In this series of articles we’ll be looking at players who have played both in the Irish League, here in Northern Ireland but have also made the move across the water and made their mark on the mainland, some perhaps more than others.
First up we take a look at a centre-back who tasted success here in the Irish League, before taking the step across the water to League 2, before working his way up to the top flight where he is still playing today even at the tender age of 37. The player in question is none other than one of the Northern Ireland national teams recent hero’s Gareth McAuley.
Unlike many other players who make the move from the Irish League to professional football at a fairly early age. McAuley spent the first 8 years of his career playing here in Northern Ireland, starting his career at Linfield, though never played for the first team and had a loan spell with Ballyclare Comrades, McAuley moved to the north of Belfast and spent two seasons playing for Crusaders but it was his move to Coleraine in 2002 and really got the future Northern Ireland internationals career going. In his first season with Coleraine he helped Mary Quinn’s Bannsiders win the Irish Cup, beating favourites Glentoran in the final. McAuley even found the back of the net in the final but unfortunately the celebrations were cut short when the goal was disallowed, this was the last time Coleraine won the Irish Cup and when interviewed by The Belfast Telegraph in the build up to the 2017 final where Coleraine were eventually beaten by another of McAuley’s former teams Linfield, McAuley spoke highly of his time playing in the Irish League and stated that that Irish Cup victory remains one of his career highlights due to it being the only winners medal in his career to date.
After two years at Coleraine McAuley decided to take the plunge and move across the water with Lincoln and Stockport County both expressing an interest in acquiring his services. At this stage McAuley had already represented Northern Ireland at B Team level so was no stranger to then Stockport and former Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy who offered McAuley a two week trial. McAuley obviously impressed during the trial and looked set to join County but the talks broke down and ended up signing for Lincoln for a fee of £10,000.
McAuley’s move was something of a bold move as at this time Lincoln had what was regarded as one of the best defences in League 2 and initially McAuley had to make do with substitute appearances, even being utilised up front on a number of occasions but due to loss of form and injuries to other players he did get his chance in defence playing either right back or centre back, making a number of impressive performances, including a man of the match performance against Derby County, as Lincoln made it to the play-off final before losing out to Southend. At the end of his first season in preofessional football McAuley was won first senior cap for Northern Ireland as he played in the Irish FA’s 125th anniversary friendly against Germany.
In his second season with Lincoln McAuley cemented his place in the side in his preferred position, centre-back, unfortunately the season ended in disappointment for Lincoln as they missed out on promotion via the play-offs again but personally for McAuley the season couldn’t have went much better as he made a total of 40 appearances, was named in the League 2 Team of the Season and even got on the scoresheet a few times. With his fine form and his contract ending McAuley was attracting the interest of teams higher up the football pyramid and despite the best efforts of Lincoln, McAuley opted to sign with Leicester for the 2006/07 season.
McAuley spent the next two seasons at Leicester and established himself as a key player for the team making a total of 84 appearances, in his second season with the club he played in 44 out of 46 league games. McAuley even popped up with a few goals from time to time, including goals against then Premiership side Fulham and Chelsea in cup ties. McAuley also captained the team on occasion and was named in The Championship Team of the Week on one occasion. Unfortunately McAuley’s efforts couldn’t save Leicester from relegation in the 2007/08 season and, following two failed bids in January 2008, McAuley signed for Ipswich in the summer transfer window.
McAuley’s move to Ipswich seen him link up with fellow Northern Irishman Jim Magilton and McAuley was immediately named captain for the upcoming season. McAuley got off to a rocky start at Ipswich but eventually settled into the side and became a consistent and steady player for the club and became a fan favourite. In three years at Ipswich, McAuley made over 100 appearances and celebrated his 100th appearance by scoring the winner in a 2-victory against Sheffield United.
Despite steady and consistent performances at club level after his debut McAuley’s international career came to something of a standstill. After his debut against Germany McAuley wasn’t named in the squad for the next four matches, before making two further international appearances in friendlies against Portugal and Estonia. McAuley would have been hoping to stake a claim for a place in the side for the upcoming Euro 2008 qualifying campaign but the partnership of Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan in the heart of defence as well as the form of Michael Duff and Johnny Evans meant McAuley was rarely named in the squad and never featured when he was.
These days McAuley is one of the first names on manager Michael O’Neill’s team sheets and it’s hard to imagine a Northern Ireland side without him but at one point in 2007, McAuley considered retiring from international football with only 3 friendly appearances to his name at the age of 27 but he was given his chance in a qualifying match away to Sweden, which Northern Ireland drew 1-1 and took it with both hands. McAuley now has 74 international caps to his name and played a key role in Northern Ireland’s journey to the European Championships last year. The highlight of McAuley’s international career came in that same tournament when he got on the end of Olver Norwood’s free kick to score the first goal in Northern Ireland’s 2-0 group stage win against Ukraine, making him the second oldest player to score at the Euros. Unfortunately it was McAuley’s own goal that seen Northern Ireland knocked out of the tournament in the first knockout round against Wales but determined not to let his international career finish on a sour note McAuley brushed off talk of international retirement and remains a key player for Northern Ireland in their attempts to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Club wise McAuley’s journey to the big time was complete when in his early 30’s McAuley left Ipswich and joined Premier League side West Bromwich Albion were he has been a regular and reliable player for the side, he was named the clubs Player’s Player and Supporters Player of the year for the 2012-13 season.
At the age of 37 McAuley is certainly in the twilight of his club and international career but here’s hoping that Northern Ireland can get the job done against Switzerland next month to at least extend his international career a little longer.