Belfast Telegraph

Joe McAree: 'Very few let me down because they know that I'll do my best to deliver for whole community'

Dungannon Swifts legend Joe McAree on nurturing fresh talent, and why family means so much to him

Moving forward: Joe McAree at Dungannon United Youth's stadium
Moving forward: Joe McAree at Dungannon United Youth's stadium
McAree with Adrian Logan, Clement Cuthbertson, Arthur Scott and Francie Molloy as they cut the ribbon on the club's new Community Sports Hub
Joe outside the club's new Community Sports Hub
The club's academy director Dixie Robinson
Table talk: Joe McAree with his son Rodney in the new hub

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland star Niall McGinn tells a lovely story about Joe McAree. McGinn came through the ranks at Dungannon United Youth before going on to have a fantastic career at club and international level.

After McGinn left Dungannon Swifts to play for Derry City, Celtic, Brentford and Aberdeen, McAree kept in touch and constantly encouraged the winger.

The Euro 2016 hero appreciated the support and fondly remembers one particular message after he scored a brilliant goal for Northern Ireland in a shock 1-1 draw in Portugal when Cristiano Ronaldo won his 100th cap.

McGinn recalls: "Joe would always say to me on the phone or by text that I had another gear in my performances. When I scored against Portugal I got a message from him saying, 'That's the extra gear I was talking about'. That's Joe. He's been a big influence on me."

Respected and loved in equal measure, ex-Dungannon Swifts manager McAree is one of the great characters in Northern Ireland football.

Joe's 73 but still retains a schoolboy-like excitement for the game. In conversations, which are never short, he uses colourful language aplenty and throws in hilarious one-liners like a seasoned comedian.

Last weekend he was the toast of the Tyrone town as a new Community Sports Hub opened at Dungannon United Youth's stadium following an investment of almost £740,000 by the Department of Communities with support from the Dungannon Neighbourhood Renewal Partnership and the Mid Ulster District Council.

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It's the latest addition to the state-of-the-art facilities at Dungannon United Youth, where McAree is the chairman. Since 1998, thousands of children have enjoyed playing football on the site which was acquired for the princely sum of £50.

McAree reveals: "I took a chance on getting a lease on a five-and-a-half-acre site that the Council offered me in 1998. They gave me the lease for £50 but it stated on the lease, 'The leasee promises to spend a minimum of £200,000 upgrading the site'.

"That figure was scary at the time but we have gone on to spend £1.7m on the site with the help of various grants, lots of hard work from volunteers and £300,000 of that was contributed by Dungannon United Youth.

"After we started all those years ago, more and more children kept coming to us. I felt there was a problem though because we had seven and eight-year-olds out on a Tuesday night with wind, rain, sleet and snow bouncing off them. They were foundered and I didn't feel they were getting any enjoyment out of it.

"I decided we'd install an indoor pitch. Some people felt I was mad but I thought if the kids weren't enjoying their football, what chance had they of turning into a footballer? We got a grant for £360,000 from the Big Lottery and put £40,000 in ourselves and the indoor pitch was opened in 2006 by the great Pat Jennings."

McAree adds: "The Dungannon business community has been good to me. I've always said I've been a beggar in this town for 48 years. Very few people have let me down and the reason for that is they know I'll do my best to deliver for the whole of the community."

Joe takes pride in the fact that camogie, hurling and GAA clubs use the facilities as well as Dungannon United Youth's 16 football teams.

"It's the only way forward for any club and our society to have everyone involved. We are all equal in my view. Fight with your neighbour and you are going to waste your life. Enjoy your life, support and help people when you can and treat others the way you want to be treated yourself," says McAree, deservedly awarded an MBE in 2013 for services to sport and the community.

Joe is rarely lost for words. When asked about the mantle 'Mr Dungannon', which is often bestowed on him, he goes quiet before pointing out: "I'm just happy to have played my part in something that has been good for the town and beyond."

McAree's association with Dungannon dates back almost 50 years. Before that, growing up between the villages of Killylea, Tynan and Caledon, he kicked a football until it was dark and played for Caledon, Coalisland Rangers and Moygashel.

After becoming a young manager at Caledon he moved to Dungannon Swifts in 1972 and was appointed boss of their third team. A few months later he was in charge of the reserves aged just 25 and at the start of the 1973-74 season McAree took over first-team duties from the successful Henry Shepherd. He won his first 11 matches in charge in a sign of things to come.

He would manage Dungannon Swifts several times through the decades, most notably guiding the club into the top flight of Irish League football for the first time in 2003. Such were the foundations that Joe built, they are now established as a stable Premiership outfit.

"That has to be up there with my greatest achievements. Whenever I took over then we were bottom of the table," he says.

"I called all the players in for a meeting. Some of them knew who I was and some of them didn't have a clue. I said to them all that they were important to me and I would take the team from the bottom of the league to the Irish Premiership and if they wanted to be part of it they would come on board and work their socks off.

"We went up the table like a rat up a spout. We were pipped into third place behind Institute and Distillery but we were on a roll. The next season, we won the league by eight points."

McAree would go on to be named Manager of the Year in 2005.

"In the top division we had a rough start but I promised everyone we would improve and we finished 10th in our first season and fourth after that. In 2007 we reached the Irish Cup final after I had stepped away and Harry Fay was the manager.

"I was managing the Swifts, driving a coach and doing as much as possible with Dungannon United Youth and to be honest it became too much for me. I had to leave managing the Swifts because I just couldn't leave the Youth. I told the board, 'The future of your club is in the youth of your community'. I knew we couldn't compete money-wise with the bigger clubs so we had to produce our own talent."

The international shirts of some of that talent decorate the players' entrance at Dungannon United Youth, including a Northern Ireland Under-18 top worn by Joe's son Rodney. There are also shirts from senior internationals McGinn, Liam Donnelly and Mark Hughes.

Former Dungannon Swifts and Coleraine manager Rodney is the youngest of three children Joe has with beloved wife Carol. Sharon is the eldest and Keith, living in the Gold Coast in Australia with his family, is in the middle. Asked about his wife and children, this larger than life figure pauses for a second. Normally quicker with his tongue than Usain Bolt on a running track, you get the feeling he wants to choose his words carefully.

"My family have supported me so much," says Joe with a tinge of emotion. "I'm extremely proud of our children. I believe they are great people and without Carol by my side there is no way I could have done what I've done in my life because she gave me a free rein to go and do what I wanted to do.

"As well as being a great wife and mother she was treasurer of the club for 40 years and that is the reason why the club stayed solvent and paid their bills on time. She wouldn't have it any other way. A few years ago the club rewarded her with a trip to see Keith in Australia which was a nice touch.

"I've always said you don't do anything without the right people around you and I've been lucky in that respect with my family, brilliant coaches like my son Rodney and Dixie Robinson and friends and volunteers who deserve so much credit for all the work they put in."

To finish, a wisecrack: "I've also been fortunate to be blessed with great energy. I'm cutting down though because I'm 73. I only do seven days a week now!"

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