The 2019 New Year’s Honours List added a further member of the British Empire to the famed Northern Ireland collective of 2016. Manager Michael O’Neill, the first man to take Northern Ireland to the European Championships, and who had lifted his country from their knees to gaze down from the top of their qualifying group was the first and proper recipient. Captain Steve Davis naturally was next. An international cap centurion who has diligently served and led his country for 14 years, he followed his manager from pitch to palace. As we move down the line we arrive at the imposing figure of ‘Big G,’ Gareth McAuley. He will be next to have the maroon ribbon hanging proudly on that frame of green defiance that has served the country proudly. The number four to the fore so to speak is a gag that squeezes in because it suits him rather than an attempt at humour.
It is a third golden sword strike, literally and metaphorically, on three men who will now and in time be remembered as the footballing axles of a famous team. This is what happens in the ‘memoria borealis’ of football fans as they pin a side’s cornerstones to a permanent cerebral light show. McAuley completes an isosceles triangle if you like of two players and a manager who perhaps now close the French time capsule of the summer of 2016. The show continues for now but that is not what we are about here.
McAuley: 6″3 of Larne rock. Transferable rock that has built defences from Coleraine to Lincoln, Leicester to Ipswich, the West Midlands and now Glasgow. A transferable rock all covered by green algae that seals his surface. Step on it at your peril. What is it though about him and the award that many feel we can close the book?
Several things are apparent. When physicality is matched and met by substance and calibre the result does not wash away easily. Six foot three records him but that surprises. He comes across as bigger insofar as I have seen taller men who don’t have his hulk and presence. These observations, real or perceived are where it becomes interesting. These Honours’ lists are a point where many people in their chosen fields are highlighted to the wider world and folk become more interested as to why this is so.
The closed mind swiftly moves on when met with ‘Services to Football’ and thus remains safe from new, refreshing light. There are many arguments about the general merits of the honours system. I would argue however that there are by and large few football recipients who do not deserve its recognition in the broadest realm of its purpose; ergo, recipients who can walk the walk with others in their particular field. Let’s say that is a baseline to work by in all this. Solid, proper and seriously diligent souls who have gone the extra mile and are a beacon of respectability as a rule of thumb.
Those outside football will recognise McAuley visually, especially in Northern Ireland and think ‘probably fair enough’ from their limited knowledge base. But for those of us in football, he is worth studying. Not the captain of the team, but as I have said before in other columns, its beating heart emotionally and physically. Before we pull on a green shirt a few things to consider.
The fact that he is considered a ‘late developer’ tilts in his favour. The emanating feeling of someone who appreciates his good fortune in being able to play full-time professional football is a good under-armour; it also travels well. Especially in a profession that is not universally loved in class-conscious Britain. For the likes of McAuley and his personal qualities narrow the gaps between football and the outside world if you subscribe to the belief they are separate. Much about modern big-time football does highlight the two diverse spheres, but in actuality, the game’s hulking shadow in the world is because it pervades society massively.
McAuley you imagine is a dream to work with. That perception is more than a reality and it is not hard to find glowing tributes to him from work colleagues over the last decade or so. As he moves into his 40th year his qualities cast stronger and longer waves across the pool. Endurance, consistency of manner and level of play, eagerness to serve and contribute are his permanent entourage. Training ground stories abound of his absurd fitness levels. His implacable steadiness in good or bad fortune echoes the resilience of the military man.
All this footballing ermine has come to glowing fruition under Michael O’Neill in the Northern Ireland football team of recent years. His 30s have coincided with club football in the Premier League and international football alongside the fellow Ulster colossi of Aaron Hughes and Jonny Evans. It wasn’t always so as constant managerial rebuttal a dozen or so years ago had him nearly packing in the international game before he had even started. Now that would have been a ‘Beatles/Decca’ type loss for the team but I don’t think anyone seriously thought that would happen.
But going back to the steadiness and resilience of the man it was epitomised for me within 10 Gallic days in June 2016. In Lyon, he soared to Gerry Armstrong levels of folklore as he punctured Ukrainian airspace to provide a golden moment to himself, team and country. The pitchside interview he gave after the game fixated viewers as he tried to convey what it all meant as he veered between player and fan, treading water in adrenaline and elation. The many photographs of him in that game with wet light dripping off him all added to the otherworldliness.
Against Wales in Paris nine days later as he put the ball through his own net, the mark of the man came through again. His pain was tangible but again in interview, he was able to steady himself and put it in its place. He was broad enough to take the blow, pleased that it had been him rather than a younger, less experienced soul where long-lasting mental damage could have occurred.
Post-2016, he has gone again for the ‘wee country’ adding his ninth international goal to lead the defenders’ table. His headed goals adorn the memories of Northern Ireland fans everywhere. At 80 caps his days are numbered but I wouldn’t say that to him. The idea that something might get the better of him is an anathema as he sets off on a further venture with Glasgow Rangers. Well done Gareth McAuley on your achievements. That golden aura that shone around you in that match in Lyon clearly goes with you in every walk of life. Someone in the bestowing powers of the establishment has seen that too, and they weren’t wrong.