Gareth McAuley: My favourite memory of 2019 is talking football with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace
Prince Charles was one of the first people to learn of my imminent retirement in 2019.
The meeting took place at the majestic Buckingham Palace in May and was for my investiture after receiving the MBE in the New Year’s honours list.
It was one of the proudest moments of my life and when I look back on the past year, it is the highlight.
I was ridiculously nervous ahead of the ceremony, probably more so than even on my wedding day.
I was still at Rangers, so had flown down from Glasgow the day before and joined my wife, Fran, and two kids, Bobby and Lexi, who had taken the train from the east Midlands.
It was all wonderfully organised but that didn’t stop the butterflies in my stomach until the car rolled up to the gates of Buckingham Palace. A policeman, carrying what looked like a big machine gun, stopped the car and was just about to ask my business, when he roared out: "Big G, how are you big man?"
I immediately recognised the Northern Ireland accent as he told me he had a picture of me in his kitchen and wished me good luck and to have a great day. It broke the ice, relaxed me and the nerves evaporated.
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After a lot of procedure to go through, formal introductions and waiting around, it was finally my turn and I stepped forward to greet Prince Charles.
I’d actually met him before when I was at Ipswich and he came to the club, so it was the second time I was shaking his hand.
The first question he asked was if I was still playing? I responded by telling him I was nearly done as my body was killing me.
He joked that as you get older, you really do start to feel the aches and pains.
I enjoyed my chat with Prince Charles, he really does put you at ease, because there are a lot of things to remember in terms of protocol as you step up to receive your honour. He was obviously well briefed, which I appreciated.
After the pictures and then a nice dinner in London, we returned home by train as a family and it really was a lovely day out.
So I’m absolutely delighted that my good friend and former team-mate Aaron Hughes will be experiencing the same pomp and ceremony after being awarded an MBE in this year’s New Year’s honours list.
It’s so well deserved and I think the honour really suits him.
The manner in which he led his professional career from an aspiring 18 year-old to a 39 year-old who retired in the changing rooms at the Borisov Arena in Belarus, should be the blueprint for every young footballer in Northern Ireland.
He did everything right from the start, while the rest of us grew into it. He was the ultimate professional and an inspiration.
I don’t know anyone who would have a bad word to say about Aaron Hughes.
It’s so fitting for him and I know he’ll enjoy his day out at the Palace just as much as I did.
I also think it is amazing that you have three players from Lisburn Youth, who were in the same year, that now have MBEs for services to football. David Healy picked up the first gong, then me and now Aaron.
That is a real credit to our old boys club and the coaches there, Les King, Robbie Walker and Billy Black.
Northern Ireland’s Player of the Year - Jonny Evans
Jonny is just head and shoulders above everyone else. He plays the game at his own pace, has so much time and looks so comfortable.
I live near Leicester, so get the local papers and know how highly he is rated at the King Power Stadium.
In terms of Northern Ireland, how much he gives to the team was evident when he actually didn’t play against Germany in Frankfurt last month. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have been beaten that night, because the Germans were ruthless, but it certainly wouldn’t have been 6-1.
Along with Davo (Steven Davis), they are two players Northern Ireland simply can’t do without.
Stuart Dallas deserves an honourable mention too.
But for me, Jonny is playing at a level way above everyone else and it doesn’t surprise me Champions League teams are interested in acquiring him. However, knowing Jonny and having played alongside him for many years for club and country, I really feel he’s content at Leicester, and with them in a great position in the League and playing for a top manager in Brendan Rodgers, he’ll want to qualify and play in the Champions League with the Foxes.
The grass is not always greener on the other side.
Northern Ireland’s most improved player - Paddy McNair
In truth, no player wants this award as it means they haven’t been playing to their potential or been out injured for a period of time.
Paddy McNair, though, during the last 18 months, has really come on and finally settled into a position which appears natural to him.
