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Coleraine's Cup triumph helped Gareth McAuley force his way to very top

Coleraine v Linfield, Tennent's Irish Cup Final: Windsor Park, Saturday, 2.30pm

By Steven Beacom

Gareth McAuley has enjoyed an outstanding career. From scoring for Northern Ireland in Euro 2016 to shackling the world's top strikers while playing for West Bromwich Albion, the 37-year-old has hit the heights.

Viewed as one of the country's most popular and respected sports stars, McAuley has never forgotten his roots and how Irish League football played an important part in his football education.

He started out as a teenager at Linfield before moving to Crusaders, with a loan spell at Ballyclare Comrades in between.

It was at Coleraine, however, where he began to shine, showing defensive ability that would take him all the way to the top division in the English game and 71 caps to date.

It is 14 years since McAuley helped the Bannsiders win the Irish Cup final. Coleraine haven't lifted the trophy since, though Oran Kearney's team plan to end that run on Saturday when they meet champions Linfield in a mouthwatering decider at Windsor Park.

McAuley has achieved much since he left the Showgrounds for full-time football in 2004, playing for Lincoln City, Leicester City and Ipswich Town prior to emerging as a big favourite with WBA, but the Irish Cup final success still holds a special place in his heart.

Coleraine entered the match with most suggesting they would be ripped apart by a Glentoran team going for a clean sweep of domestic trophies. Marty Quinn's men had other ideas with Jody Tolan's early goal earning the Bannsiders their first Irish Cup triumph since 1977.

Taking a trip down memory lane, McAuley said: "It is still right up there with the best things I have done. It was a special occasion and a fantastic day and it remains the last time that Coleraine won the Irish Cup final.

"To do it with lads that I learnt from meant a lot. I would still consider the boys I played with back then as friends and would keep in contact with our goalkeeper Davy O'Hare.

"It was a long time since Coleraine had won anything so to win the final for the club and the fans was great.

"At that time it was the biggest occasion I had been involved in and when it comes down to it, it is still the only thing that I have won so it is very important to me."

McAuley, who had a goal disallowed in the final, was the young gun in the 2003 Coleraine side playing alongside experienced performers such as Paul Gaston, captain Pat McAllister, Tony Gorman, Stephen Beatty and Rory Hamill.

The Northern Ireland defender, who has scored nine international goals, says a lesson he learned from that day has stayed with him throughout his distinguished football career.

He revealed: "It was a massive occasion for me at the time but I remember Tony Gorman, who had obviously played in a lot of Cup finals with Linfield previously, saying to me that it was still a game of football and to play the game not the occasion and not let the occasion affect me. It is probably something that has stuck with me throughout my career.

"I remember the noise being incredible at Windsor. It was the biggest crowd I had played in front of at that point and I have great memories from it.

"I was the youngest player. All the lads had been playing for years and many of them had won everything you could in Irish League football. To me that Coleraine team was a great side with a great wealth of experience and I learnt so much in the couple of years I was with them."

Back in 2003, renowned actor Jimmy Nesbitt was in the middle of the Cup final celebrations. There is a well known picture of the pair of them taken after the game with Nesbitt lauding the performance of a young McAuley.

"I have been sent that picture of me and Jimmy quite a lot," says the West Brom star.

"Through having progressed in my career I have met Jimmy on a few occasions. He is a great man and he supports Coleraine fanatically, both as a fan and financially, and I'm sure he will be at the Cup final with the shirt on and with the new batch of players.

"I just hope the current Coleraine players enjoy the day and the Cup final as much as I did when we won it all those years ago."

And the West Brom man believes that the Bannsiders stand an excellent chance of winning silverware again if they rise to the occasion.

"Coleraine can go into the Irish Cup final and play with no fear," he said. "That's the way they should approach it.

"They have had a good season finishing third in the league and have young players who will be playing in their first big final. In a situation like this you have to have the attitude that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

"You have to leave everything out there and have no regrets coming back to the dressing room. As long as Coleraine give their best and everyone pulls together I think they have a great chance.

"Linfield have obviously had a brilliant season too and I'm sure it will be a fantastic game."

McAuley was at Linfield as a teenager and was an international team-mate of Blues boss David Healy, but is hoping the Bannsiders produce an upset.

"I had a few years at Linfield as well as playing for Coleraine but I like the underdog," said Northern Ireland's highest scoring defender.

"Coming from Northern Ireland you are pretty much always the underdog so I would like to see Coleraine win.

"I remember how good it was for us when we won the Cup and what it meant to the area and what it felt like going back to Coleraine with the Cup after the final. It would be nice to see that happening again."

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