Celtic's Barry Coffey prepared for the rigours of Irish League with Cliftonville
Danske Bank Irish Premiership
IF it wasn't for the global pandemic, Barry Coffey probably would never have worn the Cliftonville jersey.
But due to a weird twist of fate the Celtic and Republic of Ireland U21 international is gracing Solitude and hoping to return to Parkhead in the summer a “better player” than the one that left on loan last month.
The Tipperary native was one of the lucky ones. Instead of being parked on the hard shoulder like so many other underage footballers, Coffey was drafted into Celtic's first team bubble.
Approaching his fourth season with the Scottish Premier League giants, Coffey said: “I was very fortunate as Celtic kept a few of the younger reserve players on in the first team bubble. If we were needed we'd be able to play.”
But when the option of a loan move came about and Cliftonville expressed an interest, Coffey didn't have to be asked twice.
“I just wanted to experience first team football, learn and play in the men's game. Going from Academy football to men's football is a big jump. Of course, Academy football is about winning but it's also about developing. When you come to men's football it's all about winning. That's what I love and what I want to experience.”
After starring in the Kennedy Cup – the prestigious nationwide Schoolboys competition in the south which has spawned the careers of so many Republic of Ireland internationals – Coffey emerged on Celtic's radar and has been learning his trade under some of the best coaches on these islands - Shaun Maloney, Damien Duff, Tommy McIntyre and Stephen McManus among them.
When Brendan Rodgers quit Celtic and Neil Lennon took over, Duff's ascension to first team coaching duties also coincided with the young central midfielder moving up the ladder.
“Damien Duff was an idol of mine growing up but as a coach he is one of the best I've worked under so far in my career,” said the Nenagh youngster, who turns 20 next month.
“He's just world class, he has standards and stardust. There is just untold learning from someone like him. He's done it all in the game. He's been a massive influence on my career.”
Having starred in most underage teams on the international stage, particularly in the U19s' run to the semi-finals of the 2019 European Championships.
A keen hurler up until 11, his brother Andrew was part of the Tipperary senior hurlers in recent seasons, while his sister Maeve has also played at inter-county level in camogie.
As he sits on the cusp of the Celtic first team, Coffey has been inspired by the speedy graduation of former Republic underage team-mates Adam Idah and Jayson Molumby to Stephen Kenny's senior international team.
“We've had some really good runs in tournaments and some really good teams and hopefully more of us can push on for the seniors now and show what we can do,” said Coffey who made his Cliftonville debut in the 1-1 draw with Coleraine earlier this month.
“It's great to see those boys doing really well but it's also motivation for myself. Every time I go out and play I want to improve and hopefully one day I can get on to one if not both of those [Celtic and Republic of Ireland] squads in the future.”
As Paddy McLaughlin's men prepare to host high-flying Larne this afternoon, Coffey has enjoyed the physical nature of the Irish Premier League since arriving at the north Belfast club.
“Obviously there's a strong link between the Reds and Celtic,” the teenager said.
“I had a chat with my manager and I'm at the age where I want to play first team football.
“You never know what's going to happen in football. There are no guarantees if I'd stayed at Celtic for the rest of the season, whereas I've probably more chance of playing [at Cliftonville]. I just felt it was a good fit.
“I think I can hold my own fairly well in the Irish League. We've performed reasonably well over the last few weeks but we've conceded a couple of late goals which is killing us.
“For me, it's about showing my ability and adapting to the physical side of it and seeing how the league works and go back to Celtic not as a new player but a better player. Hopefully I can get closer to the Celtic first team and give the manager a headache as I suppose that's all you can do. But I want to try and bring success to Cliftonville while I am here.”
Celtic are enduring one of their worst campaigns in recent years and trail Rangers at the top by 15 points.
Despite their desperate position, it's unlikely Hoops boss Neil Lennon will start flooding his side with rookies as they try and claw some ground back on their Old Firm rivals.
“The likes of Ewan Henderson, Mikey Johnston and Stephen Welsh, guys I've played alongside at reserve level are in the first team squad.
“Some days you might think you're close and other days you think you're a million miles away [from starting for the Celtic first team]. The next day you could be starting. You just don't know.
“There is some serious talent in front of me and I'm learning off them. Because of their quality it's only going to make me better. You just want to be ready if the Gaffer says to you: ‘You're playing at the weekend.'
“All the players have made me feel welcome: from ‘Broonie' [Scott Brown] to Callum McGregor, they are all top pros, they all help you. But you have to believe in your own ability, not be shy around them and impose your own personality.”
Carrick Rangers v Glenavon
Odds: H:9/4 D:5/2 A:19/20
Cliftonville v Larne
Odds: H:21/10 D:12/5 A: 1/1
Portadown v Dungannon
Odds: H:8/5 D:13/5 A:13/10
Warrenpoint Town v Glentoran
Odds: H:15/4 D:3/1 A:8/15
Linfield v Coleraine
Odds: H:4/6 D:11/4 A:16/5