Let go from Linfield at a tender age; winning his big move to Lincoln City aged 24; scoring goals for his nation at Euro 2016; and now finally clinching a move to Ibrox at the ripe old age of 38: McAuley’s journey through football has been a life less ordinary. Quinn is privileged to have played his part, first setting eyes on the teenage defender when he was not long plucked from his native Larne.
“The first time I saw Gareth was a charity game, a Linfield youth select against a Cliftonville youth select,” said Quinn, who also had spells managing Cliftonville and Glenavon. “I think Gareth was about 16, 17 at the time and he stood out in my opinion. Unfortunately, he then left Linfield, he didn’t really get an opportunity there.
“They loaned him out to Ballyclare Comrades, then he was snapped up by Crusaders where he did very well,” he added. “I am sure David Jeffrey, the manager of Linfield, would admit he made a mistake by not signing the big man on to a longer contract. But his loss was our gain.
“We eventually signed him for Coleraine, but only after a lot of me running after him,” added Quinn. “He took a lot of persuasion to wedge him away from Crusaders because he is a loyal big guy, he didn’t want to let anyone down. But eventually I managed to sell Coleraine to him and he came on board and he was outstanding, by far the best centre half in the league. The only trouble he ever gave me – and me and my club secretary like to laugh about it now – was when I locked the door in my office and said ‘you are not getting out of here until you sign this f***** form’. He duly signed and we can have a laugh about it now.”
Together the two men would beat Glenavon to lift the 2003 Irish Cup final – with Quinn blown away by a player who was prepared to sacrifice his part-time pay check to commit to the sacrifices required of a full-time footballer. “He came to me one day and said ‘listen Marty, I am packing in my job’,” recalled Quinn. “He was working as a draftsman at a window-fitting company back then but he said ‘I am sitting at a computer all day, my head is sore, I am not enjoying it and I want to get myself as fit as I can’. ‘I want to make the breakthrough to full-time football’. I told him we couldn’t do anything wages wise for him because he was already on our maximum but he said it wasn’t about money.
“So he went full time basically without it costing us a penny. That is the kind of boy Gareth wasHe went and looked after himself in the gymnasium and went for runs and all that stuff, but his general fitness with us was just two nights training.”
Further evidence of the player’s desire to make a success of himself in England would arrive soon. “I had a player with Cliftonville called Keith Alexander, who used to come over and play for me for me from time to time, who had become manager of Lincoln City,” said Quinn. “So when we had a Coleraine function on the Saturday night Gareth spent most of the evening in my wife’s ear, persuading her to get me to ring Keith to get him a transfer.
“Gareth was coming out of contract, I knew Linfield and Portadown were both very interested and they could throw more money at him, far more than I could,” he added. “So it was in my interests to get the deal done so I rang Keith at Lincoln City and said ‘look, I have a player here for you’. Eventually we agreed on a fee of £15,000 which was better than nothing. Two weeks later, Keith Alexander rings me back and says ‘are there any others there like that?’. ‘He has done exceptionally well, He is walking right into the first team, and his fitness levels are unbelievable’. From there on, it was out of my hands really.”
From Lincoln City to Leicester City, on to Ipswich Town, seven years at West Brom and now Rangers, Quinn’s role now is watching with admiration at what he has achieved. “If anyone deserves to make it it is Gareth McAuley, because of his loyalty, his dedication – everything about him really,” said Quinn. “He is just one of those players which a manager loves to work with because he doesn’t give you any hassle about it. Good luck to him going to Rangers. He was always a big Rangers man and I think Rangers would have been too much for him to turn down. It has probably come a bit late in his career but it is probably a dream-come-true for him.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all how well he has done with Northern Ireland,” Quinn added. “He is a credit to himself and his family. He can handle himself on the pitch but there is never any badness with him, he isn’t a dirty player by any means. He is a shining light to anybody. That is why when I had a 6,000 word dissertation to do as part of the pro licence I did it on Gareth McAuley.
“He is a real aerial threat who will win the majority of his defensive headers and is very dangerous from set pieces also, he has scored a few for Northern Ireland and for West Brom too. Northern Ireland was a great team effort but you have got to stop the opposition scoring goals to have a chance and he was a big part of that. He is timely in the tackle, and has excellent distribution. So he has got a lot going for him. He is a very popular lad in Northern Ireland because of what he does and what he has come from. Going over to England to make a name for yourself at 24 is too late for some people but he is an exception.”