Gerard Lyttle: I wanted to see season out with Cliftonville - but Reds refused
After swapping the red of Cliftonville for the ‘bit o' red' of Sligo Rovers, Gerard Lyttle lifts the lid on his Solitude exit and tells Brendan Crossan why he will always cherish the good times he enjoyed with a club he still loves...
BC: Did you feel relieved after it was announced you were leaving Cliftonville?
GL: Relief is probably the wrong word. I felt more proud than anything else given the short space of time I was manager.
I was coming on the back of the best manager in the club’s history [Tommy Breslin] and I felt I had high standards in terms of steadying the ship.
At that time there was a lot of uncertainty around the club, Tommy had left, we weren’t in a great position and were on the decline.
But we went on an unbeaten run of 18 games, I think, we got the European spot and we retained the League Cup, and we reached the second round in Europe.
So I think I left the club in a good position. There are structures in place, in terms of a professional ethos...
The club is in a steady enough place. So relieved? No. Don’t get me wrong: frustrated? Yes, in terms of how the season went and the supporters not giving us the full backing, something that we were crying out for.
BC: You often spoke off the record to me about how annoyed you felt about the lack of support from some Cliftonville supporters. Now you’re freed from all that, what are your reflections?
GL: I just felt from the start I was always working under the shadow of Tommy. No matter what I did, it was never going to be good enough.
I speak to Tommy regularly and ‘Minto’ [Peter Murray] rang me on my way to Sligo to wish me luck, and I have great relationships with them.
I don’t think the supporters backed me as much as they should have, being a local lad, a supporter, an ex-player and having the club at heart.
I just couldn’t understand it. Everything I did there seemed to be a negative found in it.
If we won a game of football 1-0 and played really well, the criticism would have been: ‘We should have won 2-0’, or ‘We should have had two up top’, or if we drew a game and came from behind it was: ‘We should have won’.
Some fans were looking for the negatives rather than looking for the positives.
I think that had an impact on the team’s morale and spirit. That negativity transferred onto the pitch at times. The Cliftonville fans pride themselves on being noisy and passionate but there wasn’t enough of that at times.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of lovely messages from supporters thanking me and wishing me all the best. For me, they were the real fans.
BC: How much of a role did that negativity play in you leaving the club?
GL: None. The reason to leave was about my ambition to manage in full-time football.
BC: Why did you decide to leave?
GL: Managing full-time football and being involved every day of the week and working in an unbelievable league and to start my journey in it.
Sligo are a massive club and being asked to manage them is obviously a huge honour.
It was one of those things I couldn’t turn down. Cliftonville is a club that I love and they’re close to my heart because I’ve been a supporter all my life.
One of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had was telling Gerard Lawlor [Cliftonville chairman] I was leaving.
To be fair, Gerard was not only my chairman, he became a good friend to me. He guided me along the way in terms of me being a young manager and he gave me good advice, and I respect him for that. And the board were the same.
BC: Could you have not waited for another couple of games before going to Sligo Rovers?
GL: Sligo actually said to me what way did I want to go with Cliftonville, and I said I wanted to see the last couple of games out, plus the [Europa League] play-offs and then walk away and everybody is happy.
That was the honourable thing to do, and Sligo were happy with that.
I put that to Cliftonville and they said it was better if I went there and then. I said I wanted to take the team on Saturday [against Glenavon] because I prepared them all week, but that wasn’t an option the club were interested in.
BC: Cliftonville’s statement that was released to the press and the public was very short and sweet. Did that annoy you?
GL: Yes, it did annoy me but I won’t let it get to me too much. As far as I’m concerned Cliftonville is over now.
This is another journey. I’ll always be a supporter of the club and I will be cheering them on to win more leagues and cups.
I feel this very strongly: whoever takes over has a very good group of players assembled for next year. There are a couple of good additions.
I’m not having a pop at anybody when I say this but I took over an ageing team; 13 players had gone and it was a proper rebuilding process that I never really cried about or spoke about…
BC: Subsequent to the club’s statement, chairman Gerard Lawlor paid a warm tribute to you on Twitter for your work at Cliftonville.
GL: Maybe the club statement was knee-jerk. Maybe it was a strategy to get the supporters back, I don’t know. I thought I deserved a bit more respect.
I seen Gerard’s tweet and that was nice of him but it could have been put in a statement rather than a tweet.
But, listen, there are no sour grapes on my behalf. I had unbelievable times at Cliftonville, from playing for them, to coaching with ‘Bressy’, to managing the team.
There have been obviously ups and downs and there are really, really good people there – the Imeldas of this world to wee Stevie the groundsman.
They put so many hours and dedication in and everyone of my backroom staff, they are all great guys – hard working, honest people.
BC: I’m sure you imagined managing Cliftonville to being entirely different to what it actually was.
GL: I never expected it to be as hard as what it was, I’m being honest. I’ve learned so much.
That’s why I feel I’m ready for this opportunity.
What I went through in that short space of time other managers don’t go through in 10 years. I think I managed issues we had really well.
I’d a lovely phone call from David Jeffrey on Friday night.
He saw the news and he got in contact with me. He said Ballymena’s 4-1 win over us was never a 4-1 game.
He said: ‘Youse battered us and then I saw you got the Sligo job and I was jumping with joy.’
He talked about how I conducted myself and managed the club and he said he was very proud to be standing alongside me on the sideline.
It was a lovely gesture. I think the managerial experiences at Cliftonville have made me stronger. There is no doubt about it.
BC: Did it not put you off managing?
