Cliftonville laughing off the pressure
Published 30/03/2013 | 08:00
Barry Johnston has lifted the lid on the secret behind Cliftonville's pressure-free run that has taken them to the brink of being crowned Danske Bank Premiership champions.
And it's not just a group of talented players playing probably the best football of their careers that has the Reds riding high.
The title race could be decided on Easter Tuesday, yet as the finishing line approaches Tommy Breslin's squad remain the coolest customers around.
Usually it's the older players in a squad who have to keep the younger member's feet on the ground at a time like this, but the Cliftonville kids aren't getting carried away by any stretch of the imagination.
Johnston has revealed that instead of those around him having their heads filled with thoughts of what it will be like to be champions, a group of young players without a care in the world are keeping everyone laughing so much that there isn't' time for title talk.
"It's easy to enjoy your football when you're winning and lads like Conor Devlin, Martin Donnelly, Ciaran Caldwell and Liam Boyce make training fun with the way they carry on," said Johnston.
"Yes, there is pressure when you're at the top of the table, but you wouldn't think it when those guys are around.
"They are absolutely mad.
"Myself, George McMullan and Ronan Scannell know that we don't have many years left and that this might be the best chance we'll ever have to win the league.
"The younger boys don't seem to feel the pressure. Joe Gormley just seems daft to me. The pressure doesn't affect him.
"It's not that it's weighing down on me, but I would be a worrier, those lads just enjoy playing football and they are loving what they are doing."
And who could blame them. Breslin's boys are 11 points clear at the top of the table and if they beat Ballymena United today and Crusaders fail to beat Glentoran at the Oval, then the champagne will be on ice ahead of Tuesday's north-Belfast derby at Solitude.
You get the feeling that even then Cliftonville's nerveless youngsters would still be cooler than the bottles of bubbly.
"George McMullan would give out a few reminders now and again about what we need to do," said Johnston.
"Conor Devlin is the most professional player at the club, when it comes to Saturday afternoon he does everything right, but in training he's crazy.
"Liam Boyce has brought a professionalism after being in Germany playing full-time football, but he's a messer as well."
While those young players just get on with things, their more experienced team-mates, who have suffered title heartbreak in the past, have changed their approach in order to ensure that there is no painful end to the season this time around.
"Us older boys know that this might be our last chance and we're taking it a lot more seriously," said Johnston.
"The nights out have been cut down, we're eating right, we're training extra nights and the club has got us gym membership this season too, so we've taken the right approach and it's paying off for us."
Last week's unseasonal cold snap put the brakes on the Reds charge towards the title. While the young players probably just got on with things, Johnston is like a cat on a hot tin roof.
The 33-year-old, whose association with Cliftonville stretches back to just after their last league title success 15 years ago, won't rest easily until he gets his hands on the Gibson Cup and that precious medal that he has been waiting for all his career – and another two weeks would be unbearable.
"We are in a very good position and although nobody is saying too much about winning the league I want to get it over with," said Johnston.
"Cup matches and the postponement last week have got in the way and they really are unwanted distractions. I'd rather be playing league matches so that we can get the job done.
"The delay is killing me. I am so close to winning a league medal that I never thought I would win as a Cliftonville player and I want it now."