Belfast Telegraph

Boyce is gone but Breslin says the Reds can rule again

By Graham Luney

Defending a league title? Sure that's easy.

You might be tempted to think that Cliftonville boss Tommy Breslin should cut a relaxed figure ahead of another Danske Bank Premiership campaign.

His players have won back-to-back titles – they are history boys and no-one can take that achievement away from them.

True, but in football you always have something to prove.

Could the Reds win the league? Check. Could the Reds retain the title? Check.

Now they must prove they can win silverware without the man who made them tick – Liam Boyce.

The questions are being asked again. A year ago it was 'are they simply one-season wonders?'

Now it's the departure of Boyce – that's Liam not Jim – from Solitude that has the fans talking.

Meanwhile, the teams that hope to wrestle the Gibson Cup off Cliftonville have strengthened their hand.

Linfield will be a revitalised force under new boss Warren Feeney while Crusaders have added depth and quality by signing Billy Joe Burns and Diarmuid O'Carroll. But it's the mid-Ulster sides that have hit the shops. Portadown have drafted in Michael Gault, Mark McAllister and Robbie Garrett from Linfield while Lurgan Blues boss Gary Hamilton has persuaded Kevin Braniff and Eoin Bradley to join his Mourneview revolution.

Cliftonville knew retaining the title would be tough. Now things could be even more uncomfortable. But Tommy, despite being hit with a frenzy of Liam Boyce questions, refuses to break sweat.

"I'm always relaxed," said Breslin. "That's because I have faith in the players. Nothing that I have seen in pre-season would suggest otherwise. They are a great bunch of lads.

"We have a great coaching staff too and we are all in this together. The highs aren't too high and the lows aren't too low for us.

"We just want to enjoy our football and if we are winning matches that will be the case.

"Last year we were caught up in the idea of playing like champions. This season we will need to think differently and try different formations and shapes.

"You need to do that with different personnel. But the message at this club is the same – enjoy your football. There will always be tricky games but we are aiming to entertain."

Northern Ireland international Boyce is continuing his career at Ross County and there's no doubt his departure has been warmly welcomed by the Reds' rivals.

"Any club would miss a player like Liam Boyce but the opportunity is there for other players to step up to the mark," added Breslin.

"Some of our players who didn't feature as much can now make a bigger contribution.

"We have Stephen Garrett who missed a lot of last season through injury, Martin Murray and a few young lads from the reserves. We are well covered.

"Young Jude (Winchester) is a tremendous talent and just needs to find his niche in the local game and get a few matches under his belt and then his confidence will go sky high.

"The new boys are the right age profiles and the type of players we want. They like to express themselves and that augers well for the future."

The 'C' word was on everyone's lips at the league launch at Stormont – 'competitive'.

"I believe, like many people, that it's going to be a very competitive league and we start, like everyone else, on zero points," said Tommy.

"All the teams have strengthened and as we saw last season all the teams can beat each other.

"Portadown, Glenavon and Crusaders have made impressive signings and I would fully expect that, despite the changes in personnel, Linfield will be very competitive.

"They will be looking to win the league and I still maintain the view that if we finish above them we will win it. The Crues and Linfield also showed well in Europe.

"We raised our game for years when we were chasing Linfield and other sides at the top and last season we got a taste of that as our rivals had a real go at us.

"But the consistency the boys showed from mid October to the end of the season was exceptional. The players are full of beans. They have prepared well for the season and we just want it to start."

There is one certainty this season – Breslin won't be hearing David Jeffrey agree to disagree with match officials from the sidelines.

"Yes, it's a new chapter in the local game in that sense," he added. "DJ was always very passionate and forthright but I am sure he'll not be lost to the game.

"He will do commentaries and feature in the press so we will still read and hear about his views until he returns to the game."

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