At 15 he left home for the bright lights of Liverpool FC and the beginning of a career that would take him full circle back to the club that raised him - Dungannon Swifts. LAURA MCMULLAN talks to Dungannon man Rodney McAree
With his hands shoved into his pockets, Rodney McAree walks slowly across the parking area of Stangmore Park - now arguably one of the most famous football grounds in Ulster, following its home side’s gripping win over Ballymena United in the Bet McClean League Cup nearly two weeks ago.
You could almost compare it to the shy shuffle of a schoolboy - not that of a man who has just led the football club he literally grew up in to a historic victory against one of the biggest sides in the Irish League.
“I can’t remember anything else other than Dungannon Swifts FC as a child,” says the 43-year-old Head Coach/Manager, as we sip coffee inside the bar area of the club.
It was his second home as a youngster, just down the road from where he grew up in Moygashel, and in many ways, it still is.
The McAree name is synonymous with Dungannon Swifts; Rodney’s father and former Swifts manager Joe has been involved with the club for over 40 years, and in 2014 was awarded a MBE in the Queen’s News Years Honours for hie tireless devotion to local football for virtually all of his life.
As a lad, the Swifts was Rodney’s first port-of-call after school; he got the keys to the pool table off his dad and enjoyed a wee game whilst Joe tidied up. From there, it went on to following the team all over the country to every match they played in, and practising his own already affluent soccer skills himself.
“I always felt that I had a little bit of ability,” he says, when pressed to explain just what it was about the sport that he fell in love with.
“I felt that I was a decent enough player.”
Indeed, that “little bit of ability” soon proved to be more than just a spark of raw talent; at just 15 years old, some time after being spotted by a talent scout from Liverpool FC, the late Billy Large, Rodney left the closely knit rural community he had grown up in, for the bright lights of that very city, and the beckoning pitch of Anfield, home of the team he had supported alongside the Swifts for as long as he could remember.
“It was a big change. It was daunting,” he reflects. “But because I always felt comfortable on the football pitch, I was confident I could compete.”
Yet it had been no smooth road to such an amazing opportunity for the teenager. After leaving the Howard Memorial Primary School, Rodney attended the Royal School Dungannon, which was famous for its reputation as a rugby playing school.
In his first couple of years, Rodney was involved in flying over to some of the major football clubs across the water for trials - and this did not tie in with his teachers’ wishes for him to excel at rugby, which he was actually also pretty proficient in.
“Obviously my heart was with football, so there were a lot of fallings out,” he says. “And going for the trials was something I couldn’t not do, because it was going to open a lot of doors for me further down the line.”
The McArees felt torn; but ultimately, what was best for Rodney had to be done, and so in second year he left the Royal and joined Dungannon Intermediate, as it was known then, where there was less pressure in terms of school work or other sports.
“I was decent academically, but I was never one to sort of put my heart and soul into my school work, so it was an easy enough decision to make,” he says honestly. “It freed up a lot of time for me.”
Rodney moved to Liverpool in 1989 and spent four years there. His next club was Bristol City, where he spent a year and a half, before moving to Fulham, where he is still revered by fans thanks to his scoring a goal in the final five minutes of a game against Carlisle United, which eventually led to their promotion.
In 2000, he returned home to Northern Ireland, but not without having taken away some valuable life lessons, some of which he reiterates to players in the changing room before Swifts matches to this day.
Yet still, despite his success on the pitch, he remains humble, self-critical even, declaring that he could have done more.
“I counted myself as a good footballer - a technically gifted footballer - but I look back on my career now and feel very much that I underachieved, and that I could have done a hell of a lot better,” he insists, adding that it was often tempting to “watch the horse racing and have a couple of beers” with the lads of an afternoon, instead of getting in some extra training.
“My dad always tried to drum it into me that football is a very short career - you’ll get 10 or 15 good years out of it, and then you have the rest of your life to enjoy yourself.”
At the turn of the millennium, Rodney made the decision to return home, after seeking trusted advice from his father. He soon signed for Glenavon FC, and eventually returned to the Swifts, in 2002, and since then he has risen, quite literally, to the top of his game in terms of management there, met his wife, and been welcomed back into the community that raised him with open arms.
“My life since I came home has been fantastic,” he says.
“It’s not a decision I regret by any stretch of the imagination. I maybe should have taken a wee bit more time away from football before signing for Glenavon, because there were still a lot of things I needed to sort out, and my head wasn’t really in football, but just to be back around my friends felt good. Northern Ireland is a wonderful place.”
Falling for his own perfect match...
Immaculately dressed in a charcoal grey polo neck, dark jacket, and smart jeans, with not a hair out of place, and just the right amount of stubble, it’s hard to imagine Rodney McAree as anything other than a perfectionist when it comes to his appearance.
But the down-to-earth Dungannon man insists that he could not have been further from style horse status when he took his now wife, gorgeous fashionista Adele Tate, on their first date after he came back to Northern Ireland following his spell in England.
Although the pair knew each other from school, they had actually been dating other people back in the day, and it took the intervention of Rodney’s good friend Stephen McCombe to get the two of them set up.
“I remember when she was coming out of her parents’ house, and I looked at her and thought to myself, ‘what is she coming out with me for?’” he grins.
“She will kill me for saying this, but I was wearing the worst pair of shoes you’ve ever seen. They were like clogs. I thought they were alright! And I was wearing jeans which were too big for me, and a shirt that was too big too. And this girl was coming out looking absolutely fantastic!”
Mercifully, that memorable first date went well, and a few more followed, with the couple tying the knot in November 2008 at the stunning Belle Isle Castle near Lisbellaw, in a wedding that turned into a three-day party with all their nearest and dearest.
Since then, Adele’s presence in Rodney’s life has been a vital one.
“She’s great for me,” he says.
“She keeps me on the straight and narrow. It’s tough for her, because the football side of things can take over, and you just get consumed by it. My job takes up a lot of time, and there are a lot of unsociable hours involved.”
Rodney admits that when Adele ran over to hug him at the Bet McLean final, and said she was “so proud” of him, he was close to tears.
And he reckons she probably gets more nervous before big matches than he does - although possibly demonstrating that in subliminal ways.
“I always find that on a Saturday morning if Adele’s leaving the house to go and get her hair done or whatever, she’ll have a bit of a snap at me, about shoes lying at the front door or something, and I always think that’s a little bit of tension coming out about the match in the afternoon!”
Full time whistle...
For Rodney, switching off from ‘the beautiful game’ when he’s not pitch-side, or in the dressing room, isn’t as easy as it sounds.
And he admits that it’s literally the first thing on his mind when he wakes up, such is the all consuming nature of his job.
“It’s constantly on your mind,” he admits.
“You’re always thinking - ‘when’s your next game coming up? What do we need to be doing?’”
One method of relaxation and ‘getting away from it all’ that he finds really beneficial is playing golf, although he’s found it difficult to get back out on the fairways since his hip replacement in 2016.
So in the meantime, it’s box sets, roaring fires and the company of his wife Adele when he needs to relax for a bit.
“I also love my summer holiday,” he says. “For me, it’s just about getting away and putting my feet up. I think it’s essential for my wife as well,” he adds with a smile, after revealing that on occasion, his better half has had to gently remind him to switch his phone off to stop those messages about football constantly coming through.