Gareth McAuley decides to continue Northern Ireland career

Gareth McAuley scored in Northern Ireland's 2-0 win over Ukraine in Lyon at Euro 2016
Gareth McAuley scored in Northern Ireland's 2-0 win over Ukraine in Lyon at Euro 2016

Northern Ireland's World Cup prospects have been boosted after defender Gareth McAuley decided to extend his international career.

The West Bromwich Albion player will be in Michael O'Neill's squad for the opening Group C qualifying match away to the Czech Republic on 4 September.

The full squad for the match in Prague will be announced on Wednesday.

When Northern Ireland bowed out of Euro 2016, some wondered if 36-year-old McAuley had played his last NI match.

But boss O'Neill said the 63-times capped stalwart had opted to play on for the World Cup campaign.

"He has started the season in fine form for West Brom and I am delighted he made the decision he did," said O'Neill, whose team reached the last 16 at the summer's European Championship finals in France.

"He had a great championship for us. I have never left him out of the team in my four and a half years in charge and I do not envisage doing it in the next two either."

Northern Ireland's 2018 World Cup qualifiers
4 September 2016Czech Republic (away)
8 OctoberSan Marino (home)
11 October Germany (away)
11 November Azerbaijan (home)
26 March 2017Norway (home)
10 JuneAzerbaijan (away)
1 SeptemberSan Marino (away)
4 SeptemberCzech Republic (home)
5 OctoberGermany (home)
8 OctoberNorway (away)

While McAuley is certain to be in the squad to face the Czech Republic, O'Neill has hinted another long-serving defender, Aaron Hughes, may be left out.

The 36-year-old former Newcastle United and Aston Villa man has signed for Indian Super League team Kerala Blasters after leaving Melbourne City.

"The Indian season does not start until the end of December and Aaron has been training on his own in Australia," O'Neill said.

"He has not done pre-season work of any description and it is a conversation me and Aaron have been having over the last few weeks.

"I have to decide if it is worth taking him."

Northern Ireland's other opponents in qualifying Group C are Germany, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino.

Their first home match is against San Marino on 8 October.