Tuesday 12 December 2017

McAuley and North keep feet on ground

Ken Gaunt

Gareth McAuley is hoping this could be the best season of a career that has been slow to gather momentum. After working his way through the Irish League with Linfield, Crusaders and Coleraine, the defender finally found an English side willing to take him on.

Lowly Lincoln were the launchpad six years ago and the place where he began to raise his profile. Leicester were his next stop and after their relegation to the third tier, he was snapped up by Ipswich.

Now 30, McAuley is a key figure in Roy Keane's side pushing for promotion to the Barclays Premier League. He has also become a vital component in a Northern Ireland team, who have made an impressive start to their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

A goalless draw against former world champions Italy on Friday night, following an opening-day victory over Slovenia, shows the extent of their progress under manager Nigel Worthington. McAuley is savouring the moment after winning his 24th cap but keeping his feet on the ground.

"Things are going well for me," he said. "You have just got to ride with it. I am not take anything for granted and working as hard as ever. It is an important stage in my career, as it is for a lot of lads in this group. I still have the ambition and drive to try to achieve something." Next up are Brian Kerr's Faroe Islands -- 5-1 losers to Slovenia on Friday night -- with the squad due to travel out today ahead of the match on Tuesday. "He [Kerr] will have them organised and will have done his homework."

Northern Ireland are in a good position in the group following Serbia's shock home defeat by Estonia. But skipper Aaron Hughes insists they should not get ahead of themselves.

"There's an awful lot of football still to be played so we just focus on each game. It is great to get some points on the board and get off to a good start for a change from the previous campaigns. But we can only look at what is ahead," he said.

Northern Ireland had chances to defeat Italy with David Healy and Steve Davis both coming close to breaking the deadlock. Worthington, however, is pleased with their improvement: "It was always going to be a tough game. We set out to win it but we did not pass the ball as well as we can do. I would love to have won the game but we are moving forward."

Worthington will monitor the fitness of Blackpool defender Craig Cathcart ahead of the match in Toftir. Cathcart sat out the goalless draw against Italy after suffering a back spasm in his club's victory over Liverpool.

Sunday Independent

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