pivotal" point of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

Michael O'Neill's men head into a double header with the Faroes and Hungary well poised to reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup.

They lie in second place in Group F, one point behind Romania and two ahead of Hungary, with just four games remaining.

Monday's meeting with the Hungarians in Belfast has been billed as a monumental clash to determine Northern Ireland's qualifying fate, but McAuley has always highlighted Friday's trip to the Faroe Islands as an important contest in the race to reach France next summer.

"I've always thought this game was pivotal in this campaign," said the West Brom defender.

"After we won the Finland game everyone said the Romania game (that Northern Ireland drew) was must-win. In many ways that looked after itself but I always looked at this one because of the timing of the game too.

"We have six points up for grabs and if we are unbeaten in those two games and hopefully win both, we will take a massive stride to the Euros - and of course there is a chance that two wins would actually see us qualify."

McAuley concedes his thoughts have drifted to what it would be like to represent his country at a major international tournament, something generations of Northern Ireland players have never experienced.

The 35-year-old has 51 caps to his credit and has been a Barclays Premier League regular over the past four seasons at The Hawthorns but admits it would be special to make history for Northern Ireland.

"You can't not think about what it would be like to qualify," he admitted.

"I'd love to be in the squad to qualify, for selfish and personal reasons - like having my wife and children see me play at a major tournament; it really keeps me focused.

"For myself and those close to me it would be incredible but also for the bigger picture - the fans and the entire country.

"There have been quiet moments when my mind has wandered but there is a lot of football to be played yet.

"One thing's for sure, Friday could be a huge step for us."

McAuley's central-defensive partner in Torshavn is likely to be his new club colleague after Jonny Evans ended his long association with Manchester United to join the Baggies last week.

Although Evans has not featured in this campaign after being frozen out at Old Trafford, McAuley anticipates him having no problems if called upon.

"Jonny Evans was in a difficult situation when he was at Manchester United and not playing many games," said McAuley.

"But that has changed now and I am delighted he has joined my club.

"He hasn't been involved at the club yet but from watching him in training in the past few days with Northern Ireland, he's looked like himself. He's been sharp, on the front foot and he will have no problems whatsoever."

Press Association

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