Brendan Crossan: It's not time to say goodbye to Cliftonville's Barry Gray
IF you got two Cliftonville fans sitting across a table and one had to mount a case for keeping Barry Gray and the other argued against his retention, the latter would probably have the more persuasive argument.
And yet, my hunch is the Cliftonville board made the right decision to keep Gray as their manager following a make-or-break meeting on Tuesday night.
Of course, the case against is compelling.
Gray has yet to get the balance right in defence, the midfield shows all the characteristics of a troubled soul; Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly are two excellent strikers but the join between the pair always looks far from seamless.
At times this season, Joe Gormley’s goals massaged mediocre performances and hauled the side up the table.
The Reds endured a turbulent start to the season before hitting a purple patch and then dipping wickedly over the Christmas period.
The side conceded 17 goals in four demoralising league defeats on the trot and they then crashed out of the Irish Cup at home to modest Dungannon Swifts.
While the performance was better in the 1-0 cup defeat last week – where Cliftonville deserved an equaliser - there was still a worrying lack of tempo and leadership.
The person arguing to relieve Gray of his duties would insist that his time in charge has been too turbulent, too inconsistent and doesn’t look like improving any time soon.
Recruitment has been patchy too.
So, the club should have cut their losses and sought a new manager.
The person arguing for giving Gray more time in the job would present a less hysterical analysis. Before the side played Institute on December 22, where the terrible run of results began, they were knocking on third place.
They’d won their last three league games and were scoring for fun.
The one element that caused so much trouble was beyond Gray’s control.
Richard Brush, the team’s in-form goalkeeper, suffered a stroke a couple of months ago and was being nursed back to full fitness.
In the interim, Brian ‘Bam’ Neeson got suspended and Brush had to be “thrown in at the deep end” for the St Stephen’s Day derby clash with Crusaders.
The acquisition of Brush was a brilliant bit of transfer business by Gray.
To his eternal credit, the goalkeeper played against the Crues but, quite naturally, wasn’t at his best after illness and the subsequent lay-off.
The goalkeeper’s position will always be the most important position in a team. Everything flows from there.
The 5-1 defeat to Crusaders was actually worse than the scoreline suggested.
The team was rudderless and Crusaders proceeded to bully their hosts off the park.
And so the slump continued, culminating in chants of ‘out, out, out’ last Saturday.
In this day and age of social media, there is an overwhelming need to make noise, to create drama, to indulge in hyperbole.
‘Sack the manager’ sounds more dramatic than a whimpering proposal of: ‘Give the manager more time.’
Every poor run should not result in a manager losing his job.
In years gone by, clubs used to stick with managers for long periods.
Now the average lifespan of a manager in the English Premiership is around two years. And in many instances, the chopping and changing has merely compounded the instability at these clubs.
The conditions are much too volatile to build teams properly, so everything is fast-tracked, you are unable to grow a playing philosophy that will endure and as a consequence the wheels usually come off.
Everyone grows impatient and discontent is fertile ground on various social media platforms.
In the early days, Oran Kearney was regarded as pretty close to useless by quite a number of Coleraine supporters and that he was never a good fit for the club - but just look how he flourished in recent years.
He was given time to dig the foundations and build a truly brilliant team.
Tommy Breslin was the most successful manager in Cliftonville's history but many natives were restless in his final months in charge.
Gerard Lyttle took over at a difficult time, steadied the ship before delivering a League Cup and European qualification.
As time passes, Lyttle's achievements look all the more remarkable.
But some tacticians on social media didn't like his style of play and wanted him out.
Lyttle headed for Sligo Rovers - a full-time post - and who could blame him.
Gray reached an Irish Cup final last season and somehow managed to squeeze everything out of the players a week later to clinch European qualification in a tumultuous play-off win over Glentoran.
Gray has been at the club for roughly 18 months. Many supporters have already made their mind up and are not for turning.
Undoubtedly, he has made some errors in the role, and the last five results have had a terrible impact on morale. But is that really enough for an upheaval?
Like Gray, the board has made errors too. There is no question some disciplinary issues could have been handled more decisively.
But when you consider the club has won two league titles, four League Cups, two Co Antrim Shields, qualified for Europe seven times over the last 10 years, given Solitude several face lifts and raised the overall standards, supporters have been served well.
In an interview with The Irish News, Gray firmly rejected the rumour he was helping to pay some players’ wages and therefore the club felt tied to him.
I would like to think that Barry Gray was retained by Cliftonville Football Club out of old-fashioned loyalty. That his ceaseless work ethic and commitment to the cause counted for something when supporters were calling for his head.
That it was a strong decision, and not a weak one, by the board to keep him and to give him more time to get things right.
And, more importantly, that there is something virtuous in the soul of Solitude that still values loyalty, altruism and comradeship - especially so in times of stress.
Barry Gray still deserves to hold the reins at Cliftonville.
Now he needs to see the soul of his players over the coming months.