Brendan Crossan: First seeds sown in Cliftonville revival

Cliftonville players Levi Ives's goal against Coleraine on Tuesday night

‘Good people make great teams.’

I INTERVIEWED Armagh footballer Stephen Sheridan a few months ago and we stumbled onto the subject of the importance of being a good role model.

The topic probably arose because it was a short time after Armagh GAA’s official Twitter account posted a photograph of the visiting changing room their team had just used.

The room was absolutely spotless. All the rubbish, discarded bandages and other medical supplies, tape and empty water bottles had been put in a waste bin.

Sheridan didn’t make a big deal of their post-match duties. A lot of teams do the same.

“There is nothing worse,” he said, “than going into a changing room and someone else having to clean up after you. We try to leave things as we got them. That’s a small thing.

“Everybody chips in. We have our own set of values and culture and we try to live by that…”

Being an Armagh senior footballer is a big deal. It comes with responsibilities. Civic responsibilities.

“There are kids, there are families; everybody is watching you,” Sheridan said.

“They see you on the field and they also see you off the field, so you try to conduct yourself in a good manner.

“You’re representing the jersey and you’re representing your team. When you’re away from it, you’re still doing that. You don’t want to let anybody down…”

While the incredible drama was unfolding at Anfield on Tuesday night between Liverpool and Barcelona, the Cliftonville and Coleraine fans at Solitude were engrossed in their own crazy narrative in a Europa League play-off semi-final.

In Irish League terms, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The eventual winners will pick up a cheque of £200,000 and the players will get to experience European football next season.

The Reds found themselves 2-0 down after 29 minutes and 3-1 down after 72 minutes.

Paddy McLaughlin’s men looked dead and buried.

Alex Ferguson once said that a person’s true character reveals itself on a football pitch. For the next 18 minutes, plus stoppage-time, the Cliftonville players never gave up.

Conor McMenamin, who never stopped running, made it 3-2 and with six minutes of stoppage-time played Ryan Curran forced the tie into extra-time with a nerveless penalty.

There was only going to be one winner after Curran’s spot-kick.

Further goals from Levi Ives and McMenamin ensured that Cliftonville advanced to tomorrow’s Europa League play-off showdown with Glentoran to determine who scoops the £200,000 and who gets their passports stamped.

You couldn’t help but admire the way in which the Cliftonville players applied themselves in the game, especially when they trailed 2-0 and 3-1.

The easy thing would have been to roll over and concede the game.

As the clock ticked past 10 o’clock, it felt like Cliftonville won more than a football match.

It felt like something had been restored to the club’s badge – a badge that had taken an absolute battering this season, climaxing in the sex offence case involving their player Jay Donnelly, who was convicted and is currently serving a three-month prison sentence.

In the maelstrom of public condemnation, some observers felt that club officialdom perhaps never quite grasped the gravity of the sin committed (the victim was a 16-year-old girl) and were criticised for failing to act decisively on the matter.

Prior to the Jay Donnelly controversy, former boss Gerard Lyttle had to deal with more than his fair share of disciplinary matters that resulted in several players being jettisoned from the club.

Bad behaviour, of course, is not a preserve of Cliftonville Football Club.

Other Irish League clubs have had their own disciplinary problems to sort out.

Cliftonville supporters, like other supporters, have a very intimate relationship with their club.

They feel everything that the club says and does represents them.

So, when opposition supporters goaded them over the Jay Donnelly affair, it hurt them.

It had a devastating impact on the relationship they had with their club.

Match attendances took a hit. Criticism rained down on the club.

In fairness, these issues that occupied the club’s supporters were acknowledged in one of the more contrite club statements released prior to Donnelly’s sentencing.

Just a few short seasons ago, the Cliftonville changing room was full of strong characters.

That’s why the fans loved players like George McMullan, Chris Scannell, Ronan Scannell, Liam Boyce, Barry Johnston and, of course, manager Tommy Breslin.

The fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who squeezed through the club’s turnstiles every Saturday afternoon felt proud to be represented by not only great footballers, but good people.

Good people, after all, make great teams.

The problem for the club, however, was the likes of McMullan, the Scannells and Boyce were once-in-a-lifetime footballers and they all exited the club over a short period of time.

Soon, the Cliftonville changing room was unrecognisable to the one that Breslin and Eddie Patterson had created.

As a consequence, standards slipped.

In an instructive interview with Ballinamallard United’s Irish Cup final manager Harry McConkey, he talked about the importance of having “cultural architects” in his changing room – men who set an example for the rest.

He cited veteran goalkeeper John Connolly, Richard Clarke and Jason McCartney as his “cultural architects”. Right now, Paddy McLaughlin is trying to establish his “cultural architects” going forward.

On Tuesday night, he had more candidates putting their hands up than he could have hoped for.

Performances like the one they delivered against Coleraine provides evidence of a renewal process taking place at Solitude; that everyone has learned from the mistakes of the recent past and that the reputation of the club is all that you have at the end of everything.

It goes without saying winning £200,000 prize money is so crucial to Cliftonville Football Club tomorrow afternoon. But some things are more important than money.

There are good people at Solitude. It’s about harnessing that and making the club great again.

Amid the mania of Tuesday night at Solitude, it felt like the first seeds had been sown.


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