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Gareth McAuley hails Irish League pathway to professional career

As the stature of the Irish League continues to grow, so too does the esteem in which the local game’s rising talent is held.

The path between Northern Ireland and full-time clubs in England and Scotland is increasingly becoming a well-worn one.

In recent years the number of academy prospects and those who have cut their teeth in the local game securing moves to UK clubs continued to rise.

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Gavin Whyte, Shayne Lavery, Trai Hume and Mark Sykes are just some of the players making a name for themselves in the English Football League after excelling on these shores.

Gareth McAuley pictured with two of Coleraine under 20s’ rising stars

But it wasn’t always the case.

It’s not that long ago that players would have felt chances of securing a move across the water would be slim the longer they played in the Irish League.

Some 18 years ago Gareth McAuley was producing the level of performances that was making people stand up and take notice of him.

A move to Coleraine in 2002 helped pushed the big centre-back on under the tutelage of Marty Quinn.

They won the Irish Cup a year later and narrowly missed out on repeating the feat another year later as they lost in the final to Glentoran.

The Bannsiders’ financial woes at the time meant they were always going to find it tough to hold on to their best players and McAuley was a prize asset.

Quinn though was determined to make sure McAuley fulfilled his potential.

Surprisingly there weren’t more full-time suitors for the 24-year-old.

A move to Sammy McIlroy’s Stockport County fell through, but one of Quinn’s old players, Keith Alexander, took a punt on McAuley snapping him up for a bargain £10,000.

After taking a while to force his way into the team at Sincil Bank, when the opportunity arose for regular football McAuley grabbed it with both hands and never looked back.

Moves to Leicester City and then Ipswich Town materialised as the defender climbed each step of the ladder with ease.

Even at international level McAuley excelled and he became a household name in the Premier League as a mainstay of the West Brom defence before eventually calling time on his tenure at the Hawthorns at the ripe old age of 38.

Talent and desire obviously took McAuley to the very top of the game, but the-now 42-year-old is quick to point to his development in the Irish League.

By the time he had made his move across the water he had already clocked up over 130 senior appearances in the local game over spells at Ballyclare Comrades, Crusaders and the Bannsiders.

He knows the difference that made for him and he is still a big advocate for young Northern Irish players following that pathway now.

“I’ll always say it, and maybe I’m biased, but my pathway was through here and I’ll refer to Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn, Liam Boyce, boys like that who all played in the local game before going across and having good careers off the back of it,” said McAuley.

“Young players just want to go to these clubs in England, but if the infrastructure is here with the full-time element and the education, it’s a good place to learn and do it.

“The reason being when you get the opportunity to go you’re going as a player, you’re not going as a prospect.

“Clubs are set up as an academy on a budget and a football club on a budget.

“When you go there at 16 you’re an academy player you’re not actually a football player.

“But if you transfer after playing 50, 60 or 100 games in the Irish League you’re a different prospect.

“Clubs have got that reference point that the player has done it, he’s resilient, they know what they are getting.

“As a coach and a manager you can hang your hat on that kid and you’re not taking a gamble.

“When I went I was going as a player.

“But obviously there’s different pathways for different people and some will mature a little bit later than others.

“For me it’s about giving them the best opportunity to do it and the platform to do it.

“It’s good that a lot of the clubs are linking themselves to schools and colleges and offering education as well.

“It means they can bring the kids into that full-time environment and get more hours into them as well.

“That will increase the pool. For me being involved in the national set-up, the more players there are in the pool the better it will be.

“It has a knock-on effect as the better the senior international team does then there will be more money coming into the association and, hopefully, it will trickle down throughout the leagues.

“It has to be a joined-up approach with the clubs, the association and NIFL.

“Everyone has to work together because we’re a small country, and if everyone works together and pulls in the same direction we can produce players and keep the cycle going.

“It’s having that vision and everyone working together.”

McAuley is now heavily involved in the development of Northern Ireland’s rising stars having taken on a coaching role with the national side’s under 17 and 19 sides.

He revealed he is always getting asked about the province’s young players and that they are looked at differently by clubs.

“A lot of people I speak to like the players because they’re rough diamonds if you like,” he said. “They are raw, hungry, they’ve got desire, and not scared to tackle.

“You know what you’re going to get.

“The academies across the water do have their purpose but a lot of it is pampered and you question if they are resilient enough and are they driven enough.

“All these questions still persist in England.”

McAuley also feels the exposure the players and clubs are getting now with games being broadcast live and the success in Europe is helping more and more people sit up and take notice.

“It’s been great that the BBC have been streaming the games, especially for the likes of myself who’s away a lot but I’m still able to watch the games,” he said.

“And obviously Sky broadcast a few live games as well, so it’s out there as a product.

“There’s not many leagues which are broadcast like that and it’s a shop window and a stage.

“Listen, not all the games are 4-4 or 5-4, but for me watching it, the rawness is still there and you’re allowed to tackle.

“The injection of quality players helps too. When you play with better players it lifts your game and the product as a whole.

“Playing in Europe and doing well gives the players a belief that they can do it and compete.

“A lot of sport is about mindset and the belief you have in yourself.

“There’s also the financial rewards for clubs from European success.

“It all comes back to finances and if there was an endless pot of money you could have an unbelievable product.”

McAuley was back at his old stomping ground at Coleraine Showgrounds last week for the launch of the The National Lottery Football Weekends initiative.

A lot has changed at the Ballycastle Road venue since he was plying his trade there, but the community is still at the heart of the club.

McAuley hailed the club’s long-term development plans, which he feels will benefit the whole area.

“Local football is close to my heart, it’s where I started, it’s where I got my grounding,” he said.

“I made a name for myself here (Coleraine) before I got the opportunity to go across the water.

“I understand the ins and outs of playing here, from training out the back.

“What they plan to do here now in the future and the programmes they are running is testament to the club and where they are.

“For me sport, whether it’s football, rugby, hockey or whatever, is massive in the community.

“It’s somewhere people can come and be a part of it.

“I suppose interest comes with success as well, and although Coleraine are still part-time they are mixing with the full-time clubs at the top end of the table.

“There are some exciting young players coming through as well.

“Hopefully, there will be a few involved with myself and Gerard Lyttle in the national underage sides as well.

“This is one club which I’ve always looked out for on my journey.

“It’s nice to be back and talking with the chairman, who really has a vision of where he wants to take the club and put in all the right things, which will also include the community.

“For me, our football over here at the grassroots is still uncorrupted for want of a better phrase.

“And that’s why the involvement with the local community is key.”

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