Current Cliftonville team is best ever: Boyce
Jim Boyce has been watching his beloved Cliftonville for over 60 years and believes that tonight at Solitude Celtic will be facing the GREATEST side in the north Belfast club's history.
That's some statement from the highly-respected Fifa vice-president, who has cheered on every Cliftonville team since his days as a seven-year-old ball-boy to becoming the chairman and now president of the north Belfast outfit.
Those teams included Cliftonville's famous 1979 Irish Cup winning squad and the 1998 heroes who won the Irish League under Marty Quinn, yet according to Boyce (69), Tommy Breslin's 2013 Irish League Champions are top of the pile.
"Being realistic it would take a minor miracle for Cliftonville to win this tie but having said that in my 62 years being associated with the club this is the best Cliftonville team that I have seen," he said.
"The team that won the league in 1998 when I was chairman was very much based on defence. I think the current team have quality players throughout the park. In defence and midfield there is real talent and up front Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley always look like scoring goals.
"Tommy has the team playing superbly and entertaining the public. The football the team played last season on the way to the title was fantastic. It will be difficult against Celtic who have outstanding players and an excellent manager but I do believe we can put up a good performance and who knows maybe going to Parkhead next week for the return leg with something to play for."
Boyce says tomorrow night is the biggest game Cliftonville have ever been involved in and sees it as reward for chairman Gerard Lawlor and the rest of the board.
"After all the hard work that Gerard and the board have put in in recent years with the new pitch and the new stand and building such a fine side on a very small budget, I think they deserved a bit of fortune in the draw and thankfully it happened. It really is a dream tie for the club," added Boyce, who recently returned to Belfast having represented Fifa at the under-20 World Cup finals in Turkey.
Unlike at virtually every other away ground he visits, Celtic boss Neil Lennon will receive a warm reception from the Cliftonville fans, the vast majority also being Hoops supporters.
Boyce, of course, was Irish FA President when Lennon, having signed for Celtic, was booed by some home fans at Windsor Park during a game with Norway and then received a death threat before a friendly in Belfast with Cyprus in 2002, forcing him to retire from international football.
While it was a desperate period at the time, Boyce believes some good came out of it.
He says: "I have always condemned any bigotry or sectarianism in football and no one was more disgusted than me with what happened to Neil but maybe it was the catalyst needed to wake up some Northern Ireland fans because since then things have turned around at Windsor Park and people are now getting respect regardless of religion.
"Lately, look at Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn, who, when as Celtic players, have been cheered by the Northern Ireland support when they've been playing at Windsor.
"I consider Neil a friend and believe he has done a brilliant job at Celtic. For his team to beat Barcelona, considered by many as the best side of all time, and to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League last season was a tremendous achievement. I like to see him do well but on Wednesday night I really hope Cliftonville test his team."