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Cliftonville legend Tommy Breslin was a friend to all and a foe to none

Tommy Breslin won back-to-back Irish League titles during his time in charge at Cliftonville  
Pádraig Ó Meiscill

PERHAPS the measure of Tommy Breslin the public figure, the legendary Cliftonville manager, the through-and-through football man is Stephen Baxter’s recollection of how their friendship blossomed when the Crusaders boss was “working with him”.

As all local football fans will know, Baxter never did work with Breslin. Baxter managed Crusaders on the Shore Road, while Breslin was at the helm a couple of miles away on the Cliftonville Road. They were in charge of clubs who share a derby rivalry at a time when both were developing into serious title contenders and winners. When Breslin won his first league title with Cliftonville, their north Belfast neighbours finished second. ‘Fierce competitors’, ‘sporting foes’ would be considered more apt terms for how their relationship was supposed to be defined.

And yet, when Baxter had to confront the news of Breslin’s untimely passing during a family holiday in Spain yesterday evening, he remembered him not as an opponent but as a colleague and a friend. This is no mean feat of the human spirit considering the conditions these two managers operated in, labouring in a north Belfast environment that is often a cauldron for more than just sporting passions.   

“Obviously, we managed in the same period, but Tommy was not just a rival manager, he was a really close friend of mine,” said Baxter last night.

“The two of us dealt with things off the park, there was tension around flag protests and all sorts of things at that moment in time and him and I just struck up a friendship and a relationship which was unique and always courteous and friendly. We laughed and joked about the pressures of the job and we enjoyed the job, we enjoyed the conversation. There was never a cross word between us, never ever, on the touchline, around the whole process of all those years, just huge respect.”

After Breslin guided Cliftonville to unprecedented back-to-back title victories in 2013 and ’14, it was Baxter who repeated that feat in the succeeding two seasons with the Crues. But in the midst of this tense head-to-head battle neither man ever forgot their affection for the other.  

“I remember congratulating him when they were winning the title and I remember clapping the Cliftonville fans directly after they won it because it was the right thing to do in how well they had done it,” Baxter added.

“Tommy’s achievement in that was just phenomenal and you could see his stamp on his team and how they played, with the likes of [Liam] Boyce and [Joe] Gormley, Barry Johnston, those players all stand out for me as just the rocks of that team. He had moulded that team into a fabulous, fabulous team that dominated Irish League football for that spell.

“My heart goes out to his family and I pass my condolences onto them. It’s a real shock to me as a football man. I considered him a real close friend when I was working with him and I’m devastated at the news.”

Larne coach and former Reds winger Tim McCann played with a then veteran Breslin when he first broke into the Cliftonville team in the early 1990s. He remembers his former team-mate and mentor as “a gentleman” who often gave up his spare time for the sake of the local community.

“It leaves you breathless. I happened to tell [Ballymena manager] David Jeffrey there when I found out and tears came to his eyes,” McCann said.

“Tommy was a gentleman. He was much loved in the Irish League, his mannerisms, everything he did, he was highly respected. It’s just going to leave a massive hole in the Irish League in general. When I first started playing football and got into the Cliftonville team, I played alongside him. He was in the midfield and I was out the right-wing and he’d show me where I was going wrong when I was a young whipper-snapper.

“I’ll always remember the midfield: it was Peter Murray, Tommy in the middle, Jim McFadden out the left and me out on the right. As I say, I was only a young buck then and to be able to play with those guys was something else. Tommy was always a joker and a laugher and would always bring laughter to any occasion. Tommy had a big influence on my career and he’ll be sorely missed.  

“What he’s done for the local community should also be remembered, I know that he coached and gave up his time voluntarily. It’s very hard to take in at this minute in time.”

McCann had no hesitation in lauding the Cliftonville team which Breslin put together – one which came up against the might of Celtic in the Champions League qualifying rounds and departed Parkhead with their heads held high - as one of the best footballing sides to grace the local game.

“He’ll always be remembered for the back-to-back title winning teams, who played the best football that was played in the Irish League for years,” the former Red added of the 58-year-old who stepped back into the breach at Solitude when Gerard Lyttle departed the hot seat in April 2017.

“He’ll always be remembered for his style of football and his honesty and everything he done for Cliftonville. He was Cliftonville through-and-through and hopefully that’s what the fans will remember him for. It’s a genuine fact that Tommy was one of the nicest men you could ever meet in football, on and off the pitch. He would do anything he could to help you. He was very, very respectful of his own team and other teams around him.

“I’ve never heard one person – anywhere – say one bad word about Tommy Breslin.”  

Cliftonville are due to open their Danske Bank Premiership campaign away to Coleraine on Saturday. However, as of last night, it remained unconfirmed whether the game would now go ahead.

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