Northern Ireland filled me with bursting pride: Gareth McAuley announces retirement from football
Northern Ireland defender Gareth McAuley has announced his retirement from football.
The 39-year-old was a free agent after leaving Rangers at the end of last season.
He scored nine times in 80 appearances for his country and was one of the heroes of Euro 2016.
The crowning moment of his international career arrived when he netted the opening goal of his side's 2-0 win over Ukraine in Lyon - a success that would ultimately seal a place in the knockout stages.
He made his international debut in a 4-1 defeat to Germany in June 2005 but considered retiring from Northern Ireland duty two years later after Nigel Worthington left him out of the squad for a Euro 2008 qualifier in Sweden.
After being recalled to the panel, McAuley didn't look back, becoming a true fan favourite at Windsor Park. He netted his last goal for Northern Ireland in a home win over Azerbaijan in November 2016.
"I knew last season was going to be my 23rd and final year as a player and I know I'm hanging up my boots for the final time at the right time," McAuley posted on Twitter.
"From the second I first kicked a ball, it was always about the love of the game and a desire to win followed. I pride myself on getting everything possible out of my career and I'm proud to have played with - and against - some of the best players in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland as well as representing my country for 14 years.
"I could never have imagined what my career would become when I played for Lisburn Youth as a boy.
"It's been a dream, a privilege and an honour to represent so many great clubs and work under managers and coaches who have helped mould my career.
"But it was the green shirt of Northern Ireland which filled me with bursting pride.
"It wasn't always easy for many years but when success came, it made it all the sweeter, not just for me, the players and the staff, but also the fans who have supported us through good times and bad.
"I enjoyed every second I wore the Northern Ireland shirt and will be forever thankful for the support I was given.
McAuley began his career in the Irish League and, after being let go by Linfield, he enjoyed more positive periods at Crusaders and Coleraine.
It was from the north coast that, aged 24, the defender finally got his move into full-time football, beginning an unlikely route from the Irish League to being a Premier League captain.
He joined League Two side Lincoln City for £10,000 and, after working to seal a starting spot, found his feet in the 05/06 season, when he was named in the League Two Team of the Year.
That earned a move to Leicester City in the Championship, where he stayed for two seasons, leaving for Ipswich after the club's relegation.
He was named Ipswich captain soon after joining and spent three seasons at Portman Road, making over 100 appearances for the club.
McAuley's ambition of becoming a Premier League footballer was fulfilled in 2011 when he joined West Bromwich Albion, where he would spend the next seven seasons, making 227 appearances. He was voted the club's Players' Player of the Year and Supporters' Player of the Year for the 12/13 campaign, when the club finished eighth under Steve Clarke, and would go on to captain the side.
Having finally departed the Hawthorns last year, McAuley fulfilled another childhood dream by signing for Rangers.
"The final move was a very special moment; signing for Rangers, the club I supported as a boy," he said. "To pull on that blue shirt meant the world to me.
"Now I'm looking forward to spending time with my wife Fran, my son Bobby and daughter Alexis, and enjoying some of the things I've missed out on down the years."
Belfast Telegraph Digital