Cliftonville can win Danske Bank Premiership... and Jay Donnelly will be the hero says ex-Red Barry Johnston
Former Cliftonville star Johnston says Donnelly can be new goal hero
Barry Johnston says his old club Cliftonville can win the Premiership this season and he's backing Jay Donnelly to become the latest Reds star to secure a glamour move to England or Scotland.
The popular 34-year-old midfielder left the Reds for Carrick Rangers this summer and tomorrow he will be reunited with his old comrades at Solitude when the sides meet for the first time this season.
'Janty' admits it will be an emotional afternoon for him. That statement won't surprise anyone who has watched him win two league titles, three League Cups and even wrestle twice with his boyhood team Celtic in the Champions League with Cliftonville.
He made over 300 appearances for the Reds but the dream was ended by a horrific knee injury in the north-Belfast derby last December.
An unused substitute against Glentoran last weekend, Johnston is raring to go again after eight long months away from the game he loves.
And even though Tommy Breslin's side are still coming to terms with life after Joe Gormley, the former Coleraine ace expects his old pals to hit the big time again - especially with young Donnelly in dazzling form.
"I want to see Cliftonville win the league again and they definitely have a chance," said Johnston. "I know they have lost Joe Gormley who is a phenomenal striker but they still have an unbelievable squad.
"Injuries cost us last season and we were left without the spine of the team. When we had strong teams out we did well and could have challenged but I could not believe the injury count.
"With a bit more luck on that front the Reds can challenge this season. They've made a great start and the fit-again boys like Stevie Garrett and Chris Curran are flying.
"Of course the team will miss Joe's goals but Davy (McDaid), Jay and Stevie Garrett could all pass the 20 mark.
"Jay is an absolutely unbelievable player and is a mirror image of Rory (Donnelly). He just reminds me of exactly what Rory was like as a kid, he's got the talent and determination.
"It would not surprise me if like Rory, Liam Boyce and Joe, he secures a move to England or Scotland this season.
"Anyone who knows Bressy (Tommy Breslin) and his coaching staff knows they care about young players and will help their game develop. They want to play football the right way, with a bit of style and players are encouraged to work on their technique and sharp passing."
Cliftonville fans will give Johnston the welcome a legend deserves when he returns to Solitude and memories of his horror injury are still raw.
"I had a fractured knee cap that needed wired and pinned," said Johnston. "It's been a long eight months out of the game but I'm feeling good now and waiting for my chance.
"It was a horrible way to end my career at Cliftonville but these things happen in football and when they happen to you, you have to deal with it as best you can.
"It will certainly be an emotional occasion for me as everyone knows my connection to Cliftonville but I'm a professional and I want to play as long as I can."
Johnston has swapped the relentless pursuit of the big prizes for the ambitious project at Carrick where Gary Haveron's men are anxious to remain at local football's top table.
There is no doubt that Carrick, who are back in the top flight after a three-year absence, have a better chance of extending their stay in the Premiership with seasoned performers like Johnston willing to pass on his knowledge.
"It's a different challenge for me but Manchester United legend Harry Gregg told me you are a long time retired and I really want to play on for as long as I can," he added.
"Before my injury I would have hoped to play until I was 40 but I understand that's probably not possible now. Carrick need to look at Ballinamallard and aspire to be a Premier League side feeling they belong here and prepared to keep improving.
"This season is all about consolidation and hopefully next season the club can build.
"I'm very interested in the coaching side of the game. Gary (Haveron) allows me to have an input and I'm always keen to listen and learn from other coaches like Gerard (Lyttle) at Cliftonville."
And the inevitable question is how will Janty react if he scrambles in a last-minute winner against his old club?
"I don't think that's worth worrying about," he laughed. "I only scored a few goals in about 300 games for the Reds so they won't see me as a threat! I don't know what I'd do but I'm sure it won't happen!"