One of Gareth McAuley’s closest friends has described him as a ‘hero’ following Northern Ireland’s historic win over Ukraine.
Gary Haveron, who played alongside McAuley at Irish League club Coleraine, took to Facebook to sing the praises of the West Brom veteran defender.
Haveron has watched his close pal rise through the ranks in football. From going out on loan to Ballyclare Comrades when on the books of Linfield, to signing for English Premier League outfit West Brom.
“The Northern Ireland players were magnificent against Ukraine, everyone of the them, but we needed a hero and again Big G was exactly that,” said the former Carrick Rangers boss.
“Gareth didn’t get his first cap till he was 27. He gave up a really good job to train full-time chasing a dream. Who does that? Honestly?
“He has earned every second of game time he gets, from the Irish League to the English Premier League via nearly every level of English football and onto the international stage.
“No defender has scored more for our country than the big man and nobody deserves their moment in the spotlight more than him because he’s worked incredibly hard to get to where he is. Hard work and dedication!
“I know his family couldn’t be more proud of him but the whole country is proud of him, too.”
McAuley himself is delighted to be part of this current Northern Ireland squad.
Taking time to try and explain the enormity of it all, he said: “It’s abolsutely incredible. I’m so proud of the players and coaching staff. People maybe didn’t give us a chance and said we wouldn’t get a point, so it’s always nice to turn the screw and prove a few people wrong. To me, that’s what Northern Ireland is about.”
On his historic goal - the first by a Northern Ireland player in the European Championship finals - and his celebration in front of the jubilant Green and White Army, McAuley said: “It was an absolutely fantastic ball from Oliver Norwood. I could see it coming all the way and I thought to myself: ‘Goal ... don’t miss!’
“I got a fantastic connection on it. I remember that bit crystal clear, but the rest is a blur.”
Asked if the victory and goal was the pinnacle for him, McAuley replied: “It’s the icing on the cake for me. You would never have thought this would happen. But I’m stubborn, right back to the days when I played in the Irish League, it was always about proving people wrong and progressing.
“Once I realised that I could have a career playing football and nights like this, I always wanted that. I always wanted to create history.”
McAuley, who now has eight international goals, is now relishing facing world champions Germany in Paris on Tuesday.
“They are an incredible side. We’ve looked at bits of pieces of them without trying to scare ourselves,” joked McAuley.
“We’ve got to give it a go because we have absolutely nothing to lose. There’s no pressure on us from the supporters. They’ll leave here delighted and be proud of the team.”