For years he suffered terrible injuries but was also shackled by playing in a load of different positions, from centre back, right back and defensive midfielder, before being given the chance to shine in the centre of midfield and using his attacking attributes to score important goals.
Since coming back from his knee injury, which kept him out for nearly a year, he’s looked fitter, stronger and the engine he now has to be able to get about the pitch for the entire 90 minutes is incredible and helped his game enormously.
But even though he is playing to a high standard, I feel he can still kick on, learn more and bring his game to another level.
Paddy has the ability to dominate a game for Northern Ireland and I would like to see this in 2020.
NI’s young Player of the year - Bailey Peacock-Farrell
I feel Bailey has made the big saves when required during our vital European Champiosnhip qualifiers.
Yes, there were still a few mistakes, maybe with footwork, but I felt overall the good from Bailey outweighed the bad.
One of the biggest mistakes I feel he made in 2019 was moving to Burnley from Leeds United. At 23 and a goalkeeper, he definitely needs to be playing regular football, learning from the different scenarios during a game. So he’s gone from fighting for the No.1 position at Leeds to No.3 at Burnley. I know the prestige and status of being at Premier League club sounds nice, but for his development, I felt he was doing well at Leeds. Yes he was annoyed at losing the shirt to Kiko Casilla, but he only had to battle with one guy at Leeds, while he needs to leapfrog two at Burnley.
However, he’s improved with Northern Ireland and is obviously Michael O’Neill’s No.1 going into 2020. I was pleased he commanded his area with more authority, giving confidence to the defence, and his shot-stopping against the bigger nations was particularly pleasing. Even against the likes of Estonia and Belarus last year, his solid performances were often overshadowed by the dramatic late wins, but his saves were crucial and key to the wins.
He deserved as much praise as the goalscorers for nicking the three points.
Northern Ireland player who needs to fire in 2020 - Jamal Lewis
When Jamal hit the scene in 2018, there was no pressure or expectations on his shoulders. He played without fear and the following season was playing in a Norwich side that dominated the Championship with their aggressive, attacking style. His confidence was sky high.
In the Premier League, Norwich have been hit with a huge dose of reality, thoughts of playing in a similar fashion to the Championship have quickly vanished and they are finding it extremely tough.
Jamal has been hit hard by this and it has affected his game.
At 21, he’s a great athlete, but that doesn’t make you a great footballer.
What he needs to do first, as a left back, is learn the art of defending — in terms of positioning and bodyshape. Then going forward, he needs to be more positive — because while I see him bursting forward, using his electric pace, he’s a full-back who doesn’t cross the ball. He constantly plays it safe and cuts back inside. I’m crying out for him to cross the ball when in decent positions with players in the box.
But no, it’s safe all the time.
His confidence has obviously been drained at Norwich and maybe there was a naivety going into the Premier League. Talent alone is not good enough in the top flight, you need to be mentally strong and have a fully focused mindset because you are under so much scrutiny in every game.
The Premier League has been a big step up for Jamal, he has so much more to learn but I would like to see him improve his defensive game and be less safe going forward.
Also, keep those feet on the ground, be level headed and be humble to those friends on the way up, as you never know who you’ll need on the way down.
Hard work and keeping his head down is key for Jamal in 2020.
Game of the Year - Estonia 1 Northern Ireland 2, June 8, 2019
While the matches against the Netherlands and Germany were dramatic and gut-wrenching, victory in this match on a sweltering evening in Tallinn allowed Northern Ireland to be bold against the European heavyweights during the autumn matches.
I was on the bench at the A Le Coq Arena, so felt the anxiety of going a goal down and then the euphoria of scoring two quickfire second-half goals through substitutes Conor Washington (above) and Josh Magennis. Josh is still adamant he is claiming both goals but, as I keep on telling him, look at the history books and they tell a different story. To come from a goal down when we weren’t playing well was a credit to the team, the substitutions and showed the fortitude of our side.
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