Football/Soccer

Tommy Breslin: Forever the smiling soul of Cliftonville

The inimitable Tommy Breslin who passed away while on holiday earlier this week

DATE: Tuesday April 22 2014, approximately an hour before kick-off

EVENT: Irish Premiership title decider: Portadown versus Cliftonville

VENUE: Shamrock Park

 

GERARD Lawlor is pacing up and down the changing room floor. The Cliftonville chairman is a ball of stress. A couple of hours from now the Reds will know if they’ve retained their league crown or spurned the opportunity. Tommy Breslin is sitting in the changing room with his arms folded. A picture of serenity.

Tommy: “Gerard, what’s wrong?”

Gerard: “What’s wrong? Are you serious, Tommy? We’re about to play a league decider and my nerves are f***ing shattered. That’s what’s wrong!”

Gerard’s mind is racing and he quickens his stride.

Tommy: “Tell me Gerard, did you come down the motorway?”

Gerard: “Aye, what’s that got to do with trying to win this match?”

Tommy: “Did you see the overturned car on the motorway on your way here?”

Gerard: “I did, yeah…”

Tommy: “That’s stress, Gerard. That’s stress. We’re going out to play a game of football. That’s all it is – a game of football…”

****

TOMMY Breslin always danced with the football. So nimble. So light on his feet.

Unhurried.

Graceful.

Beautiful to watch.

He was the purest kind of footballer.

If he was a boxer, they would have called him ‘Sugar Ray’.

‘Sugar Ray’ Breslin. King of the welterweights.

Nobody interpreted the game quite like the dancing Cliftonville midfielder of the 1980s and early 90s.

Affectionately known as ‘Bressy’, he could do anything with the ball. He was so well balanced that he could beat you by going left or right, or dinking the ball through your legs.

He could pass just as well with his left as he did with his right. Nowadays they call it spatial awareness.

Tommy played in the future.

He was always two or three moves ahead of everyone else on the pitch.

And he didn’t learn his trade in any soccer school either. Craftsmen like Tommy Breslin were self-taught.

Like all the kids of his generation, the street was his canvas.

His was a wonderfully inarticulate art and was better left uncoached.

Back in the dark eighties and early 90s, Cliftonville lost more games than they ever won.

And when they journeyed to a floodlit Windsor Park to play Linfield, the aristocracy of local football, victories were rare things.

A few moments of genius in the game from Breslin, however, was usually enough to sustain the travelling Reds fans before departing the concrete steps of the old Spion Kop.

There was a desperate romance about following Cliftonville in those years - and players like Breslin, Jim McFadden, John ‘Spot’ Muldoon and Peter ‘Minto’ Murray never left the comforting bosom of the fiercely loyal Red Army…

****

IN the late 1980s, Donegal Celtic Football Club had laid a new pitch that was as good as Wembley. The club ran a summer football competition that attracted the best players in senior and intermediate football. My father and I attended matches on an almost nightly basis there.

My father was Cromac Albion manager at the time and was always on the look-out for new players. I remember standing at the side of the pitch in the lashing rain under an umbrella with my father and Tommy Breslin and my father trying to persuade him about the merits of playing for Cromac.

After moving from Crewe United, where he was the club’s star player, Tommy had become one of the leading players in Irish League football with Cliftonville.

Even as a kid I was struck by Tommy’s shyness and his polite decline to sign for Cromac.

Years later, a few friends had established a bit of a tradition of going to the local bar for a Christmas Eve drink.

While we supped beer Tommy, a tee-totaller back then, happily sipped on his orange juice – but he was always the life and soul of those nights.

He was quick-witted, king of the one-liners who loved nothing better than telling funny stories that were gloriously embellished for comic effect.

In the mind’s eye he’s always laughing…

****

MY first impressions of Tommy was that he would never cut it as a manager. He was too nice of a man to be a success on the sidelines.

After his playing days at Cliftonville, Carrick Rangers, Larne and a memorable encore at Chimney Corner, Tommy was persuaded to take the managerial reins at former club Crewe United.

I played under Tommy for the guts of a season at the Glenavy club. One Saturday afternoon stands out above all others.

Tommy Breslin led Cliftonville to eight trophies during his time in charge. He will go down as the club's most successful manager.

I was named among the subs and wasn’t best pleased with Tommy’s selection. With around 20 minutes remaining and trailing by a couple of goals, he put me on.

His instructions were fairly straightforward.

“Stay on the right wing, Brendy. Don’t drift inside. Keep the pitch wide.”

I’d no intentions of following Tommy’s instructions.

For starters, I didn’t fancy hanging about on the wing waiting on the ball to come to me.

I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do.

I popped up on the left wing, the right wing, played centrally. I basically just followed the ball because I wanted to make an impression during the short time I was on the field.

I’d humbly add that I played quite well in the game.

The following week I was dropped from the squad.

Tommy never once raised his voice in his team-talks. He didn’t need to. But when you didn’t follow his instructions, you found yourself out of the team.

The ill-fated Crewe revolution lasted around a year.

As a team, we weren’t very good. In all honesty, Tommy’s knowledge and man-management skills were wasted on us.

