By Matt Badcock
Rory McAuley can enjoy these moments in football again. Battling with a striker for 90 minutes, the feeling of trying to win three points, of being involved in a promotion race and even, especially as a centre-back, scoring two acrobatic wonder goals in the space of a fortnight for King’s Lynn Town.
The 29-year-old can joke about surely having first and second in the Linnets’ goal of the season race wrapped up, muse whether his overhead kick against Rushall Olympic or his scissor-kick at Needham Market was better and laugh about being available after training if his team-mates want any tips.
Because over the last two years there have been points where he wondered if he’d ever enjoy those feelings again.
On January 8, 2017, the defender’s life – and his family’s – changed forever.
That night, McAuley and his mum, Lesley, discovered his sister Kerri’s lifeless body. A mum of two young boys, she had been murdered by her partner in their flat.
The details are too horrific to imagine but McAuley wants this to be a story looking forward and one of how hope can shine through eternal darkness.
“It was a real traumatic experience,” McCauley says. “I was the one who first found her so I came off really bad. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress – like soldiers when they come back from war – and I developed anxiety and depression – things I’d never had in my life before so I didn’t know what was going on. It’s real cliché, but Saturday afternoons and training, being with the boys, was something to get me back on track because I started to go down the wrong path for a little bit. I’d wallow in my own self-pity, but football got me back on track.”
McAuley says his girlfriend Tesscole has been his backbone along with their children Gigi, 2, and Kylian, 1. Football has given him that release, a place to escape to.
“I remember the first game back playing after it had all happened,” he says. “I was at Lowestoft and we played Harlow away. We won 2-1. I went in the changing room afterwards and cried my heart out. The boys came and gave me a cuddle.
“It’s those things, just to know everybody was supporting me and behind me, helped get my head back on track and to where I am now. I didn’t think that would be possible a year ago.
“I was in a dark place but now I’ve found peace in life and contentment. I’ve got my kids, my missus, we’re moving house – everything has fallen back into place and I couldn’t be happier.”
The family are pushing for changes in the law for domestic violence victims, have raised money for a local charity and before Christmas donated toys to be handed out to children.
McAuley says his battle with mental health has also changed his own outlook.
“Going through life you hear about people with depression, anxiety and these sort of things,” he says. “You understand to a certain degree, but until it happens to you, you never fully understand.
“It’s given me an appreciation for other people who go through mental health problems. I’ve played in some charity games for Squeeze Football (a twitter account that celebrates grassroots football in the east while raising mental health awareness) and as a family we’ve raised thousands of pounds for a domestic violence charity in Norwich called Leeway – who help women get away from domestically violent partners.
“The only way I can see it is to turn a negative into a positive. If not it will eat you up. If something bad happens, you have to make something good out of it because if not you’ll be consumed by your own grief. So that’s what we’re trying to do. Focus on stuff that helps other people and brings joy – and I suppose that helps me as well, in a selfish way.”
McAuley came through at Cambridge United to become a first team regular and earn England C caps, before going on to play for Dartford, Chelmsford City, Lowestoft and now Southern League Premier Central King’s Lynn, who he joined in the summer.
“It’s done me the world of good, on and off the pitch – I’m really enjoying it,” he says.
“I can’t speak highly enough of (manager) Ian Culverhouse. He’s coached at Norwich and Aston Villa in the Premier League and he’s unbelievable.
“I enjoy training, I enjoy the boys and going in. For the level we’re at, King’s Lynn are such a good footballing side.
“Everything is about playing football and we play some really nice stuff. I can’t stress enough how enjoyable it is. It’s a nice ground, good fans – everything is done properly.”
And what about those goals?
“It’s funny as a centre-half when you score those sort of goals because no one expects it, do they?” McAuley laughs. “I always knew my talents were wasted at the back!
“I’ve told all the lads if they want to stay behind after training to get a few tips then that’s fine. They won’t hear the end of it – I’ll be dining out on them for a while yet.”
McAuley would love nothing more than to win promotion this season. Since Ian Culverhouse returned to The Walks in November following his surprise summer departure, the Norfolk club have forged their way up the table and into the play-off picture.
Last season they missed out in the promotion final to Slough Town in the Southern League Premier where the top five all hit 97 points or above the Linnets reached 100 – but still missed out on the title to Hereford.
McAuley sees football pressures for what they are now and will enjoy the ride with his sister’s memory shining bright.
“You can’t see it at the time, but it makes you more resilient and stronger,” he says. “There’s not a lot now that can happen in my life that’s going to be worse than that.
“Nothing fazes me anymore. You’ve got to enjoy life and appreciate what you have.”