McAuley’s inspiring tale is one of never giving up
It’s taken a long time for Big G to reach the big stage but it’s where he belongs
Gareth McAuley has travelled a long way. He's the man who went from the Irish League to the Premier League with stops at Lincoln, Leicester City and Ipswich Town in between.
People in Northern Ireland know him well but last weekend he became a household name across the UK, scoring a famous winner against Chelsea.
It was a goal that led to the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas. Of far greater importance to centre-back McAuley, it helped his West Bromwich Albion side to three precious points.
It also earned the 32-year-old from Larne much praise and rightly so.
McAuley has been a revelation for West Brom this season.
His goalscoring instincts may have hit the headlines in his last outing, but it's been his outstanding defending that has delighted boss Roy Hodgson and the Baggies fans since August.
It's hard to believe this is McAuley's first season in the top flight. He certainly doesn't look like a novice amongst the big boys. Right now he is performing like he’s played there for years.
Last weekend he saw off Chelsea's Didier Drogba. On Sunday he'll be taking on Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, with confidence and belief rather than trepidation and fear.
The former Crusaders and Coleraine hero isn't just an inspiration to those playing in the Irish League with hopes of hitting the heights — he's also a perfect illustration why people should never give up on their dream.
In an era when you are written off if you haven’t made it by the age of 25, it’s worth noting that McAuley was 31 when he made his Premier League debut.
“I've waited a long time for a chance to play in the Premier League and against the world’s top strikers,” says the man nicknamed ‘Big G’.
“I've got to grab this opportunity with both hands and make the most of it. You want to be playing against the household names like (Didier) Drogba, (Wayne) Rooney and the rest of them.
“You watch them on the telly and you know they are top, top players. It's a challenge and you try to impose yourself on them and do your job well and hope the team get a result.”
They certainly did against Chelsea thanks to McAuley, who grew up following Linfield and Liverpool.
“Getting the winner was special especially after being battered at Stamford Bridge in a Cup game last season with Ipswich,” he says.
“I thought we played really well so it was a good day all round. The first thing I look for in any game is a clean sheet which is very difficult to achieve in the Premier League because the forwards are so good.
“Scoring the goal was fantastic and I really did enjoy it but keeping a clean sheet is our priority as defenders so to do that against Chelsea was pleasing.”
Asked about his goal in the 1-0 victory leading to AVB’s dismissal, Gareth said: “I don't think about it in those terms. We need to win games ourselves. That was our only concern on the day. It's up to Chelsea what they do. Andre Villas-Boas is a young coach, making his way in the game. It's always sad to see people lose their job, but for us it was important to keep our good run and our momentum going. That was what mattered to us, not what happened at Chelsea.”
The Northern Ireland star, who labels Hodgson as “one of the best coaches in the world” is relishing his first visit to Old Trafford on Sunday.
“It's another massive challenge for us. We know it is going to be tough. They have high quality players and we saw what they did to Tottenham on Sunday, but we are in confident mood and can go there feeling positive,” he added.
“Our captain Chris Brunt tells me it is the biggest pitch in the world. It'll be nice to play there. Hopefully we can put in a good performance and who knows what can happen.”
All this is a far cry from McAuley’s time in local football when he played for Ballyclare Comrades on loan, Crusaders and then Coleraine after being released by Linfield. McAuley has clearly improved as a player since those days, but in terms of personality he hasn’t changed. He remains a genuinely good bloke to be around, never afraid to dish out some banter. Mind you, he can take it too.
And he hasn’t forgotten the Irish League days or the people who helped him along the way. He says: “I keep in contact with the lads that I was friendly with at the teams back home. It was a great grounding. I had a really good education. It was probably better that way for me than going into an Academy at a club in England. I was playing games and learning my trade, especially when I went to Crusaders and started playing alongside Glen Dunlop and Alan Dornan in defence and feeding off people like Stephen Baxter, who is now the manager at Seaview.
“Then when I went to Coleraine the boys there were great too like Paul Gaston, Stephen Beatty, Ian McCoosh and Tony Gorman. I learnt a lot from them.
“The Coleraine boss at that time Marty Quinn was brilliant for me. I took a lot of persuading to leave Crusaders because I loved it there. He talked me into it by saying I needed to make the move for my progression. He said that Coleraine had experienced players who could develop me into a better player. I loved playing for Marty. He was fantastic with all the players and you always wanted to do well for him. Obviously he had the contacts as well and knew Keith Alexander from their Cliftonville days and that eventually led me to moving to Lincoln where Keith was the manager.
“Every move from there, on to Leicester, Ipswich and then West Brom, was a progression for me,” adds the doting father of two-year-old football loving son Bobby.
Rangers were interested in McAuley in the summer, but he opted for WBA. What a wise decision that proved to be.
As for a message to current Irish League players who have dreams about playing in the Premier League, Gareth says: “You need luck to get the break but if you show application, put in the hard work and keep believing then doors can open.
There are good players at home and if they do extra work on their own and get their fitness levels high and get spotted then their rewards will come.”
They certainly have for Gareth McAuley. Few deserve it more.