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Northern Ireland legend Gareth McAuley 'ready to write' a new chapter in his life

 

Gareth McAuley
Gareth McAuley

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland legend Gareth McAuley has always strived to make the most of his opportunities.

Sacrifices, hard work and smart decisions led him to have an illustrious career at club and international level.

He joined the professional ranks late, moving from Coleraine to Lincoln City in 2004 aged 24 but it was his call. He could have made the jump earlier, after excelling in the Irish League for Crusaders and the Bannsiders however, in his gut he didn't feel the time was right.

If Larne's favourite son was going to be a hit in England, he wanted to be fully prepared and armed for the challenges that lay before him.

Seven years later, having used Lincoln, Leicester and Ipswich as stepping stones, he made it to the promised land of the Premier League with West Brom.

McAuley made over 200 appearances in the top flight right up to the age of 38 and scored 15 goals.

Smart decisions had certainly paid off.

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During that time though he became disillusioned on the international front.

As a proud Northern Ireland man it hurt and was devastatingly frustrating that both Lawrie Sanchez and Nigel Worthington failed to see the potential in him, banishing him at times from the starting XI, using him out of position and McAuley was equally appalled at the lack of professionalism with regards all aspects of the international set-up.

He could have easily quit, but once again he followed his gut, took an educated guess and McAuley was rewarded with manager Michael O'Neill's high-class approach, playing an integral role as Northern Ireland created history by qualifying and then reaching the knock-out stages of Euro 2016 followed by an agonising aggregate defeat when they were dumped out of the 2018 World Cup finals in controversial fashion by Switzerland in the play-offs.

Dream fulfilled: Gareth McAuley in action for Rangers
Dream fulfilled: Gareth McAuley in action for Rangers

McAuley was a goalscoring hero in the incredible Euro 2016 group stage win over the Ukraine and having finished on 80 caps and nine goals, he goes down in history as one of Northern Ireland's greatest ever players.

Yet another smart decision.

Last year, when McAuley knew he only had one season left he resisted calls from Championship clubs to sign for his boyhood heroes, Rangers.

He may have only made 10 appearances, due to injury at times, but it was a dream fulfilled.

Smart decision.

Over the summer and with McAuley, now 39 and due to turn 40 in December, clubs in the Championship and League One once again courted him.

Brentford were seriously interested.

But McAuley felt it in his gut that his time was up. After 23 years in the game, constantly pushing his body to the limit in order to achieve perfection, he wanted to relax and so without any ceremony, just like he had entered the professional ranks, he retired.

"I'm very proud of my career and the fact I was able to make smart decisions throughout," says McAuley.

"My attitude was always, don't waste your opportunity. Constantly strive to do things better.

"I knew that if I was to progress I needed to be ultra dedicated, make sacrifices and strive to constantly get better. I was never content with what I had, I always wanted more.

"Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed a beer when the time was right, but mostly I ate, slept and trained properly - totally focused on what I wanted to achieve. I suppose it would be akin to Carl Frampton going into camp before a fight but I maybe had to do it for a longer period of time.

Gareth McAuley is made an MBE by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace yesterday
Gareth McAuley is made an MBE by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace yesterday

"I wanted to get the most out of every opportunity and even in the gym, especially when I went to West Brom, it was all about positive results. I wanted to run quicker, jump higher and simply excel. It was in my nature. It was a desire to be the best I could be."

Now, though, it is time for a rest and a new chapter in his life. Last week, over the half-term holidays in England, Big G, as he is affectionately know, was able to go to Norfolk with his family, wife Fran and children Bobby and Lexi, and enjoy some special time.

The last time he did that was when his son was 18 months old. Today, Bobby is nine and half.

"I missed so much that I'm really enjoying spending time with the family," confesses McAuley.

"I ultimately want to stay involved in the game. I'm doing my coaching badges, some scouting for Rangers but at this moment, with Christmas coming up, I don't want to jump straight back into a full-time job in football and miss out."

Having played at every level from the Irish League to the holy grail of the Premier League, along with a major international tournament and against the world's greatest players, McAuley has a vast array of knowledge and experience.

And from today McAuley will share his wisdom, inside information and forthright views as a columnist in Sunday Life Sport each week.

He joins Sunday Life Sport's top stable of columnists in Carl Frampton, Liam Beckett and Oisin McConville.

"I have such a passion and love for football, it can be such a positive message, so I'm looking forward to sharing my opinions."

As throughout McAuley's career, a smart decision.

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