West Brom’s Gareth McAuley defying sands of time with career year

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Gareth McAuley is defying the sands of time. The 37-year-old is enjoying a career year at the heart of the Baggies defence.

Gareth McAuley, like a 21-year distilled bottle of Bushmills — the oldest of its kind — is getting better with age. He’s the oldest current outfield player in the Premier League.

Only 40-year-old keeper Shay Given, who has made five appearances for Stoke this season, is older. But unlike the retired Republic of Ireland international keeper, Gareth McAuley is a mainstay in West Brom’s first team.

Not only has he appeared in every West Brom match, he hasn’t missed a single minute of action. The ageless center back has played 2,610 minutes in 29 Premier League matches this season.

Only six other players, two of whom are goalkeepers, can make that claim.

From humble beginnings

McAuley had to scratch and claw for every opportunity. He started out with semi-professional outfit Linfield F.C. in 1996 when he was 16 years old. Based out of Belfast, McAuley played three seasons with Linfield before moving on loan to another Northern Irish semi-pro team, Ballyclare Comrades Football Club.

He stayed at Ballyclare Comrades for a season before roughing it up in the lower ranks of semi-professional Northern Irish Football League (NIFL) for an additional four seasons.

A chance to play professionally presented itself in 2004. McAuley, at 24 years of age, was on his way to play for League Two Lincoln City F.C.

McAuley paid his dues and grafted it out in the lower leagues for the better part of a decade. Then-Champioship side Leicester came calling in 2006. He had climbed the ladder all the way to the second tier of English soccer and was one step away from fulfilling his ultimate goal, to play in the Premier League.

In 2011, after 15 arduous, battle-tested years, he achieved Premier League status. West Brom were keen on McAuley, who was 31 years old at the time.

A perfect fit for a Tony Pulis team

STRATFORD, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 11: Gareth McAuley of West Bromwich Albion celebrates scoring their second goal to make it 2-2 during the Premier League match between West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion at London Stadium on February 11, 2017 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Tony Pulis builds his team around solid, strong and robust defensive players. He usually veers away from the flashy, creative types, worrying first about solidifying things at the back.

Pulis’ management style has been stigmatized in inner circles across the Premier League, but West Brom are one of the toughest teams to play against because of his conservative, yet effective tactics.

McAuley fits into his manager’s mantra perfectly. Strong, stoic, defensively sound and deadly at getting on the end of set pieces, the Northern Irishman is tailor fitted for West Brom. He’s also a boisterous leader, pulling the strings at the back through unwavering verbal communication.

McAuley accomplishing the implausible

One starts to run out of superlatives to describe how implausible, yet impressive a season McAuley is having.

The consummate professional isn’t merely playing sound, beastly defense.

He leads all other Premier League defenders with six goals, two ahead of Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso. Four of McAuley’s six goals have come from headers off of set pieces, which, I can speculate, is exactly what his crafty manager envisioned all along.

McAuley wasn’t always so prolific in front of goal. The defensive specialist has scored only 15 goals in 187 top flight appearances. Yet he’s managed a goal every five matches so far during the current campaign.

Compare that to a goal per every 18 games in previous seasons and you get a better sense of just how astonishing the 2016-17 season has become for McAuley.

And there’s still nine games left.

If he continues to defy nature and prolongs this rich vein of form into the 2017-18 season, I might soon question whether the Curious Case of Benjamin Button is indeed a fictional tale.

(This piece was originally featured on Fansided)

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