It was roughly a decade later when he returned to Cliftonville and began working with a better calibre of player that he flourished.

That said, Crewe was one of the funniest, most entertaining seasons I ever had in football.

****

I ALWAYS wanted Eddie Patterson and Tommy Breslin to succeed at Cliftonville. They were both former Cliftonville players and Solitude was their spiritual home.

But after a poor run of results, Patterson was let go by the Cliftonville board in 2011.

Tommy was persuaded to stay on in a temporary capacity, which later became permanent, but he was always a reluctant manager.

Of course, Patterson went on to prove himself as a top coach, guiding crisis club Glentoran to the 2013 Irish Cup, beating Breslin’s Cliftonville in the final and denying them an historic treble.

But, between taking over in 2011 to his shock resignation in September 2015, Cliftonville Football Club never had it so good.

Under Breslin’s reign, the Reds claimed eight trophies including back-to-back league championships in 2013 and 2014.

If Tommy had an ego he kept it well hidden. He never professed to be a tactical genius or the modern-day Plato of his time.

And yet, every time we spoke about football, I’d come away better informed about the game.

Asked why he invariably played 4-4-2, Breslin replied: “There are three things: First of all you devise a system in relation to the players that you have. The second thing is, in the Irish League the ball transfers quite a lot so it moves quite quickly.

A laugh and a joke was never far away with the late Tommy Breslin. Pictured here with Chris Curran

So the 4-4-2 gives you a certain solidity. And thirdly, we are part-time so we don't have a lot of time to work on new systems. The weather isn't good either and you could have 20 guys out on a pitch in the lashing rain and me focusing on the two or three centre-backs. In saying that we do change our system from time to time and we have changed it for European games in the past.”

When you had Georgie McMullan, Barry Johnston, Chris and Ronan Scannell, Marc Smyth, Jaimie McGovern, Ryan Catney, Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce in the same changing room they didn’t need to be overloaded with information, they didn’t need a manager running about with an ipad frying their heads with formations. It’s the old saying ‘Players don’t care what you know – they only want to know that you care’ – and Breslin cared deeply about his players and the club.

It was never the Tommy Breslin show, as he often told his players: ‘Go out and express yourselves and entertain me.’

And for those few seasons Cliftonville played dream football.

Stephen Kenny often spoke about how a successful football team had the capacity to raise the esteem of an entire community.

That’s exactly what Breslin’s team did in those years.

North Belfast had a spring in its step as soon as Georgie McMullan scored that unforgettable penalty kick against Linfield at Solitude on April 12 2013 to clinch the league title.

As footballers, the huge majority of that Cliftonville squad fulfilled their potential or got damn close to it – all made possible by Breslin’s benevolent leadership.

****

THERE are times when an event demands you to remember the small details that are normally swallowed up in the mania of everyday life.

On Wednesday at tea-time, I picked up my six-year-old daughter Rosa from summer scheme where she told me all about her trip to the local Fire Station.

Shea, my three-year-old, ran towards the front door of our house tripped and thumped his head on the step. He cried sore.

A few minutes later, the stiletto footsteps of my wife came tripping through the porch door with the rustle of heavy shopping.

Soon afterwards, my brother rang.

I’m standing in our dining room looking out onto our back garden, strangely admiring just how green our grass is.

“Did you hear about Tommy Breslin?”

“No.”

Your world morphs into slow motion, with one inescapable thought in your head.

“He’s dead. He was on holiday in Spain.”

My brother’s phone connection is terrible and it cuts out. I’m screaming at the phone, screaming at his poxy phone signal.

Seconds later, my other brother rings and tells me the same terrible news.

You lose the next 20 minutes.

You find yourself sitting in the living room staring at the TV. They’re all smiling and laughing on The One Show.

****

BEYOND the one-liners and dry wit, Tommy was a deeply shy man who enjoyed his own company. When he was Cliftonville manager we’d speak on the phone at least once a week. Tommy was a high-ranking civil servant and worked out of Dundonald House.

Every time I’d ring he’d joke that the only reason the faltering Stormont Executive was still intact was down to his peerless diplomatic skills before bursting into spontaneous laughter.

Some days he’d be on a roll with one joke rolling into another and you’d forget the reason for phoning him.

Tommy made you laugh out loud.

I knew him well enough to know he wasn’t going to be managing Cliftonville for a long time.

Once he stopped enjoying it, he duly resigned.

I met him a few weeks later out in Hazelbank Park where he and his long-time partner Valerie were out for a Saturday afternoon stroll in the sun, a million miles away from the cauldron of the Cliftonville changing room.

Enjoying life on his terms.

I valued Tommy’s friendship, especially during his managerial days with Cliftonville when we were in regular contact, but it wasn’t just the friendship; it was the fact that he was a good person. A sincere, humble, generous person.

When someone is taken before their time, people tend to eliminate the bad in them and only remember the good.

But there was no bad to eliminate in Tommy Breslin.

He was a wonderful footballer and a supremely gifted manager of people.

Between 2011 and 2015, he gave the Red Army and his players some of the best days of their lives.

He was a good man and will be forever the smiling soul of Solitude…

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

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