EURO 2016: Northern Ireland’s Gareth McAuley hungry for more as he prepares for Romania test

Gareth McAuley trains at The Dub in Belfast on Wednesday

Gareth McAuley trains at The Dub in Belfast on Wednesday

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Gareth McAuley is determined to prolong his international career for as long as he can – but admits only time will tell what the future holds.

The West Brom defender remains a permanent fixture in Northern Ireland’s backline, a steely backbone in the country’s Euro 2016 qualifying crusade.

The 35-year-old has earned 52 caps to date, a tally he will hope to bolster in the months ahead – and at next summer’s European Championships in France.

McAuley’s primary focus is Saturday’s visit of Group F leaders Romania to Windsor Park, and keeping Northern Ireland’s Euro qualifying dream firmly on track.

As for the future, the former Coleraine defender admits only time will tell where his international career will go.

“Playing on after this campaign is going to be a big ask,” he says.

“To be honest though, I can only assess that at the time and it is probably best to do that on a yearly basis.

“When I was at Ipswich, Sammy Morgan (Academy Manager) said to me: ‘let your country retire you’.

“That has really stayed with me.

“What I can say for sure is that I will do everything to give myself every opportunity.”

West Brom star McAuley is currently being linked with a return to former club Leicester City.

He has made 138 appearances in his four years at The Hawthorns, playing a major role in the club’s Barclays Premier League stability.

But while the spotlight continues to fall on McAuley’s club future, the player has diverted his full attention to Saturday’s crunch showdown with Romania.

“It’s important we treat this game just like any other. The preparation has been exactly the same,” he said.

“Obviously we want to keep the momentum going by getting a good result on Saturday night.

“A positive result will bode well for the rest of the campaign but there’s no point in us thinking this game is much bigger than it is.

“We’ve worked hard to get to where we are right now and we know we will have to keep that up and improve again to get to where we all want to be.”

Northern Ireland’s only defeat in the current campaign was against Saturday’s rivals.

A 2-0 defeat in Bucharest leaves O’Neill’s side second in Group F, but only one point behind Romania.

“We have worked on things that we believe we can improve on from the defeat in Romania,” McAuley added.

“Having said that, we were without a few players that night. Steven Davis was injured, as were Jamie Ward and Shane Ferguson and Jonny Evans hadn’t been available at that stage.

“I wasn’t playing regularly at my club at that stage and little things went against us that night.

“I still don’t believe we played anywhere near at the level we are capable of we have a clean bill of health for this game and the lads have looked after themselves well since the end of the season.”

And while there continues to be a frisson of excitement surround Northern Ireland’s qualification hopes, McAuley is refusing to be seduced by talk of next summer’s finals.

“It is easier for us to detach ourselves from people talking about qualification back home,” he said.

“Our minds are focused on winning games. If we go and lose the next five games we aren’t going to qualify for anything.

“That is something which can drive us on during games. It is a big factor.”