McAuley, 29, punched the air in delight after smashing home a superb half-volley following a corner from Grant McCann.
Yet 16 months ago he was considering early retirement from national service after being fed up at his lack of opportunities.
However a late call-up into the team to face Sweden in October 2007 saw his career at this level take an upward turn.
McAuley slotted in well as Northern Ireland secured a good away point from a 1-1 draw in the Euro 2008 qualifier.
Since then he has become an integral part of the squad and he did enough against San Marino to suggest he could retain his place against Poland in a vital home qualifier next month.
McAuley said: "I am happier in myself now and delighted to get the goal. I got a real buzz out of it. It was a really proud moment for me and my family.
"It was my first goal for Northern Ireland but hopefully I can add to my tally. Grant put a great ball in and I just had to concentrate on making a good contact. It flew in and gave us a good start.
"Things have turned around for me and that's good. I got frustrated in the past because I felt I wasn't given a chance and could not see me being given one.
"But football changes so quickly and I played a number of games at the end of the last campaign.
"However I am not complacent as we have strength in depth at the back now. You just have to give everything in games and hope it gets you selected."
McCann and substitute Chris Brunt were also on target to propel Northern Ireland into second place in Group Three on goal difference, although they have played a game more than their rivals.
It was just the boost they were looking for ahead of back-to-back home fixtures with Poland and Slovenia.
McAuley said: "The picture is the group has changed and we have given ourselves a chance.
"The two games are not going to be easy but the group is tight as teams are taking points off each other.
"We have to try and make home advantage count and we have done well at Windsor Park in the past."