Belfast Telegraph

The King of Lyon: Gareth McAuley will always be idolised after Northern Ireland heroics

Magical day: Gareth McAuley celebrates after hitting opener against Ukraine
Magical day: Gareth McAuley celebrates after hitting opener against Ukraine

By Steven Beacom

It had been 30 long years. Northern Ireland's last goal in the finals of a major tournament was back in 1986.

In Lyon, Gareth McAuley changed all that.

The lad from Larne rose high to connect with Oliver Norwood's free-kick and head it powerfully into the Ukraine net, sparking wild scenes of celebration inside the stadium and back home.

Niall McGinn would score later as Northern Ireland won 2-0 in the group stages of the 2016 European Championship finals.

After McAuley's goal, with the rain tumbling down, he ran towards the Green and White Army, providing one of the most iconic images in the history of Northern Ireland sport.

It was a magical moment and one that the defender richly deserved.

Yesterday, at the age of 39, McAuley announced that he was retiring from playing after a long, enjoyable career that in club terms started at Linfield as a kid and ended with his boyhood favourites Rangers last season.

In between he played for Ballyclare Comrades, Crusaders, shone at Coleraine, earned a move to Lincoln and gradually and impressively made his way up the ranks with Leicester, Ipswich and to the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion.

He made 699 appearances, netting 52 times, often using his physique and intelligence inside the box to finish set-piece moves.

McAuley loved pitting his wits against the best strikers in England's top flight and became a hero to the Baggies fans.

Northern Ireland supporters adored him even more. He won 80 caps and scored nine international goals, including that header versus Ukraine.

Hitting double figures would have been lovely, but McAuley will enjoy the fact, now that it's over, that he is on the same tally as legendary figures George Best, Martin O'Neill and Norman Whiteside. He merits being in that company.

The stats are superb but it's also the way he played the game.

He used his heart and his mind and was an example to any youngster in the country that with application and attitude, combined with ability, dreams could come true.

During the Michael O'Neill era, the 'Oooh Gareth McAuley' chant reverberated around Windsor Park as much as songs about inspirational skipper Steven Davis, which tells you the esteem in which the centre-back was held.

To think there was a time when McAuley, frustrated at not playing many games under Lawrie Sanchez, considered his international future.

Thankfully he stuck with it and was richly rewarded, playing a key role in helping Northern Ireland reach Euro 2016 before experiencing the ultimate on that unforgettable day in France.

While McAuley was the type you wanted to go on forever, he can go out with his head held high and will always be a King of Lyon.

What's also worth pointing out is the guy was as genuine off the pitch as he was committed on it.

I remember calling him in his Coleraine days to inform him he had won the Have a Rattle Player of the Season award following a public vote courtesy of readers of the old Ireland's Saturday Night newspaper.

Big G was stunned. He thought I was winding him up. When he finally realised it was true, he spoke about others who he felt were more worthy of the prize.

While self-belief increased throughout his career, that air of modesty remained. So too a generous, humorous, down to earth nature that made him popular with team-mates and spectators alike.

McAuley, 40 in December, has started his coaching badges and it is hoped that he stays in the game to use his experience and knowledge.

It's a long way off but it wouldn't be a major surprise if he managed Northern Ireland in the future.

For now, though, this is a period to reflect on a fantastic career, take the plaudits coming his way and to enjoy that extra time with his wife Fran and children Bobby and Alexis.

Well played Big G, well played.

McAuley's top five moments:

Cup glory with Coleraine

Gareth McAuley has numerous happy memories but only one winners’ medal. It came with Coleraine in 2003 when he excelled in their 1-0 Irish Cup final success over clean sweep-chasing Glentoran. McAuley’s time with the Bannsiders was a huge success after spells with Linfield, Ballyclare and Crusaders. Such was his form, he moved to Lincoln in 2004.

International honours

It was while with Lincoln that he won his first Northern Ireland cap against Germany at Windsor Park in 2005 under Lawrie Sanchez. It wasn’t until a couple of years later with Nigel Worthington in charge that he started to establish himself. Under Michael O’Neill, McAuley rose to another level.

Premier ambition

After playing with Ipswich and Leicester, McAuley joined West Brom in 2011. It would turn out to be the best free transfer ever for the Baggies and for McAuley it offered him the chance to make his Premier League dream come true. How he took it. Brilliant at both ends, he defended superbly and scored important goals including against Chelsea and Liverpool.

Eur a hero

McAuley scored nine times for Northern Ireland. One will forever stand above the rest. Then 36, McAuley netted against Ukraine in the Euro 2016 finals in Lyon, inspiring the country to a 2-0 victory and helping Northern Ireland reach the knockouts where he was unfortunate to score an own goal in a 1-0 defeat to Wales.

Ibrox calling

Growing up in Larne, he supported Rangers as a boy. When the chance to join the Ibrox club arrived last year, he couldn’t turn it down. McAuley only played 10 games but it was another dream fulfilled. The 39-year-old can be proud of all he has achieved.

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