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Rodney McAree: Joining Glentoran was a no-brainer as the full-time set-up at The Oval is first class


Rodney McAree

Rodney McAree

Rodney McAree

Inconceivable as it may seem now, there was a time when aspiring young teenagers left Northern Ireland by air and sea to follow their dreams alone.

Being offered a trial at a big club in England or Scotland remains the aim of adolescent boys and latterly girls, a chance to make the big time.

Glentoran coach Rodney McAree was a gifted player as a lad growing up in Dungannon, under the canny eye of father Joe, a man synonymous with Dungannon Swifts.

Such was his talent, there was a clamour to sign the young midfielder from the age of 13, with Liverpool eventually the dream destination for young McAree.

He didn’t manage to grace the first team and spent a season at Bristol City before becoming a cult hero at Craven Cottage by scoring a last-gasp winner to seal promotion to Division Two for Fulham in April 1997.

A return to Northern Ireland saw him play for Glenavon and the Swifts before moving into management at Stangmore Park and the Coleraine Showgrounds.

After a stint with Barry Gray at Warrenpoint Town, McAree recently joined Mick McDermott at Glentoran, where the new full-time project has raised the bar in east Belfast.

McDermott himself has high standards and demands the same from his staff, but McAree is not daunted by the task ahead — a characteristic born of flights to and from England as a lad.

“I left home when I was 15,” recalls the respected coach.

“I got on a flight by myself — as Ifantastic had been doing since I was 12 or 13 — got off the plane and went looking for someone with my name on a placard.

“Norwich was the first club. I flew into London a few times for different clubs — Liverpool, Birmingham — literally off a plane on my own to be picked up by God knows who.

“It wouldn’t happen today, not when you think about what happened to players in the past.

“I remember getting dropped off by Norwich at the airport after playing a match that day. I got to Heathrow at one o’clock and wasn’t flying out until 6 o’clock, so I’m sitting on my own as a 13-year-old in Heathrow for five hours.

“I just seemed to take it in my stride. And there were no mobile phones then so I couldn’t speak to my mum or dad, the only time I could do that was when I found a coin box to put my money into.

“I’ve always been ready for a challenge, I’ve never been afraid to leave my comfort zone.”

Glens boss McDermott finally got his man to join him at The Oval last month after discussions with Gray at Milltown and it was too good an opportunity for the Tyrone man to refuse.

That McAree came from a full-time background in the game was another attribute McDermott wanted as he lifts the levels of professionalism at the club, and his move has already prompted nostalgic memories.

“My first day was a Monday (three weeks ago) and on the Tuesday, my second day in, I remember the sun was shining as I stood on the middle of the pitch at the Billy Neill Centre,” he recalls.

“I looked at the players, the set-up, the drills Mick had prepared and it really struck me, it brought back great memories of being a full-time player involved in a full-time environment.

“Some full-time environments can be poorly run in my opinion, but what I’ve seen here is fantastic and it really gives you a buzz to feel you are part of something special.

“It was a no-brainer for me. The way Glentoran are, the direction they are going in, it was just something exciting you wanted to get involved in.

“I enjoyed my time at Warrenpoint. A few weeks after I went in, we played Glentoran and there was a brief conversation in which Mick told me that they had thought about bringing me into Glentoran in a similar role.

“I thought to myself, ‘That would have been a great opportunity’, but I couldn’t dwell on it too much because I had a job to do at Point and I wanted to do my best for them as well.

“I enjoyed working with the players at the club, I was very hands on, as I was brought in to be, and I helped Gavin Dykes and Barry Gray get the team ready for the Saturday.

“But that brief chat with Mick planted a seed. My dad was at me to pick up the phone but I was always of the opinion that if it’s going to happen it will happen, I wouldn’t try to push it.

“The way it happened made me feel much better about being wanted, being included, being part of the club when I was brought down.

“I bumped into Windy (Paul Millar, assistant manager) and he asked if I would be interested as Mick was speaking to Warrenpoint. Once he got clearance, he made contact with me.

“This is a different animal to the Glentoran of a few years ago, certainly financially because of the backer, which is fantastic.

“You look at where the League is going in terms of finance, Linfield are well off, Larne have financial backing, Coleraine, Crusaders, Cliftonville have all played in Europe and are trying to push onto the next level.

“The investment came at a very good time for Glentoran and to have the experience of Mick and Windy is a great help to the club.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to work with Mick and learn from the experiences he has had, to try and educate myself.

“I always heard he was very good on the pitch and a very good coach, through players I worked with.

“His coaching is top drawer and that’s a challenge for me now because I have to make sure that I raise my game.”

McAree has already had a taste of big-game pressure at The Oval following Glentoran’s UEFA Conference League clash with The New Saints on Saturday.

The return leg is next Thursday in Oswestry, then the new domestic season kicks off on August 28 with a trip to McAree’s former stomping ground, Stangmore Park.

McDermott has made great strides in his endeavours to restore the Glens to the top of the tree, winning the Irish Cup in 2020 and qualifying for Europe with a third-place finish in the Danske Bank Premiership last season.

Reigning champions Linfield are the team to beat this term but Larne, Coleraine, Crusaders, Cliftonville and Glenavon can be expected to have a major say.

The stakes are higher than they have ever been but McAree insists he has the mettle not just for the big occasion, but for every occasion.

“I don’t overly think about big games,” McAree said.

“I think every game is a big game and I want to win every game I am involved in.

“I have experienced big pressure occasions as both a player and a manager and I like to think I can pass my experience onto the players.

“As a player, there was the Irish Cup Final with Dungannon Swifts, and we gained promotion with Fulham, when I scored the goal.

“We lost the 2007 Irish Cup Final on penalty kicks, but we should have won it. Linfield missed their first two penalty kicks, we missed our second. Had we scored that we could have gone on to win it. We had a lot of quality in that team — Mark McAllister, JP McCann, Ryan McCluskey, Shane McCabe, myself.

“Before that, I played in a promotional battle to get Fulham out of the old Third Division and I was lucky enough to score late on.

“We played Carlisle, they were first, we were second, it was a massive game and we managed to win it so that was a big experience for me.

“Then, as a manager, winning the League Cup in 2018 with Dungannon Swifts was a big and proud moment as it was Dungannon’s first major honour.

“I believe we won it on a shoestring budget compared to everyone else and won it in good manner, we deserved it.”

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