With Euro 2016 just around the corner, last week we looked at the prospects of Wales and the Republic of Ireland with James Chester and James McClean, but now it’s the turn of Northern Ireland and the central defensive pairing of Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans.
Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland) Talk Euro 2016
By Dave Bowler
It’s the first Euros for Northern Ireland and the first major tournament for the country in a generation as they look to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong to emulate the success of the 1980s when the men in green went to successive World Cup finals.
It represents a pretty remarkable turnaround for the country because it doesn’t seem that long ago that they were struggling just find a goal and going ten games without a win. Now, as Jonny explains, they are posting records in the opposite direction.
“It’s all new territory for us, but the really positive thing is that we are going into the competition in good form, on the back of a long unbeaten run of ten games. For a country of our size, that is a huge achievement and it’s a run that we obviously want to keep going for as long as possible.
“What was pleasing was that when we got back together in March, we carried on at the same level and the same intensity. We had two tough games with Wales and Slovenia, but we came out of those unbeaten and would have had two wins if Wales hadn’t equalised with a last minute penalty. It’s been a fantastic run and something that we’ve drawn a lot of confidence from.
“If you look back to before that, we had that run where we couldn’t score goals and so we were losing games, and so in that way, it has been a big turnaround. But so much of it is down to confidence and belief. You get one result and that then makes you feel you can get another and another.
“Michael O’Neill has been able to bring a real stability to the squad and the team, he’s a good coach, but he’s also been able to really bring the players together and get us well bonded as a group and that’s really important for a country like ours.
“It’s a very tight knit group and the lads have been putting a real shift in for the manager. From that you start to get results and the whole thing begins to snowball from there”.
Gareth is a veteran of plenty of those unsuccessful qualifying campaigns of the past and so he’s revelling in the way that Northern Ireland are now very much on the front foot, having torn through the qualification group, topping a section that included Romania, Hungary, Finland, the Faroe Islands and Greece, European champions themselves back in 2014.
“Ten games unbeaten now is a great run to be on and we would like to extend that into the tournament with the two friendlies we have before if at all possible.
“There’s a real big difference in the mentality of our squad now where we turn up and we expect to do well, to perform and to win games, to get good results whereas going back two or three years, we were turning up more in hope of getting something and that is a very important change.
We would know that we were in for a tough time and that is hard to deal with time after time. Now, we feel that we can get control in games with the way that we play and the things that we have learnt over the past couple of campaigns.
“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why we went from struggling for a long spell to now being unbeaten for so long. Lots of little things have changed over that time. And to be honest, in the past, things weren’t quite as bad as the results might have suggested.
“In the World Cup qualifiers for 2014, we were doing ok, performances were going in the right direction, but the results didn’t really reflect it. We weren’t scoring enough goals at that point and that told on us.
“For a lot of the lads, that World Cup campaign was the first time they’d been involved at that level and in football, any step up like that is a learning curve. But when you get into international football and you’re playing against some of the very top sides and top players, it can be punishing at times.
“It was very hard and we did hit a low point when we lost the game to Luxembourg. We’d gone down to ten men against Portugal a few days before and got a bit of a chasing there and by the time we got to Luxembourg, we had nothing left in the tank but even then, to lose to them was a real embarrassment.
“But the response to it was good. We’d reached the bottom, but we came back fighting and we were fortunate that we could go into the Euros with a clean slate and with a draw that we felt gave us a little bit of hope that we could achieve something.
“There were good teams in the group that had done well previously, but with the expansion of the tournament and the possibility of qualifying all the way down to third place with the play-offs, that gave us real belief at the start of it all that we could make something happen.
“The big thing was that come the end of the campaign, we could see a way that we could still be playing for something big where in previous campaigns, after a few matches, it was all over and we were just fulfilling fixtures at the finish.
“As I say, a lot of things like that all came together and fell into place, including the redevelopment of the stadium in Belfast. We got a couple of results early on and from there, the excitement and the momentum grew and we’ve been riding the crest of that wave for a little while now and long may it continue”.
