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Gareth McAuley was determined to make it to the top of the game

Liam Beckett

Gareth McAuley

One of the most outstanding success stories during my time in football has to be the rise and rise of Gareth McAuley.

From playing in the Irish League at the age of 24 to the dizzy heights of the English Premier top-flight, not to mention the accumulation of 80 international caps in the process - his was truly a remarkable career.

I had the pleasure of spending the best part of Wednesday past with 'Big G' and, believe me, this lad is still as outstanding an individual off the pitch as he was as a player on it.

He and I spent time together when Sunday Life Sport's columnists, management and contributors convened for our annual get-together in Belfast city centre this week - which, incidentally, was as thoroughly enjoyable an occasion as it always is.

However, it was during the day's chit-chat that the realisation struck home to me just how much sacrifice, dedication and downright commitment this lad had to contribute to make that incredible transition across the Irish Sea.

His Irish League career included spells at Linfield, Ballyclare Comrades, Crusaders and Coleraine, from where he moved to Lincoln City.

Gareth's meteoric rise to fame didn't stop there, though. His insatiable desire, ability and the will to reach the very top of his profession saw him finally end up in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion.

The big Larne native had finally made it to the summit and was now mixing it with some of the best players in the world.

For someone to have a steady job working in a drawing office at the age of 22 while playing part-time in the Irish League to then - completely off their own bat - decide that if they're ever going to make a career in football, it's time to ditch their day job and launch an all-out assault to achieve their goal is one sure sign of an extremely driven and determined individual.

Mind you, the Coleraine manager at the time, Marty Quinn, also deserves tremendous credit because it was mainly he who orchestrated Gareth's move to Lincoln.

Marty convinced Imps boss Keith Alexander - a former player of his at Cliftonville - to take a chance on the big centre-half and, of course, the rest is history.

Now that Gareth has hung up his boots at 40 years of age, I was keen to know who was the best or most difficult opponent he had ever faced in the English Premier League and, almost without hesitation, his answer was the former Arsenal and Manchester United striker Robin van Persie - mind you, he also said Sergio Aguero was something else as well.

I was glad to hear that Gareth is now in the process of achieving those dreaded coaching badges which will enable him to coach or manage at some time in the future if he so decides to take that route.

I personally believe it's imperative for the good of our game that people like Gareth McAuley remain involved at the coalface; proper football people who really understand the various aspects of the game.

Interestingly enough, he singled out Leeds United's Stuart Dallas as a very similar example to himself.

He likewise consolidated himself an Irish League career before making the move to England and, indeed, Gareth now reckons Stuarty is playing as well as he ever has done.

So all you young Irish League players take heed - all is not lost if you're still playing here in your mid-twenties.

If you're good enough and committed enough, the chance of a cross-channel career still exists.

Keep the faith and, when in doubt, just keep thinking of a certain Mr Gareth McAuley.

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Belfast Telegraph