Belfast Telegraph

My loving family keep me driving forward: McAuley

By Steven Beacom

Gareth McAuley enjoyed his 37th birthday on Monday. He tells me it was much better than his 35th.

Two years ago he was wondering if his football career was coming to an end. Far from it. Indeed, the way the West Bromwich Albion and Northern Ireland defender has been playing lately suggests there are plenty of years left in him.

"Turning 37 didn't bother me... 35 did because you get a letter from the PFA saying you are entitled to your pension. That was the big one and made me think," he says.

Asked if he feels proud of having the tag of the Premier League's oldest player, McAuley takes a breath and responds.

"It feels good. I still train every day and do everything that everyone else does. Right now I'm really enjoying my football and feel fit and strong and long may that continue."

I've told him on several occasions he could play until he is 40. The man known throughout the football world as 'Big G' always smiles at the suggestion.

I've known McAuley for almost 20 years. The level he plays at, his bank balance and the size of his house may have changed, but his personality remains the same. He's a genuinely decent guy who banters with the best of them, never forgetting his roots.

He grew up in Larne with dreams of becoming a professional footballer. They finally came true when he was 24, illustrating the determination that keeps him going today. A year later he won his first international cap and by the time he was 31 he had made it to the top flight of English football.

McAuley's story is not your normal football tale, but it is an uplifting one that he shares with wife Fran and children Bobby and Lexi in their Birmingham home.

Starting out as a kid at Linfield, he moved on to Crusaders in 2000 before joining Coleraine two years later. With the Bannsiders, under the ebullient Marty Quinn, McAuley started to shine, leading him to join Lincoln City and step into the professional ranks in 2004.

On his time in the Irish League, McAuley says: "It was a really good education. It was probably better for me than going to an Academy in England. I was playing games and learning my trade."

His career has been on an upward spiral ever since the transfer to Lincoln. He switched to Leicester City and then Ipswich, as he tried to establish himself in the international squad, and made the move into the Premier League with West Brom in May 2011.

Five and a half years later he is a huge favourite with the Albion supporters, has scored more Premier League goals for them than any other defender and this season alone has netted three top-flight strikes which is more than celebrated figures such as Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne, Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge, Leicester City's Jamie Vardy and Manchester United's £89m midfielder Paul Pogba.

He laughs when that statistic is brought up.

"It is one of those things...right place, right time," states the centre-back, who is close friends with Glentoran boss Gary Haveron.

"The boys have been putting in fantastic deliveries and it is something we have been working on. It is a big part of our game and I've been lucky to get on the end of things and score. I'm only happy if it contributes to us getting points. My main job is to defend at the other end of the pitch."

If passed fit for tomorrow's clash at table-topping Chelsea, it will be McAuley's first fixture as a 37-year-old. The following weekend, WBA host Manchester United meaning potential match-ups against big hitters Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

"They are the best in the business and it's a challenge taking them on and trying to stop them scoring," says McAuley.

"I enjoy those challenges. We have three games in a week with Chelsea and United and Swansea in between that.

"That will be a big ask for everyone at the football club, taking on two of the biggest clubs in the division and a Swansea side desperate for points.

"It will be tough physically before Christmas and then when you go into the Christmas period the games come thick and fast, but that's all part and parcel of being a footballer."

While at club level his status has soared, it's been the same on the international front.

Having made his debut against Germany at Windsor Park in 2005, two years later he considered quitting Northern Ireland after being left out of a squad. Never afraid to say his piece, three years ago McAuley questioned David Martin (now the IFA President) returning to the Association as Deputy President.

It's that sort of straight talking that has made him such a popular player with his peers, the press and the people he represents out on the pitch. He is loved by the Green and White Army and it's easy to recognise why. They see him as one of them.

McAuley was inspirational as Northern Ireland qualified for the Euro 2016 finals. Once there he created history by scoring the nation's first ever goal in the tournament in a 2-0 victory over Ukraine. Desperately unlucky to net an own goal as Northern Ireland lost 1-0 to Wales in the last 16, that didn't stop him being viewed as one of the most valuable players in the competition.

"I used to go and cheer on Northern Ireland. Then when I got in the side I was playing with people that I had been cheering on," says McAuley, who has the same number of international goals (nine) as George Best and is his country's highest scoring defender.

"To go to the Euro finals and score such an important goal in front of all our fans was incredible. Playing for Northern Ireland means a lot to me and my family."

And family means everything to McAuley, be it his folks back home in Northern Ireland or Fran, football-mad son Bobby or beautiful little girl Lexi. Throughout all the adulation at Euro 2016, the 37-year-old stated that his most treasured moment was getting to spend time with his wife and children in the middle of the tournament.

"My family have been strong behind me and have given me all of the support and love to keep me going. They mean everything to me," says McAuley.

"I have a lot to thank my family for and indeed all the supporters I've played for. I still have the desire to continue and hope to be around for a while yet."

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