'We still sing about him now': Why Rodney McAree is more celebrated by Fulham fans than even the great George Best

 

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Rodney McAree played just 32 games for Fulham but has his own song at Craven Cottage until this day, enjoying greater affinity with the club's support than even George Best (inset).

Rodney McAree played just 32 games for Fulham but has his own song at Craven Cottage until this day, enjoying greater affinity with the club's support than even George Best (inset).

Final chapter: Rodney McAree's second favourite goal came in the 2007 Irish Cup final for Dungannon Swifts, although Linfield would go on to win on penalties.

Final chapter: Rodney McAree's second favourite goal came in the 2007 Irish Cup final for Dungannon Swifts, although Linfield would go on to win on penalties.

�INPHO/WILLIAM CHERRY/PRESSEYE

McAree went on to manage Dungannon Swifts to their first ever League Cup crown in 2018.

McAree went on to manage Dungannon Swifts to their first ever League Cup crown in 2018.

PMAKER

Northern Ireland's David Healy, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Steve Davis all played for Fulham under former international boss Lawrie Sanchez

Northern Ireland's David Healy, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and Steve Davis all played for Fulham under former international boss Lawrie Sanchez

William Cherry/Presseye

Ian Branfoot

Ian Branfoot

Getty Images

Rodney McAree played just 32 games for Fulham but has his own song at Craven Cottage until this day, enjoying greater affinity with the club's support than even George Best (inset).

Twenty-two Northern Irishmen have donned the famous white jersey of Fulham Football Club, but none enjoy higher standing with its supporters than Rodney McAree.

 

"We even had the wonderful George Best playing for us for a season," says lifelong supporter Kevin O'Callaghan, born and raised in the Fulham borough to an Irish father.

"Then we have our club legends; the likes of Johnny Haynes who made over 650 appearances, Gordon Davies who scored 178 goals and George Cohen - one of England's 1966 World Cup winners. The fans don't sing songs about Best or any of those lads anymore, but we still sing about Rodney McAree."

The Dungannon man played only 32 games for the club, making 24 starts and scoring just three goals. But it's one of those that has reverberated round Craven Cottage to this day.

Football's all about timing, about a touch of fortune, about finding yourself in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment.

For McAree, that was a few yards outside the box, just left of centre, at Carlisle United's Brunton Park at around 4.10pm on Saturday, April 5, 1997.

 

Over 2,000 Fulham fans had made the 650-mile round trip from south west London to Cumbria, refusing to miss the moment that could all-but seal promotion from Division Three. It soon transpired that what they witnessed would lead to much more than that.

"That was the goal that brought Fulham out of the darkness, back into the light. That's why we still sing about it," explains O'Callaghan. "It marked the change."

It had been 20 years since the likes of Best and Bobby Moore graced the pitch at Craven Cottage. As the mid-90s arrived, the few remaining fans were glad they still had a club at all.

By 1994, they had been relegated to the fourth tier of the English Football League and their famous old ground had been sold to developers.

Plans for an elegant apartment complex were in place - the Cottage itself set to be split into flats - and the club would, at best, be off to pastures new thanks to an agreement worth up to £13m with the ground's new owners Cabra Estates.

We had gone up against the odds. Thanks to Rod. If one goal changed the course of a club then that's it.

A cohort of loyal supporters weren't having it. They set up a fan group called Fulham 2000, supported publicly by Best and Haynes, with the aim of ensuring the club remained at its spiritual home by the turn of the millennium.

"We were stuffed," says Chris Bishop, from Hartlebury near Worcester. He helped to form the group in 1992, having found a home on the Craven Cottage terraces after moving to the city in the late 80s.

"It seemed like the club had no future but we collected money and we all gave our own - I even got my dad to give some and he doesn't really care about Fulham. He's a Kidderminster Harriers fan."

Thankfully for those supporters, Cabra went under before Fulham did and the bank was eventually persuaded to sell the ground back to the club, not least because of Fulham 2000's efforts.

It was to that turbulent backdrop that Rodney McAree arrived at the Cottage at the end of December 1995. His fledgling days at Liverpool and Bristol City had come to an end and he had put a brief visit home to good use by helping Dungannon Swifts to the Bob Radcliffe Cup, with a final victory over Lurgan Celtic.

Just days later, the deal was done for his move to Fulham, helped by his dad Joe's friendship with then manager Ian Branfoot.

He couldn't have arrived at a more opportune moment. On his home debut, Fulham lost 3-1 to Scunthorpe in front of just 2,196 fans - a record low at the Cottage even now.

Four days later, a 2-1 loss at basement side Torquay dropped Fulham to second bottom - 91st in the Football League - and their lowest ever ranking.

If ever a hero was needed, it was then.

"The crowds had completely dwindled and Craven Cottage was a pretty sad place to be," recalls season-ticket holder O'Callaghan.

"It had been a really grim time for the club. We had nearly gone out of business, the standard of football overall had been pretty dire and the ground was falling apart with weeds on the terraces.

"It was sad to see because it's a wonderful old ground. It's a lovely place for football."

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Ian Branfoot

Ian Branfoot

Getty Images

Ian Branfoot

 

Manager Branfoot departed just a couple of months after signing McAree and his successor, Micky Adams, would help Fulham end the season eighth from bottom - another unwanted record as the club's worst ever league finish.

Summer signings included would-be club stalwart Sean Davis and Gillingham attacker Darren Freeman, fresh from a loan spell at Glenavon.

