Gareth McAuley: From Irish League to marking Suarez
It’s a long way from the Northern Ireland coastal town of Larne to England’s midlands. It’s even further if you go via Lincoln, Leicester and Ipswich.
Finally though, Gareth McAuley has got to where he wants to be.
He’s not the oldest player to make a Premier League debut, but at 31 not many have entered the top flight later in their careers.
It’s been worth the wait though for the man who was, at one stage, ready to forge a career as a window draughtsman, before making the move he’s always dreamed of.
And tomorrow he’ll face one of the Premier League’s most feared strikers when he and his West Bromwich Albion team-mates take on Liverpool.
Marking someone like Luis Suarez was a million miles away when McAuley stayed on at school as others moved a couple of steps up the football ladder.
Some of the boys who’d been his team-mates at Lisburn Youth took the direct route to the top — David Healy, Grant McCann and Aaron Hughes were snapped up by Manchester United, Newcastle United and West Ham while in their mid-teens. At that time McAuley was battling to make the step-up through the ranks at Linfield.
Eventually he conceded defeat in that battle after hitting something of a glass ceiling at Windsor Park. William Murphy and Noel Bailie were a solid partnership that was still to peak when McAuley was playing for Linfield Swifts.
Failure to break into the first-team at Windsor Park would have broken many teenagers. McAuley is made of stronger stuff than most though and he proved that in two years at Crusaders.
He’d already gained three A-Levels by that time and had a year at university before going into a job.
Leaving Seaview was a positive step though and while he didn’t know it at the time, his move to Coleraine changed his life.
The desire to make a living as a footballer hadn’t gone away. The Bannsiders were paying him enough to live on, so the job was ditched and McAuley started training full-time, mostly on his own, in the hope that one day he would leave his hometown for bigger and better things.
Two Irish Cup final appearances later — a win over Glentoran in 2003 followed by a defeat to the Glens 12 months later — the breakthrough came, but only after he stared disappointment in the face.
A trial with Stockport County, under the management of Sammy McIlroy, in the summer of 2004 looked like being the big step forward he’d been looking for, but the former Northern Ireland boss couldn’t move players out in order to bring McAuley in.
Bags were packed and a one-way ticket back home was in the offing when suddenly Lincoln City manager Keith Alexander — a close friend of Coleraine boss Marty Quinn — stepped in like a knight in shining armour to give McAuley his break.
And he’s never looked back.
He emerged as one of the best defenders in League Two during two seasons with the Imps and made his Northern Ireland debut while still at Sincil Bank. Only Leicester City’s decision to sack their manager stopped him moving to the Foxes before the summer of 2006.
When Leicester were relegated two years later Jim Magilton rescued him from the ignominy of dropping from the Championship into League One.
Playing in every division below the Premier League wasn’t his wont. The top flight was though and when Ipswich Town didn’t make it there McAuley had to go it alone.
Although Rangers were keen to take him to Scotland earlier this year, there was no way he was going to turn down what West Brom had to offer — the chance to face some of the world’s best players on a weekly basis in a league regarded as one of, if not the best there is.
McAuley has never had any regrets that he didn’t move to England sooner. In fact, things turned out just the way he wanted.
“I only turned pro when I was 24. Sometimes when you look at it from the other side you get kids who start at 17 or 18 but fade away,” he said.
“A lot of footballers moan, but when they come through and have seen real life, you come to ignore anything trivial.
“I’ve seen the other side of life that many footballers won’t ever see.
“I know what working nine to five is about. It’s tough.”
And McAuley will face Liverpool, Suarez and the Anfield club’s record signing Andy Carroll et al tomorrow with endorsements from his new team-mates ringing in his ears.
After the Baggies kept a clean sheet on his debut last month against Fulham, goalkeeper Ben Foster said: “Gareth has come in on his debut and headed balls and kicked everything clear.
“It's nice to have people like that in front of you.”
And one of his defensive partners, Swedish international Jonas Olsson, believes that there is a link between West Brom’s tighter defence and McAuley’s arrival at the Hawthorns.
“We have been more solid this year,” said Olsson.
“We've put a lot of work in on the shape, on the defence as a unit, as a team, and it is paying off.
“Gareth has been very solid since he came in. He is experienced, a good header of the ball, and it is nice to play alongside him. He has really impressed me.”