Gareth McAuley Northern Ireland

Another one of the ‘Kings of Lyon’ announced their retirement last week as Gareth McAuley called time on his footballing career a week ago yesterday, at least the playing side.

McAuley’s career and his breakthrough into both professional club football and the international scene is a truly remarkable story and one that will seldom be seen again but before looking closer at that let’s look at some of his highlights.

Since making the move to England with Lincoln City in 2004, the Larne born defender became a stalwart in the backline of every team he played with and clocked up over 500 games as a professional, rarely missing a game some seasons. He was named in the League Two Team of the Season in 2005-06 and won Player of the Year awards for Ipswich and West Brom. On the international scene, he made a total of 80 appearances, making him his country’s tenth most capped player.

All these achievements are made all the more impressive when you look at the journey he went on to make it to one of Europe’s top divisions. He began with Lisburn Youth, the same club that produced fellow Northern Ireland internationals David Healy and Keith Gillespie. He later moved on to Linfield where he spent a few years playing in their youth and reserve sides and had a loan stint with Ballyclare Comrades. Ultimately though he never made a first-team appearance for the Blues and moved to Crusaders to secure regular football. The North Belfast outfit at the time were a far cry from the club they are now and finished second bottom both seasons McAuley was with them, but he impressed enough to earn a move to Coleraine who, at the time were, one of the top sides in the division.

At Coleraine he began to shine as he made a total of 97 appearances in all competitions, turned out in Europe for the Bannsiders, helped the club to 3rd and 4th placed finishes respectively and was a key member of the Coleraine side that won the 2003 Irish Cup.

All this caught the attention of Stockport County, who were managed at the time by former Northern Ireland player Sammy McIlroy, and Lincoln City. In the end he opted to sign for the latter. At the age of 24, some would have said he was taking a huge risk but they would soon eat their words.

After struggling initially to get into a strong defensive team, injuries gave him the chance he craved and he took it with both hands and never looked back, playing a key role in helping the Imps reach the playoffs twice in a row. At the end of his contract, he signed for Leicester, captaining them in his second season there and despite being part of the side that was relegated to League One, he remained in the Championship with fellow Northern Irish man, Jim Magilton, paying £1.1 million to bring him to Ipswich.

McAuley was an absolute bargain for the club, as he was throughout his career with his gross transfer cost being less than £1.5 million, and became a rock in their defence and a firm favourite with the fans. His performances in the Championship began to attract top-flight attention and after three seasons with Ipswich, he was snapped up by Premiership side West Brom.

If people thought the Premier League was a step too far, they were very wrong indeed as the Larne man slotted straight into the Baggies defence and helped them to two top-half finishes in his first two seasons. In seven seasons with the club, there were only two where he played less than 30 games and in total made just over 200 appearances in England’s top flight. After being released in 2018 he spent his final season playing for his boyhood club Rangers.

Internationally, McAuley was given his debut by Lawrie Sanchez in a 4-1 defeat against Germany, a game that was also yours truly’s Northern Ireland ‘debut’. Looking at his impressive international career and legendary status, it’s hard to believe that at one stage McAuley couldn’t get a look in the squad and at one point considered international retirement. But after impressing in a 2-1 win in a European Championship 2008 qualifier against Denmark, he never looked back.

McAuley went on to be a key member of Michael O’Neill’s heroes who got us to Euro 2016 and his highlight in a green and white shirt is bound to be scoring THAT goal in the second group stage game against Ukraine that helped us secure our only win of the tournament, and was the first goal Northern Ireland had scored in an international tournament in 30 years. As a fan who grew up in the dark days of the nineties and noughties, it was a moment that I and many others who never thought we would see our country play on the big stage will never forget.

Few players who move from the Irish League to full-time football make it, though the likes of Stuart Dallas and Gavin Whyte have broken that trend recently. The fact that MacAuley did so at the age of 24 and still had to work his way up from League Two to the Premiership is remarkable and speaks highly to his attitude, determination, and work rate; and he truly deserves all the plaudits that come his way. Earlier this year he was honoured with an MBE for services to football in Northern Ireland and no doubt further honours will follow when Northern Ireland return to action at Windsor Park.

Earlier this year we had bid a fond farewell to Northern Ireland legend Aaron Hughes, and Steven Davis’ career is very much in its twilight so it really is the end of an era for the Green and White Army, but thanks to Gareth and Co we have some great memories to look back on.

Good luck to Gareth in whatever he chooses to do next in football or outside of it.