THERE will be a familiar face to greet reigning champions Cockhill Celtic when they arrive at Swilly Park on Sunday afternoon to begin the defence of their Ulster Senior League title.
Swilly Rovers chairman Ivan Grier has been working diligently behind the scenes at the famous Ramelton club for the best part of fifty years. He’s spent the vast majority of that time as club secretary, but’s he’s also doubled up as groundsman and caretaker as well as taking the admission money at the gate.
“I first got involved with the club in 1972 – the same year I got married. Indeed, sometimes Pearl thinks that football is my first love,” he laughs.
Over the years he’s watched senior footballers like the McNamee brothers Barry and Shane (both Derry City) and Tony (ex Finn Harps and Derry) cut their teeth in the local Schoolboys league for Swilly together with Kyle Callan McFadden (Sligo Rovers), Conor Gormley (Derry) and Ronan Curtis (Derry).
He was also watching on when goalkeeper Conrad Logan (Mansfield Town) first pulled on a pair of gloves and the Swilly Rovers jersey twenty years ago and Michael McHugh, who only retired last season, and who spent some time on the books of Bradford City.
Others like Brian Harte, Sean Boyle, Joe Logan and the McLaughlin brothers, Con and Liam, have also gone on to play League of Ireland football from the soccer hotbead that is Ramelton.
“There has been an awful lot of good players to have come through Swilly Rovers over the years. We had a very successful U14 team last year but we’ve lost seven of them to Derry and two to Harps.
“You can’t blame the players for wanting to play at a higher grade but it’s left us a bit thin on the ground. That said, we’ve always been able to produce good players and I think that will continue into the future,” he said.
Swilly’s senior team play in the Ulster Senior League which sees them do battle against the likes of Derry, Harps, Cockhill, Letterkenny Rovers and Fanad United.
“It’s where we want to be. It’s a good standard of football and I’m delighted that Swilly are there competing against the best,” he said.
Ivan’s love affair with Swilly Rovers first began when the late Josh Mackey and Mickey McHugh asked him would he be interested in joining the club when he was part of a team that won a Sports Quiz to raise money for Swilly Rovers in the local town hall back in 1972. The rest, as they say, is history.
Brendan Duffy (‘a real football man’), Sam McCloy (’he did a hell of a lot for Swilly’), Paddy Sweeney and Brendan McDaid – committee members at that times – have all since passed away.
“I would consider Brendan (Duffy) to have been one of my best friends. He was a real football man and great person too. He moved onto the Donegal League committee and he asked me to take his place as club secretary and I’ve been here since,” he said.
Two years ago he handed over the secretary’s job to Chanel Blaney.
“Chanel has been an outstanding appointment. Clubs have been reluctant in the past to put forward females for such positions but she’s managed to do an awful lot more than any man could. She’s got a great ability cut through all the red tape and waffle,” he said.
Ivan is now the club chairman while he also mans the gate – a job he inherited from the late Johnny Gallagher.
“Johnny was another great clubman. On Monday mornings you would see him carrying a bag of dirty football jerseys over his back on his way to the laundry. He worked in Kelly’s in Ramelton and he would be up to line the field at lunchtime. He would hardly have had the time to swallow his dinner,” he recalled.
While attendances would no longer be as big as they were twenty to thirty years ago, Swilly Park still manages to atract reasonable crowds on match days.
“Sky (Sports) doesn’t help but we would still get decent crowds. On a bad day though it’s not that hard to do the gate,” he smiled.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s when Summer Cups were in full swing, Swilly Park played host to a number of cross-channel players, many of whom did so in disguise so as not to draw undue attention from their clubs in England or Scotland.
“There have been many, many fine players who have played out on that pitch. One of them was Kieran Boyle. He’s a dedicated club man who’s still there training the lads and then shouting his head off on matchdays,” he laughed.
Other members of the committee nowadays include Marty McDaid, Edward Diver, Eunan Gormley and John Diver – all of whom do trojan work for the club although he declined to name names with regard to a story about the last time the pitch was reseeded about twenty years ago.
“There must have been twenty to twenty five lads down the first night to help gather stones but by the fifth night it was just Sam (McCloy), Johnny (Gallagher) and me. In fairness it was a back breaking job but they all disappeared,” he said.
A relatively new feature in Swilly Park is the ‘Red Room’, located in the stand, which serves tea and coffee on matchdays.
“You wouldn’t find better value anywhere,” he said.
While there have been many, many memorable matches played at Swilly Park, Ivan Grier recalled one particular game played at the Bank Terrace in Ramelton as Swilly Park was undergoing renovations.
“Fanad had to beat Swilly to win the league ahead of Culdaff and all the Culdaff boys came up to the game including Hugh Diver and Sean Davis who was their manager at the time. We beat them 4-1 with Michael McHugh, who was only about fifteen, netting a hat-trick. Our players were all congratulated and hugged by the Culdaff boys at the final whistle,” he said.
“An Intermediate Cup tie also stands out. We were playing a Dublin team in Ramelton and they scored a late equaliser. Sam said that we would have to get a bus organised next week when Dermot Sweeney got onto the end of a cross and planted home a header. That was the end of that bus,” he laughed.
Looking forward, he feels that ‘Young Stout’ – Marty Boyce – is a player for the future together with Ronan Curtis who is currently on Derry City’s books.
“They’re two very dedicated talented players. There’s a lot of good young lads out there who have plenty of talent,” he said.
Married to Pearl, the couple have three sons Alaister, Stanley and John.
Alaister’s daughter Catherine is a talented footballer who was won Ulster Player of the Year at U13, 14, 15 and 16 level while he’s also keeping an eye on Stanley’s twins – even though they’re only five! John, who works in Shannon, is a referee in the Limerick and District League.
Last weekend, Swilly came from two down to known their rivals Fanad Unied out of this year’s FAI Intermediate Cup.
“It’s always nice to beat Fanad. Don’t get me wrong. I have the highest respect for players like John and James Sweeney, who both played for Swilly, as well as Fr Michael Sweeney (former Fanad manager) but not for the ninety minutes when the game is on. The late John McHugh, Milford, was another real football man,” he explains.
Sunday sees the start of a new USL season but for those attending Swilly Park there will be a familar face on the gate – Ivan Grier, a great Swilly Rovers clubman.
Approval for the project, which had attracted strong local opposition, comes with conditions, including shadow flicker requirements.