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'Chasing sheep craziest football memory'

“Nigel Worthington uses us as an example at coaching courses now,” laughs Gareth McAuley as he recalls the day he and some of his international team-mates attempted to lure a sheep into their hotel room before a European Qualifier in the Faroe Islands.

“If anyone knows the Faroe Islands there is one hotel and both teams stay there,” he explains.

“There were grass verges leading up to the rooms. One day the sheep were wandering past the windows and a few of the boys tried to shoo one of them in with a piece of grass.

“We looked over and Nigel was watching us. I don’t think he could believe what he was seeing.”

The former West Brom centre-back was speaking to Sky Sports in Rotterdam where Northern Ireland face a crucial Group C clash with the Netherlands, but this time he hasn’t packed key items of his trusted football kit-bag and certainly not the shin pads that in his final months as a player “were older than some of my team-mates”.

Over 600 career club appearances and 80 caps for Northern Ireland later, the 39-year-old finally called it a day after ticking a spell at Rangers off the bucket list, and has travelled to the city hosting Thursday’s game as a supporter.

“Physically I feel fine but I think in my head I was getting too old. I felt like their dad and not their team-mate.

“They (younger players) all want to play computer games. I just want to relax and play golf.

“I’m really looking forward to Christmas. I think 95 per cent or 100 per cent of players would say that. Christmas, birthdays, the first day of school, weddings. It doesn’t seem a lot but I missed them.”

Instead McAuley made good lifestyle choices in order to give himself the best possible chance of prolonging the career he loved.

“I was the designated driver on nights out. I didn’t feel I was giving myself a fair chance if I didn’t treat it seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a monk. I enjoyed a takeaway every now and again, a glass of wine or a few beers.

“I had a saying ‘don’t limit limited ability’ so I did everything possible to be the best I could. Too many players these days limit their careers.”

‘How I left West Brom was my career low’

His top-flight career, where he became a Fantasy League favourite due to his threat from set pieces, began much later than the traditional route. He was already in his 30s when he joined West Brom in 2011 where he immediately felt “was the right place for me,” playing over 200 league games.

“It was fantastic. I have so many friends there. The one thing I would say is that I thought we should have had more of a go in cups. I always felt that cups were not important compared to Premier League survival, which is understandable because of the business side of things. But we could have had a better go. Other sides who were viewed as not the biggest seemed to have a go.”

So could McAuley sum up the much-debated Tony Pulis rough-and-ready style of play in one word?

“Effective,” he grins following a long pause. “Tony did what it said on the tin. He wanted to get it further forward and play balls into the channels. He’s out of work at the moment and I’m sure someone who is struggling will come to him for help.”

What happened if he did play out from the back under Pulis? “I would give the ball to Jonny (Evans) and let him play. If I didn’t do what I was told I was probably out of the team but Jonny was worth £30m so he was allowed to play,” laughs McAuley.

He names Keith Alexander as a leading influence when he moved across from the part-time Irish League to Lincoln in his mid-twenties and enjoyed playing under the “brilliant” Roy Hodgson and also with Steve Clarke at West Brom. His time at the Hawthorns ended late in June 2018.

“How I left West Brom was my career low. How it was handled and the bad communication. I had other things I could have done early in the summer in the transfer market but they changed their mind late and decided to go in a different direction.

“Other things didn’t materialise after that. It was disappointing that after seven years it ended with a little bitterness.”

The good times outweighed the bad by some distance and there were also some memorable moments, which prompted more laughter over the course of the 45-minute interview. Take for example the day McAuley was mistakenly sent off by Neil Swarbrick for a challenge Craig Dawson had made two minutes into an away trip to Manchester City.

“I was saying it wasn’t me but was trying not to throw Dawson under the bus even though he had run off and was hiding somewhere.

“I wore 23 and he wore 25 so that didn’t help. After a minute and 30 seconds you’re probably volunteering to go off at Man City away! After getting changed I went upstairs, ate food and saw the boys get the runaround for 80 mins.

“We saw the referees at the Belfry at an end of season golf day and joked about it. I got the lookalike thing with Dawson loads. He wasn’t happy because I am 10 years older than him!”

Moving to Ibrox

His reputation at West Brom meant he was an appealing signing for Rangers, the club he supported as a boy growing up in the County Antrim town of Larne.

“Rangers was where I wanted to be. I loved every minute. It was all I expected and more. I knew when I was speaking to Steven (Gerrard) at the start what my role was. I knew I would play games but not every week. That’s what I signed up for.

“They are changing things behind the scenes like the canteen, diet stuff, all the things that needed revamped and it’s all backed by the club. One of the great things was seeing the younger players do well and I was mentoring them. There are a few who will have good careers.”

McAuley’s own career highlights include making his Premier League debut (a clean sheet at home to Fulham), qualifying for Euro 2016 and scoring Northern Ireland’s first-ever European Championships goal, a memorable header against Ukraine in Lyon.

He scored nine times for his country to move level with George Best, Martin O’Neill and Norman Whiteside. It’s clear what pulling on the green shirt meant to him.

“It’s as good as it gets,” is how he describes the sense of pride at playing for Northern Ireland. “When you’re doing it you don’t think about it, you just think about the badge on the chest and wanting to win. It was nice towards the end to be competing with the bigger nations and making people proud.

“As Michael (O’Neill) got involved he made it more professional. When I first came in if you got a knock you just went home. Now we have physios, doctors and no room for excuses. It’s so professional now.

“Some trips in the past we travelled for 18 hours, delays, no buses, no proper food. We probably used it all as excuses. It’s a shame it’s only changed over the last seven or eight years.”

‘Van Persie was my most difficult opponent’

As for the best player he played against?

“Robin van Persie was the toughest opponent. His touch was always away from you. He was always in control. Aguero always scored against us. He’s right up there too. I loved the battles with Diego Costa. We had great scraps and he was ruthless.”

Not that the scraps would survive these days. “VAR is taking the guile and craft out of the niggling or disrupting your opponent,” jokes McAuley.

“When they won the league at the Hawthorns I got injured and had to go off but Costa came up and asked if I was okay. He showed there he’s a nice person as well.

“Davo (Steven Davis) would be up there for the best I’ve played with. The most high profile was Romelu Lukaku. He’s gone on to move to bigger and better things in Italy. His goals to game ratio was incredible. I played against him once at Everton but I don’t think he scored.” More laughter.

Would he have given up a clean sheet for the feeling of scoring a goal?

“As a defender who got hit in the face on numerous occasions I’d say I’d take more pride in keeping one out than scoring!”

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, move on without McAuley to a daunting fixture against the Dutch but he has a message for his former team-mates.

“The Germany performance is the benchmark, that’s their standard now. They should be proud.”

‘I want to start at the bottom and learn’

Pride is what McAuley felt most when representing both club and country and he has taken his coaching badges while doing “bits and pieces” for some of his former clubs.

“I’d like to stay in the game in coaching or management. I don’t have the tools to do it at the highest level at the moment. I want to start at the bottom and learn.”

You can guarantee that, like in his playing career, this designated driver with his high standards and relentless work rate won’t be cutting any corners.

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