GL: No, because I always try and take positives out of any situation. Always. I saw it as a learning curve.
BC: Would you be still Cliftonville manager if the team had nailed down third spot and European football next season?
GL: That’s a good question. I honestly don’t know. This opportunity is what I always wanted. I always wanted to be a full-time manager.
This opportunity might not have come up again and I might have looked back and thought: ‘I wish I had taken that chance.’
I don’t like doing ‘what ifs’. I suppose there was a wee bit of weight off my shoulders, to be truthful. It’s happened and I’ve walked into a really good job.
BC: Sligo are second from bottom. It’s going to be a big challenge. Have you had time to survey the squad?
GL: I’ve looked into a lot of things. They’ve played 10 games and they’ve conceded eight goals in the first 15 minutes of those games.
And they’ve conceded 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of games, so that gives me something to work with.
I do believe there is a good squad there and that they’re a good team but their results haven’t shown how decent a team they are.
BC: How are you going to manage the travelling?
GL: I’m getting rid of the wife! Happy days! [laughing] Listen, at the start it’s going to be tough.
Kelly, my wife, has been with me a long, long time, since I was with Celtic. She knows what I’m like and she’s very supportive.
She has the same mentality as me. She has her own businesses. I’ll base myself down here and then I’ll look to the family moving down to Sligo.
Kelly has no problem moving everyone down.
BC: Uprooting your family is obviously a big challenge too…
GL: I’m a family man and they come first. We’re all excited. The kids are excited. It was emotional when I got the phone call from Sligo to say that they wanted me to be their manager.
I thought of my mummy and was thinking: ‘I wish she was here’.
There were so many emotions.
My wee sisters were on the phone. We got some pizza on Friday night and had a glass of wine to celebrate it.
It’s like a new journey and hopefully a journey into full-time football because that’s what I always wanted and the only thing I know.
BC: You have spoken to me about the League of Ireland on a number of occasions and it’s a league you’ve always taken a keen interest in.
GL: I remember we spoke about Stephen Kenny and how highly we both rated him. And to pit yourself against the likes of him is fantastic.
Kenny Shiels [Derry City] is an ex-manager of mine and he’s a fantastic manager and young Stephen Bradley at Shamrock Rovers.
They’re all top manager; this is top end stuff and it’s as high as we can go in this country. I’m privileged and honoured to be a part of that and pitting myself against the best.
I’ve already spoken to Michael O’Neill, Brendan Rodgers and Willie McStay. I’ve good contacts and I’m never embarrassed to ask for advice and learn, and I’ll continue to do that.
BC: How would you assess Cliftonville’s performances over the last couple of months?
GL: Difficult. But at the same time you need to be realistic. We’d been using square pegs in round holes, playing people out of position.
It was just one of those seasons where we were really, really unlucky. We lost our entire midfield. Gone. We lost our two centre backs for seven games.
We got a bit of stability back in goals but then Jason [Mooney] suffered a knee injury and is out for the rest of the season.
Results were disappointing. But you see these comments about the players weren’t playing for me. That’s nonsense. I know the players.
They are hard working and they’re going through a slump. We analysed everything.
This isn’t just the last two seasons where the team hasn’t finished strongly – this goes as far back to Eddie Patterson’s time.
There was a trend that the team didn’t finish the season strongly.
Whether it’s to do with players out of contract and haven’t been sorted out... We were trying to get to the bottom of it but it is something that needs to be addressed under the next manager.
BC: What will you miss about Cliftonville?
GL: I will miss a lot of things. There are great people there. Driving up to training, I always had that sense of pride – it’s my club and I’m proud to manage my club.
There was obviously nonsense along the way. But seeing the faces of Imelda and wee Stevie and having a cup of tea with them before training.
And the people in the media were good to me.
There are good supporters there but I don’t hold anything against the supporters who didn’t back me.
That’s being honest with you.
There are passionate fans there but maybe some have an agenda, which I won’t miss.
I’ll miss the players and the banter and stories from Marty Donnelly and people like that. They are good guys.
But things change. Players move on. Managers move on and there is no one person bigger than the club. I’ll be forgotten about right and quick.
BC: What was your best moment at Cliftonville?
GL: There are a couple. Obviously your first trophy and winning the League Cup was special. That was very emotional.
But, because we’d won the League Cup so many times there was no big fuss made about it when we won it again.
David Healy won the Co Antrim Shield and it was the best thing ever. Gerard Lyttle wins the League Cup as manager and we’re expected to win it, and that was it.
Getting into Europe and getting through to the second round was another highlight. I thought we were a bit unlucky when we were leading 2-0 at home to Larnaca…
BC: Do you think there was a complacency among people at the club who took silverware for granted?
GL: Yes. People weren't realistic. We lost the best centre forwards [Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley] in the league.
They practically won games on their own. That’s why I had to tweak our formation and make us hard to beat because we weren’t scoring as many goals.
We were tough to beat – but that wasn’t good enough. I changed it to 4-4-2 and we ended up getting tanked. Sometimes you can’t win.
BC: Did you get to say goodbye to the players?
GL: No, and that was the disappointing part. I wanted to take charge of Saturday’s game [against Glenavon] but I wasn’t allowed.
But I did send a message out to all the boys to thank them and told them to kick on, play with a bit of pride and passion and try and get the European spot.
It’s so important for their careers and obviously for the club, and I got a lot of lovely messages back.
And I got some lovely messages from people around the club. I’m really disappointed that I signed Joe Gormley and I’m not going to get to manage him, and other players that I'd signed.