Friday 20 September 2019

Gareth McAuley prepared to play for West Brom Under-23s to maintain fitness

Gareth McAuley is set to win his 75th Northern Ireland cap in the first leg of the play-off next month
Gareth McAuley is set to win his 75th Northern Ireland cap in the first leg of the play-off next month

Gareth McAuley is determined to reach peak physical condition for Northern Ireland's World Cup play-off next month, even if it means playing for West Brom's Under-23s.

The 37-year-old headed off for international duty last week having accumulated only 62 minutes of senior football due to a thigh injury that prevented him from being fit for the start of the season.

McAuley completed 90 minutes against Germany on Thursday and Norway three days later, and if fit will add to his 74-cap collection in November now that Northern Ireland's place in the play-offs has been confirmed.

Yet he is not assured of a place in his club's team before then as Tony Pulis has preferred newcomer Ahmed Hegazi, Craig Dawson and McAuley's international team-mate Jonny Evans even when playing a back three.

The prospect of playing in Premier League 2 fixtures with the development squad over the next month is one McAuley is open to.

"Obviously being injured at the start of the season was not ideal as I wasn't able to challenge for a place," McAuley told Press Association Sport.

"I've got two games under my belt here and I just have to go back, train well and see what happens there.

"I'll try and get some football anyway, even if it's with the 23s or with the first team, I need to make sure I maintain fitness going into the games next month."

McAuley could be tasked with trying to shackle a Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale next month depending on who Northern Ireland get when the play-off draw is made on October 17.

Their chances of being seeded for the draw would have been enhanced had they beaten Norway in Oslo on Sunday, but a disappointing 1-0 loss has left them more open to facing one of the continent's heavyweights.

"A two-legged game, home and away, is difficult anyway, no matter who we get," McAuley said.

"Hopefully the draw will be favourable for us but all the teams that are going to be involved there will be good sides."

Northern Ireland knew they would be just two games from their first World Cup finals in 32 years around 53 minutes before they kicked off at the Ullevaal Stadion.

That was when the full-time whistle blew in Slovenia, where Scotland could only draw, and having their play-off fate sealed prior to playing may have been a contributing factor behind Northern Ireland's below-par performance in Oslo.

"In the dressing room, lads were looking at their phones. We tried as much as we could to focus and cut that out but news filters through," McAuley said.

"It changed the mindset a little bit. It makes it easier for the lads on yellows (and one game from a suspension) to get through the game without picking up another one. It maybe took an edge off it a little bit.

"We've got a play-off to look forward to. The lads were in there disappointed, flat, but we've got the play-off and that's a massive positive."

PA Media

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