The campaign that followed would set an unlikely stage, piece by piece, for its leading man's crowning moment.

"It was a total transformation," says O'Callaghan. "We got 11 wins from our first 14 league games and were flying high."

By April, promotion was becoming an increasing certainty. All that was needed was a moment to remember.

"I got a plane from Zimbabwe to be in Carlisle that day," laughs Bishop, who was working as a foreign correspondent for the BBC. "Then I got the train up to my folks in Worcester, drove to Durham to visit my friend on the Friday and on the morning of the game, completed another 70 or 80 miles to Carlisle. I had done about 6,000 miles at that stage."

The two teams were locked in a promotion battle, both likely to get over the line sooner or later, but a win for either that day and their plans for life in Division Two could get under way.

McAree had been battling back from ankle surgery midway through the season and hadn't started a league game in months - an unlikely hero if ever there was one.

"I managed to get a few reserve games in and got around the squad again," he recalls. "But starting that game came as a huge surprise.

"My dad and Dixie Robinson were at a tournament in Preston and were travelling home by coach that day, driving to Stranraer to get the ferry.

"They had said they would maybe stop for the match but I told them there wouldn't be any point because I wasn't going to be playing.

"As they were travelling past Carlisle, it came on their radio that I had scored.

"Back then, I would never have asked the manager if I was going to play but I've spoken to him about it since. Micky always says he had a gut feeling that day that he wanted to start me and thankfully that paid off but it could have been even better if my dad had been there."

A 20-year-old Rory Delap had given the hosts the half-time lead in front of a packed house of 9,171 supporters.

But Micky Conroy levelled on 51 minutes with a back-post header, just yards away from the loyal band of Fulham fans.

"Then a few minutes later Simon Morgan chipped the ball into Christer Warren and he headed it down into my path," says McAree of what would become a much-cherished moment. "I always backed myself as a good striker of a ball so I was never going to do anything other than hit it and it came out of the sweet spot."

Pandemonium. For Fulham's long-suffering supporters, the 2-1 win meant a first promotion in 15 years. At last, a memory to cherish and a moment of hope for the future.

"I was dead in line with it behind the goal. Plumb," smiles Bishop down the line from South Africa.

"We had gone one down and the skies were the colour of a destroyer - grey and horrible. I'm thinking it's taken me two days to get to Carlisle and I'm going to watch us lose.

"Then, blow me down, Rod got it on the half-volley. The keeper was nowhere near it. We were on a mound of people, leaping around - hugging and kissing each other. You wouldn't believe the celebrations.

"It was like Christmas. We had gone up against the odds. Thanks to Rod. If one goal changed the course of a club then that's it."

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Final chapter: Rodney McAree's second favourite goal came in the 2007 Irish Cup final for Dungannon Swifts, although Linfield would go on to win on penalties.

Final chapter: Rodney McAree's second favourite goal came in the 2007 Irish Cup final for Dungannon Swifts, although Linfield would go on to win on penalties.

�INPHO/WILLIAM CHERRY/PRESSEYE

Final chapter: Rodney McAree's second favourite goal came in the 2007 Irish Cup final for Dungannon Swifts, although Linfield would go on to win on penalties.

 

By the time the final whistle went, a song had begun - not the most inventive that's ever graced a football terrace but one that would stand the test of time.

"Who put the ball in the Carlisle net? Rodney McAree," smiles O'Callaghan, who now has the words as a tagline at the bottom of his car number plate, lest anyone forget.

"It was at that same game that the song was coined and it got sung and sung ever since.

"It still does now - not far from every game. Bearing in mind the crowds we were getting back then, there aren't many that would remember Rodney as a player but they all sing it.

"At some point during every game, often when the fans would need a lift - if we were losing at Arsenal or something - we'd remind ourselves of happier times."

Plenty of those brighter days would follow. Within two months of the goal, Mohamed Al-Fayed had bought the club and injected his millions, transforming Fulham FC in an instant.

Kevin Keegan and Ray Wilkins were brought in as a management team and an unthinkable run to the Premiership would be complete within four years.

All of that meant, however, that it was curtains for most of the promotion-winning squad. McAree left the Cottage less than a year later.

"That goal cost me my full-time career," he laughs, having ended up back in Northern Ireland soon after.

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McAree went on to manage Dungannon Swifts to their first ever League Cup crown in 2018.

McAree went on to manage Dungannon Swifts to their first ever League Cup crown in 2018.

PMAKER

McAree went on to manage Dungannon Swifts to their first ever League Cup crown in 2018.

 

"I'm a bit surprised it has lived as long as it has but I suppose a lot of the fans think that without that promotion, all that followed at Fulham may not have happened.

"One of Micky Adams' last signings was Paul Watson for about £20,000 which was big money for Fulham. Then one of the next signings was Chris Coleman from Premier League Blackburn for £2.1m. That's how the club transformed overnight.

"It got rid of the Ford Focus cars out of the car park and brought in the Mercedes. I knew my time was up.

"But I'm very proud and delighted that I scored that goal. It's so great to be remembered for it."

He was invited back to Craven Cottage a few years ago for a Premier League game against Tottenham. As he took to the pitch at half-time, there was a hero's welcome and, yes, of course the song.

Of the 22 Northern Irishmen to play for Fulham, only one put the ball in the Carlisle net.

And Craven Cottage will never forget.

Belfast Telegraph