I had a very embarrassing moment as a Fulham fan last season. I was fortunate enough to be given some freelance work for the BBC contributing to Final Score NI and this sometimes involved getting the post-match reaction from the managers for use online and on BBC Sport NI’s Irish League Show. It was a fun but nerve wrecking experience so I suppose I can forgive myself for focusing so much on what I was doing that I didn’t fully appreciate who I was talking to on one particular evening.
I was sent to Ards v Dungannon Swifts in April. I had covered both teams before and had had the privilege of interviewing both managers on a couple of occasions but unfortunately my ‘fully focused on the job at hand’ mind at the time meant that I missed out on an important detail. When the Dungannon manager made a joke with me about supporting Fulham, I hadn’t quite realised what had happened. It took me to the day after and a series of texts for me to realise that the local lad who was the Dungannon Swifts manager was also Fulham cult hero, Rodney McAree!
Have you ever been subconsciously aware of something but just weren’t able to make the connection at the time? That was exactly what had happened here. I knew the name, of course, but I assumed that I recognised it because of my interest in Irish League Football, not because I had actually sung his name as a Fulham fan from time to time. As you can imagine, I was a little in awe and got ridiculously excited about being on first name terms with someone who had a real impact on the history of my club. If you are of the younger generation, you might not be fully aware of what was happening at Fulham just over 20 years ago, so let’s have a very brief history lesson. Fulham were very much in danger of dropping out of the Football League altogether but player-manager Micky Adams guided the club to safety in 1996 and then had them battling at the top of Division 3 the year later. McAree’s moment came in the April of 1997, just over 20 years ago, when he blasted Fulham to a famous victory against league leaders Carlisle that all but assured us of promotion to Division 2. Below is a video of the goals from that game, and don’t be afraid to sing while you watch, “Who put the ball in the Carlisle net…”
Being the gentleman that he is, Rodney was willing to have a sit-down interview with me when South Belfast based club Lisburn Distillery took on his Dungannon Swifts side in a preseason friendly about his time at Fulham and about his ambitions in management. We started right at the beginning of his Fulham career in 1995.
You came to Fulham after a spell at Liverpool and then Bristol City, is that right?
That’s right, yeah, I was released after four years at Liverpool and then had an opportunity at Bristol City. I made my debut for Bristol City in the Championship and was doing quite well but the change in management and maybe a poor attitude at the time went against me so I found myself without a club again. I actually came home for a few months and played for Dungannon Swifts but then got the opportunity through Micky Adams and Ian Branfoot to come to Fulham and it all started from there.
When you came Micky Adams was actually player-manager. What is that dynamic like, trying to play for someone who also wants to play?
I probably came in just as Micky decided that he wasn’t going to play anymore and was making that transition, walking away from playing and trying to educate himself on the coaching side of football. Micky was a good guy and great to work for. We still keep in touch, I speak to him quite regularly and he was just a good guy to be around.
Although you got games under Adams, that was probably the most difficult time in the club’s history as you were down at the bottom of Division Three. What was the atmosphere like at the club then?
The atmosphere was actually quite good. I enjoyed the effort that we had to put in to try and get ourselves out of the situation that we were in. It was a great group of boys, we had to bring our own training kit home and get it washed for the next morning, trained on probably poor enough facilities but it was a good atmosphere. It was Micky Adams and Ian Branfoot who I worked for at the beginning and those two guys put a lot of hard work and effort into it and managed to bring good guys in around the club who wanted to socialise with each other which you then reap the benefits of on the pitch. They were good times. Coming from Liverpool with great facilities and even Bristol City, it made you appreciate what you had before and how hard you had to work to try and improve things.
In 1996 you survived quite dramatically and then fast forward a year you are sitting third in the table and in a promotion push. What was that like, going from relegation battle to promotion push so quickly?
When we were battling for survival we were very close to actually dropping out of the Football League and going into the Conference, which is a scary thought when you think of the big teams who actually have slipped out of the league. So to look at where Fulham were then and now is incredible. The promotion season was really enjoyable to be part of. We had such a great group of boys and a great coach in Alan Cork who had a real way about him and his way with the players. I’m absolutely delighted that I was part of it. For me I got injured early on in the season and missed three/four months but then I came back towards the end of the season and got a few games then at Mansfield away I managed to fracture my cheekbone and missed the end of the season! I maybe didn’t play as much as I would have but to be in the group and up around the top of the table, going to games expecting and wanting to win was memorable.
What were the fans like then?
We had great fans. Fulham is a great place and a lovely part of the world and the fans at that time were very supportive. They followed us home and away. I always remember the Fulham fans following us away, they made good noise and the amount of support that they took to Carlisle that day was phenomenal. That was a great occasion, I think there was about 12,500 at it which was a Third Division match at that stage which showed the importance of the game and was a great game to be involved in.
Talking about the game at Carlisle then and that goal. It’s 1-1 and the ball drops to you about 30 yards from goal. What about that moment made you hit it?
