Football/Soccer

Wedding bells could delay Brian 'Bam' Neeson's Cliftonville debut

At Carrick Rangers, Brian Neeson emerged as one of the best goalkeepers in the league

Danske Bank Irish Premiership: Cliftonville v Ards (today, Solitude, 3pm)

BRIAN ‘Bam’ Neeson’s Cliftonville career is likely to suffer a false start as he’s getting married later this month.

One of many high-profile signings in the summer, the former Carrick Rangers netminder mightn’t get a proper run at being Solitude’s number one until after his honeymoon.

The west Belfast man could make way for Brett Long, on-loan from Dundee United, for tomorrow’s Premier League opener at home to Colin Nixon’s Ards.

Antrim’s former GAA star is due to get married on August 25 – the day before the Reds take on north Belfast rivals Crusaders, also at Solitude.

When the north Belfast club expressed an interest in signing Neeson he told them that he wouldn’t be available at the end of August and early September.

“It’s not as if I booked it a few weeks ago,” said Neeson.

“It’s been planned for about two years. I’m ready to play on Saturday but I have to wait and see.”

A long-term target of Cliftonville, Neeson was delighted to sign for the Reds and has been hugely impressed with the “very professional” set-up at Solitude under new boss Barry Gray who replaced Gerard Lyttle.

“I wanted to join Cliftonville and I was hearing rumours but hearing from everybody but the board and manager,” Neeson said. “I was speaking to Ricky McCann [team trainer] and he said the Reds would be interested but at that stage they didn’t have a manager…

“Then Gerard [Lawlor, chairman] rang me and he told me he was talking to the new manager [Barry Gray] and that he wanted to sign me. I was delighted, I spoke to Gerard, he put the paper down and I signed it.”

For several seasons Neeson was torn between pursuing his inter-county career with Antrim and trying to make his way in the Irish League.

A precocious forward in Gaelic football, he tried to juggle both codes two seasons ago but ended up sticking with soccer.

He signed for Linfield at underage level and spent a couple of seasons at Larne.

After a period away from the game, he returned to play for Championship club Knockbreda before being picked up by Carrick Rangers.

He performed heroics for the Taylor’s Avenue club over the last two seasons before getting his dream move to Cliftonville.

Standing 5ft 10in tall, small in stature for a goalkeeper, Neeson never lost faith in his ability to cut it at Premier League level.

“I always thought I had the ability but it was just a case of getting my chance at a club and work my way into it.

“Just because I’m a bit smaller than your average goalkeeper, you tend not to get as many chances as quickly. I got back in the game [with Knockbreda] and started playing again.

“I went to Carrick and I had a brilliant first year. The second year we managed to stay up on the last day of the season. So I’d plenty to do down in Carrick and proved to myself that I was good enough.”

Although he doesn’t boast the height that most keepers require Neeson’s agility and spring more than compensate for his lack of inches.

“Everyone thinks you have to be tall, lanky and rangy, whereas I would say because I’m small and explosive I probably make saves that other ‘keepers won’t make.

“It’s getting people to trust you and giving you a chance and not caring that I’m 5ft 10in.”

Neeson is just one of a number of new faces at the Reds for the new season.

Liam Bagnall, Gary Breen and returning duo Ciaran Caldwell and Joe Gormley boost Gray’s options as they open their account against Ards today.

Ruairi Harkin and Ryan Catney are also on their way back to full fitness after serious injuries sustained last season.

“Carrick was brilliant and I loved my time there but no disrespect to them, when you come to a big club like Cliftonville you notice every wee detail is looked after.

“It’s more professional. You get your protein shakes after training, on match-days your kit is laid out perfectly, and anything you need you’re well looked after. It’s all the small things that add up to the whole picture.

“And the standard of play has been brilliant in pre-season. The speed of some of the passing is incredible. You think: ‘I knew he was good but I didn’t know he was that good,’ because you’re only seeing them three or four times a year when playing against them.

“The first thing you think is: ‘How are Cliftonville not doing better?’

“Obviously with a new manager in, everybody has upped their game, everyone wants to impress and I think the new manager knows what he wants and he makes it clear what he wants.”

Neeson hopes that the new-look Reds will be in the shake-up for silverware this year.

“The potential is there, the squad is there, the players enjoy the way we’re set up this year. I think people will see an improved Cliftonville team this year because of the players the manager has brought in.

“He’s strengthened in places he’s needed to. And there will be a lot more tempo to our play and hopefully people will say: Cliftonville are back.”

FRIDAY NIGHT

Ballymena United 1 Crusaders 4

Crusaders had to come from behind to make a winning start to their Danske Bank Premiership campaign.

After a goalless first half, the hosts took the lead in the 55th minute when Matthew Shevlin struck, but Crusaders struck back through Paul Heatley six minutes later, while the same man was heavily involved two minutes later as Kyle Owens was sent off for a last-man tackle on Heatley.

The Crues were able to make their numerical advantage count as Heatley, Colin Coates and Jordan Forsythe all netted in the final 15 minutes 

SATURDAY (3pm)

Ballinamallard United v Glentoran

RICHARD Clarke was a fine bit of business for the ‘Mallards this summer. The Glens have a lot to prove given the summer exits

H:13/8 D:12/5 A:11/8

Prediction: Draw

Cliftonville v Ards

THE Reds have been flying in pre-season, as has returning striker Joe Gormley. Ards will be looking for a performance – a result would be a bonus.

H:4/9 D:10/3 A:5/1

Prediction: Cliftonville

Dungannon Swifts v Coleraine

THE loss of Andy Mitchell will undoubtedly hurt the Swifts but they’re a resourceful club and will be good enough to take a point against last year’s beaten Irish Cup finalists Coleraine.

H:2/1 D:12/5 A:11/10

Prediction: Draw

Linfield v Carrick Rangers

DAVY McAlinden couldn’t have had a tougher start to his Carrick Rangers reign. The Blues have strengthened in the right places. Hard to see Carrick getting anything here.

H:1/7 D:11/2 A:14/1

Prediction: Linfield

Warrenpoint v Glenavon

DARREN Murray and Neil McCafferty are just two bits of business that ‘Point boss Matthew Tipton will be happy with, but Glenavon is a tough opener.

H:13/5 D:13/5 A:5/6

Prediction: Glenavon

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