As with so many successful teams at whatever level, Northern Ireland have been able to create a unit that is a nice, healthy blend of relative youth and yet real experience at the top levels of the game. Jonny Evans sees that as a real positive as they set about their work in France.
“In a way, it is still quite a young team but we have been together for quite a long time. When Michael O’Neill came in, he wanted to freshen things up a little bit and he brought in a few young players who he wanted to give an opportunity to and he’s given them time to develop at international level.
“Because he’s done that, the squad has grown up together a little bit over a number of years, we’ve got that sort of club feel to it. Playing together regularly means you understand each other, you know what each of us is doing, how we like to play and again, that builds that confidence in one another to go out and play games and feel comfortable with each other”.
Though both Jonny and Gareth have enjoyed distinguished careers in the game already, going to a major finals is a fresh additions to their CVS and one they are clearly relishing, even if McAuley in particular is trying to keep a lid on his thoughts about the summer.
“It’s nice to get the chance to be doing something new at this stage of my career! I have asked some of the boys at West Brom like Jonas Olsson what it’s like to go out and play in one of these tournaments. Clearly it’s going to be a great occasion for everyone linked with Northern Ireland but to be perfectly honest, I’m trying not to look that far ahead just yet.
“After seeing what happened to Chris Brunt and to other players with other countries who are missing out with injury the way I’m looking at is there’s still a lot of training and some more games to got through before I get on the plane to go there, so I’m not looking to tempt fate by getting too excited just yet!
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself because in this game, you really never know just what’s around the corner, it can suddenly turn around and do some nasty things to you”.
After years playing for Manchester United, Jonny has experienced pretty much all there is to see at the top end of the club game, but the chance to go onto the big stage for his country is clearly something he’s looking forward to.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play in some very big club games throughout my career, but the chance of going to the Euros and to play for Northern Ireland in a major tournament is massive.
“I’ve never experienced this type of format before and I’m really looking forward to the challenge and the pressure of it. You only get three games in the group stage, there isn’t much room for error there in any of the games. It is a testing group and it’s going to be very tough, but it’s a challenge that we are all looking forward to taking on, it’s something we will relish.
“Germany, Poland and Ukraine is a pretty difficult group, we’ll be the underdogs, but that doesn’t worry us at all. We’ve been underdogs all the way through. We were in Pot 5 when the qualification draw was made so we weren’t expected to even make the play-offs, let alone go on and win the group. So we’ll take that mantle on and see what we can achieve.
“The teams we play are going to be of an even higher standard simply because you are at the finals themselves, this is a major championship, but that underdog status might prove helpful. The pressure will be off us and we can hopefully go out there and cause a few upsets and surprise a few people.
“It would be great to get through to the knockout stages, that’s the ultimate aim. I honestly believe we can do that and I know that as a squad, we genuinely believe that too. We’re going there looking to cause a few upsets and surprise a few people with how good a side we are”.
That is very clearly a source of motivation for Gareth, because you can sense a certain irritation in his voice when he talks about the way his country is viewed by the outside world.
“Going there as underdogs grates on me a little bit because I don’t think we’ve got enough credit for the progress we’ve made. With the bookies, we are longer odds for the competition than the two teams that we finished above in the group which is a bit surprising!
“People are just sitting there, waiting for it to go back to the way it was. Hopefully that won’t happen. With the preparation we’ve got in store, the way things are put in place now, I think we will be ready for the challenge. Football is full of opinions and we’ll be looking to change a few of those in France.
“There’s no pressure on us, everyone back home is just delighted that we’ve reached the tournament, but that’s not enough for us. Speaking to Jonas, he said that’s the one disappointment he has from four years ago. He loved being a part of it, but Sweden didn’t do justice to themselves and to get through the group and he looks back on that with a bit of regret.
“That’s something I’ve thought a lot about since. It’s not just about being there and making up the numbers, it’s about doing something to remember and we’ll be aiming to at least get out of the group”.