Sonny Sweeney was denied a place in Don Revie’s Leeds team, but the Whites links live on as president of Churwell Lions. Lee Sobot reports.
SCOTSMAN Walter ‘Sonny’ Sweeney has much to thank Leeds for.
Don Revie’s all-conquering Whites signed the full-back in the 1960s and the city even led Sweeney to finding his wife.
And now he’s returning the compliment as president of Churwell Lions, responsible for developing two future Whites captains with finding a third topping the club’s Christmas wish-list.
Glasgow-born Sweeney, 66, was the captain of Scotland Schoolboys and just 15 years old when he left Castlemilk in Glasgow to sign for Revie’s Whites in 1964.
The Scotsman was in good company in relocating south of the border alongside John Lawson with the duo joining United one year after Eddie Gray and Jimmy Lumsden had made the identical move.
Gray and Lumsden went on to stardom but Sweeney was left to venture back north and sign for Greenock Morton before eventually settling in at Cork where he enjoyed his most successful years as a footballer. Yet quite literally Sweeney’s Leeds love affair was only just beginning.
The full-back had met his now wife June whilst attempting to break into Revie’s first team and the death of June’s father William led to a move back to the city and setting up home in Churwell. Sweeney was left to make ends meet working for first a printers firm and then transportation service Fed Ex.
But a deep desire for the beautiful game continued – Sweeney helping coach alongside former team-mate Bobby Collins at Collins’ coaching school and when football management beckoned for Collins, Sweeney was inspired.
Having also been appointed northern scout at Ipswich Town, an inspired Sweeney formed Churwell Lions Juniors in 1982 – a club which helped develop former Whites captains Jonny Howson and Richard Naylor – born in Leeds but a graduate of Ipswich Town’s youth academy.
It was Sweeney who helped orchestrate Naylor’s move to Leeds United in 2009.
And when Leeds came knocking for Sweeney’s services as a scout there was only one outcome with the 66-year-old delighted that his Leeds United relationship has turned full circle – with his role as Whites Academy scout perfect for helping the continued development of Churwell Lions.
Sweeney explained: “When Richard Naylor signed at Leeds he said ‘why don’t you come back to the club as you have your old boys’ club here?! And ever since I joined Leeds United it’s been in my heart. It’s part of me.
“It’s a great club and we are obviously very proud to have had two former Churwell Lions players go on to be captain in Jonny Howson and Richard Naylor.
“It would be great if we could get a third and there’d be every chance of that happening. I’ve got a good few boys coming through!”
By that Sweeney means talented youngsters at both Churwell and Leeds where he has five talented youngsters assigned to scholarships with two of them having graduated from Churwell Lions Juniors. Fifteen-year-old forward Ryan Ferguson and 14-year-old striker Samuel Amissah both have scholarships with United with Amissah’s 11-year-old brother Emmanuel also on United’s books.
Sweeney’s three other scholars at Elland Road are 17-year-old striker Peter Citreau, 15-year-old right back Jake Croft and 14-year-old centre forward Moice Kromar while Kalvin Phillips – previously also under Sweeney’s tutelage – has just signed his first professional contract with the Whites.
And it’s highly likely that more will follow with Sweeney creating very strong links between Leeds and the Lions.
“Leeds obviously have a lot of younger players on their books – boys at under-7s, 8s and 9s, and some of these boys can’t get out to Thorp Arch all the time,” explained Sweeney, who now works for Paragon Financial Services as a financial advisor. “As a result, some of them come training with Churwell – just until they are a little bit older.”
That training with Churwell comes on a facility including a 3G pitch at Bruntcliffe School which the Lions have been able to explore thanks to developing links with Gildersome Spurs FC and funding from the FA.
The Lions run teams at every age group from under-6s to open age and it’s very much a family affair with Sweeney’s wife June the joint treasurer alongside Dawn Taylor. Sweeney’s eldest son Ian is the club’s chairperson and youth development coach while five-year-old Alex – one of the president’s four grand-children – also plays for the under-6s.
And inspiration at Churwell is not hard to find with Howson and Naylor not the club’s only famous sons. Gavin Rothery, Richard Graham and Robert Dickinson have also graduated from the Lions while darts commentator Sid Waddell was so impressed with the Churwell junior revolution that he took his son Daniel down to play for the team. Daniel is now a well-known crime writer.
What followed was the creation of Waddell’s children’s footballing comedy drama Jossy’s Giants which ran on the BBC1 between 1986 and 1987. The show’s plot centred on a boys’ football team, the Glipton Giants, but the inspiration was Churwell Lions.
And then there are the club president’s own football anecdotes with Sweeney deeply proud of his Leeds United roots which also led to the love of his life.
Sweeney recalled: “Coming to Leeds was great and back then a few clubs were after me as I’d been captain of Scotland schoolboys. Don Revie was great and Leeds was a great club who really looked after you – especially at Christmas.
“We were all young boys living away from home but they would take us out to the hotel for a meal and they would look after us.
“But I had no chance of making the breakthrough there and getting in the team!
“The squad had 14 internationals and you had Terry Cooper and Paul Reaney at full-backs plus Paul Madeley who could play all over! The closest I got was when I was 18 and I went down with the first team to London to play Arsenal and West Ham but they didn’t have substitutes in these days. I was a travelling reserve.
“But I also met June while I was at Leeds when we were 17. Now we’ve been married for 44 years! She worked at Jackson’s boilers and I used to see her when I went by on the bus.
“I’d see this blonde girl and think ‘she’s a bit of all right...”
It’s fair to say Churwell’s president is glad he moved to Leeds.
President: Sonny Sweeney.
Chairman: Ian Sweeney.
PR Officer: Stephen Gaughan.
Secretary: Danny Marshall.
Home: Bruntcliife High School Morley, Nepshaw Lane, Fountain Primary School.
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