Larne in Northern Ireland is a long way from Ibrox Park, but that’s the thing about football.

You never know when you start out how or when it’s going to end or where you are going to visit along the way.

The fact that I’ve received this amazing honour before my playing career has ended and that I am going to visit Buckingham Palace is something that I would never have anticipated during my early years in the game.

Lisburn Youth, Linfield, Ballyclare Comrades, Crusaders, Coleraine; who knew that via Lincoln City, Leicester City, Ipswich Town and West Bromwich Albion I would arrive at the club I have supported since I was a kid.

My roots are in Northern Ireland and the fact that I’ve been able to represent my country 80 times and played in the European Championships is something of which I am so proud.

I’ve done my best throughout my career to put something back into the community and I hope that the honour I’ve just been awarded inspires youngsters in Northern Ireland and encourages them always to believe that nothing is beyond them.

Even having just turned 39, I always dreamed the best was ahead, and this indeed is the best.

There are so many people who have helped me along the way, helped me to continue to believe in myself both as a person and as a professional footballer.

I simply cannot name them all, but they know who they are and how much I owe to them.

And then there’s my family, and in particular my wife Fran and my children Bobby and Lexi who, along with all footballers’ families, put up with so much for the sake of their husbands and dads’ careers.

My parents Mildred and Billy always demonstrated belief in me and I fully intend to share this honour with them and all my family, friends, team-mates, managers, coaches and supporters who have made it possible and travelled with me this far down the road and for the rest of the journey.

Gareth

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