When I look back on it, it seems as though there was a bit of fate involved. I had been out for a long time and hadn’t played a lot of games since coming back and I went to Carlisle in the squad fully expecting to be on the bench. My father was actually away with Dungannon United Youth in the Preston Tournament and he was actually driving back up the M6 to come home and was going to stop and watch the game but I told him not to because I wouldn’t be playing. Then at 1:30pm, I’m sitting there a bit gobsmacked realising that I was playing! So, when you look back on it maybe it was meant to be. It was a good ball in and it was laid off for me perfectly and I thought why not have a go. Whenever you look back on it you think that things maybe happen for a reason. Micky could quite easily have went with Martin Thomas that day in the middle of the park but he went for me and obviously it’s a memory that will live with me forever.
Is it strange knowing that you name is still sung at Craven Cottage?
It is but there’s a lot of other people who did a hell of a lot more in terms of what they have contributed towards Fulham but I am hugely honoured to be remembered for that goal and to hear the song being sung is something special.
Obviously you work in football so it is hard to get over to Craven Cottage but when was the last time you were able to get to Fulham?
It’s very difficult but Fulham actually brought me over a couple of years ago and I was special guest and went onto the pitch at halftime. It was very nice of them and my wife was over with me so it was nice to go over and experience that. They were playing Spurs that day, unfortunately the result went against them but you score a goal in the Third Division to help towards promotion and then to go back to see the club play in the Premiership against Spurs a short time later, to see the progress was incredible!
Just before we talk about your move back to Northern Ireland, let’s talk about the changes around the club. Al Fayed bought over the club and wanted his own men in charge and Micky Adams was unfortunately sacked. What is that like as a player? Is it unsettling or exciting to see the changes at the club?
When Al Fayed came in you knew that there was going to be a lot of changes. Before he came in I think Paul Watson was the last signing and I think the club had to pay about £20,000 for him. So to see that and then to see one of the first signings under Kevin Keegan in Chris Coleman come in for about £2million and to see the players that the club were able to target showed that the club changed dramatically overnight. We all knew, or at least, I knew that everyone there at the time would start to be dwindled out. I think the only one who lasted to the end was Morgs (Simon Morgan), Captain Fantastic, which he deserved. He really worked very hard and was one of the players who you knew would continue to fight for himself and continue to stay in the frame. I think it was important for Fulham to keep someone like him because he was able to bring things back down to earth and keep everyone grounded because of the career that he had had up to that stage.
I suppose that, although having someone come in like Al-Fayed was great for the club, there are difficult parts to that as well when you have guys who have worked their socks off for the club told that they will be replaced by a more expensive model but is it just part of football?
Unfortunately for us it was. The club went from very workman like run club to a business. But that’s football, people want to invest money. What Al-Fayed did for Fulham was second to none, what he contributed to the training facilities and what he provided in terms of the revenue for the club was absolutely fantastic. Fulham definitely wouldn’t be in the position that they were if it wasn’t for Al-Fayed and you have to give the man a lot of respect for that but it didn’t work out in our favour at that stage.
After that did you go straight back home?
Well, I went to Chesham United were Alan Cork was managing and played a few games there and then ended up playing a bit for Crawley but then things in a personal life made me make a decision. I had two options; either I could stay over there and look for a job or I could move back home, be with family and friends and try and get a footing back into the game. It was the best option for me and I’m very happy because I have really enjoyed myself since I came home.
When you went home you spent a bit of time at Glenavon before moving to Dungannon Swifts. Are they your home town club?
Yes, I only live less than a mile from the ground and grew up with a connection there. My father was the bar manager and first team manager for years so ever since I was able to walk I was travelling to games and was going here, there and everywhere over the North of Ireland following Dungannon Swifts. When I started playing I got my opportunities here playing for the school boys before moving across the water. But coming back home and playing here has been a great experience. As soon as I came back to Dungannon Swifts I just felt at home and at ease and started doing well on the pitch and enjoying my football again. Then I moved into management with them.
What are your aspirations as a manager with them?
I think for me it’s about trying to develop our own players and trying to develop our own style of play that is good on the eye. We try and play a good style of football. It’s very difficult because Dungannon Swifts have such a low budget, maybe the lowest in the league so it’s a case of trying to get the best out of them that we possibly can. We have a great bunch of players and I really enjoy working with them and taking training. I get a good vibe back from them and it makes you look forward to going to your work and delivering something that you know they are going to enjoy.
I am also a director within Dungannon Youth. My father was the one who was the founder of it as such and we now have 13/14 teams and I try and help them develop as players and it’s very enjoyable.
I suppose when you just love the game, this sort of thing just comes naturally?
Yes, I am 42 years old now and relatively young and am as ambitious as a coach as I was a footballer. I want to go and achieve things whether that is with Dungannon Swifts or maybe an opportunity elsewhere. If I ever got the opportunity to work as a full-time coach in a full-time set up I would love that, but there is a lot of learning and educating to be done and I just have to keep working hard at it.
Would you ever move back across the water?
Absolutely. To coach and be involved in football as a full-time coach would be special.
I finished our conversation by presenting a signed Fulham 16/17 shirt to Rodney that the club sent over to mark 20 years since his goal and our promotion to the Second Division. What an experience it was getting to talk to someone who was present during a defining part of the club’s history and it was a pleasure talking Fulham and generally all things football with him. Make sure you keep an eye on the happenings of Dungannon Swifts this season. They play great football and the hard work and dedication put in by Rodney and others at the club make it move in the right direction.
Finally, I just want to thank Rodney for taking the time to chat. What a legend!