x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gareth McAuley's consistency is recognised at West Bromwich Albion

The defender took the long route to the top but he has been named player of the year at the Hawthorns to highlight a fine season.

Gareth McAuley, left, has enjoyed a fine season with West Bromwich Albion.
Gareth McAuley, left, has enjoyed a fine season with West Bromwich Albion.

These are heady days in a corner of England's West Midlands. West Bromwich Albion are on course for their highest league finish since 1981, and unless they slip two places in the final four league games of the season, the class of 2013 will be officially their finest side in more than three decades.

So it is a logical assumption that the title of the pick of the bunch would be hotly contested.

Would it be Romelu Lukaku, the 14-goal top scorer and a revelation in attack? Claudio Yacob, one of the signings of the season, or the energetic Youssouf Mulumbu, the other half of a much-admired midfield partnership? Perhaps James Morrison, who has had a terrific year?

No. Because there was no great surprise when the results of the West Brom players' vote was announced. Their verdict echoed the supporters' choice. West Brom's player of the year is a 33-year-old former window draftsman who was 24 before he made his Football League debut. They plumped for Gareth McAuley.

"Our best player this season," said head coach Steve Clarke. "Consistently the best."

Yet before McAuley left West Brom's awards night overloaded with silverware, there was a temptation to call the centre-back an unsung hero. It was wrong, however. Actually, a crowd favourite is very much a sung hero. On a matchday, The Hawthorns tends to reverberate to choruses of his name, along with the assertion that he is "better than JT [John Terry]".

Yet while the Englishman is a year his junior, he had been awarded the Chelsea captaincy before McAuley had earned a contract with a fourth-tier team. While the Northern Irishman, a giant in the defence, is helping West Brom reach new heights, his is an unlikely story.

Born in the port of Larne in 1979, he had played for Linfield, Ballyclare Comrades, Crusaders and Coleraine without finding a club outside his native Northern Ireland, supplementing his income from football by working as a window draftsman.

Finally, he came to the attention of English clubs. Negotiations with Stockport County broke down, but fourth-tier Lincoln City stepped in, paying the princely sum of £10,000 to buy him. Even then, the path to success was not smooth.

McAuley's initial outings came as a substitute striker, his height equipping him to operate as a target man. When he forced his way into the side, it was as a right-back before he eventually moved into the middle of the defence, where he was named in the League Two team of the season in 2005/06.

Keith Alexander's team reached the play-offs in both of McAuley's seasons at Sincil Bank, but his contract expired after a second failure to secure promotion and the defender opted to join Leicester City, in the second tier.

Two years later, they were relegated to League One. Nevertheless, McAuley, a reason why they had possessed an excellent defensive record, remained in the Championship by signing for Ipswich Town. He was recruited by Jim Magilton but flourished under Roy Keane's management.

"Working for him was tough, mentally and physically, trying to live up to those standards, but it was good for me," McAuley said.

He was already a full international, having debuted for his country in 2005, but the former Manchester United captain gave McAuley the belief he could play in the top flight.

And, although he was in his 32nd year when his Ipswich contract ended in 2011, the Premier League finally came calling.

Roy Hodgson, then West Bromwich Albion's head coach, had a fondness for quietly dependable characters. McAuley, like Hodgson, was an unglamorous figure who had taken a circuitous route to the top but the older man was looking to tighten up Albion's defence.

His solution was to pair McAuley with Swede Jonas Olsson, a decision that paid dividends.

"Ever since he got into the team a couple of years back, he's become one of the first names on the teamsheet," said captain Chris Brunt. "I can't speak highly enough of him, he's come in, he does his job and there's no fuss."

And having taken his time to reach in the Premier League, McAuley is set to stay. His current contract has 14 months remaining, but Albion are in discussions about an extended deal, with Clarke keen to keep McAuley. He, in turn, is happy to stay.

"The club have given me a chance to play at this level and I owe them something," he said.

A decade after his days as a part-time player, he can reflect upon how his fortunes have changed. He said in 2011: "I know what working 9 to 5 is about. It's tough. A lot of footballers moan, but when they come through and have seen real life, you come to ignore anything trivial."

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