Belfast Telegraph

Tommy Breslin's Cliftonville are feeling the pain

By Graham Luney

Maybe, just maybe, we can get back to talking about the football. Don't let the administrators drag you down, let the players provide the entertainment.

As events panned out, Darren Forsyth was eligible to play against Warrenpoint Town all along. Much ado about nothing then.

A little known fact is that after Town's pre-season tour of Russia, Vladimir Putin agreed to dig them out of a hole!

Well, the Russian president is no stranger to tense negotiations.

I was talking to Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin last week about this and he ended the conversation by expressing the hope that there would be no further eligibility sagas.

Tommy hasn't lost his sense of humour and after we both picked ourselves up off the floor and stopped laughing, it was time to embrace the future with hope rather than expectation.

Matters on the pitch are a greater concern to Tommy and Cliftonville's season has been a strange one. You would think that a club that has just won the Charity Shield, County Antrim Shield and Wasp Solutions League Cup would be cracking open the champers but the atmosphere has turned a little flat around Solitude.

The Reds' Irish Cup curse goes on while their attempts to win three league titles in a row are floundering.

Ahead of tonight's trip to Windsor Park to face Linfield, Breslin's side are 12 points behind leaders Crusaders and this is their game in hand.

Their championship hopes are dangling by a thread and they are not playing like champions either.

How has it come to this? I've been thinking about Cliftonville's league campaign and I've identified three reasons why they have struggled.

Firstly, they have missed Liam Boyce. Secondly, they haven't had a settled side which has restricted their momentum and thirdly, the players' hunger and desire has dipped. I'll come to that one later.

Let's start with Boyce. While Joe Gormley is the best natural goalscorer in the Premiership, Boyce was the conductor of the orchestra. In short, he was the best player in the league and if he was playing for Cliftonville tonight, can anyone honestly argue with me that they would still be so far behind in the title race?

My second point is how the squad has been badly disrupted by injuries, taking out key experienced players and when that happens their game management suffers.

David McDaid's six-game suspension for a headbutt compounded their woes but their casualty list has included Stephen Garrett, Chris Curran, Marc Smyth, Conor Devlin, Johnny Flynn and Barry Johnston.

These aren't youngsters learning the game. They are leaders who know how to see games out.

Thirdly, and this isn't meant as a criticism, I feel perhaps a few of their players have lost some of the hunger and desire that has rewarded them handsomely.

Teams have worked harder than Cliftonville. It's natural that the players have lifted their foot from the accelerator. When they won the title in 2013 it was driven by a desire to lift the Gibson Cup for the first time in 15 years.

The 2014 victory was driven by a desire to make history by becoming the first Cliftonville side to retain the title. Once again, the doubters fuelled their desire.

But that desire has not always been evident this season and that's not surprising. It's difficult for players to maintain that mental strength and inner resolve, especially when you are champions and there to be shot at.

For the same reason, Glenavon lost to H&W Welders in the Irish Cup on Saturday. The side that won the Irish Cup last May didn't want it as much this time.

In a similar way, Crusaders players' desire to have that champion feeling this season has driven them to the top.

Football is about two things; Attitude and ability, and one without the other is worthless.

Cliftonville may yet reignite their title challenge but their last league victory was on December 13. They will fight on as proud champions but the fire within them isn't raging like it once was.

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