Cliftonville's Barry Johnston to put lifelong support of Celtic on hold for fortnight
Dedicated Celtic fan Barry Johnston says his beloved Hoops will mean nothing to him for the next two weeks.
After roaring with delight when Tony Watt stroked home that iconic winning goal against Barcelona last season and bemoaning their Champions League exit to Juventus a few months later, Johnston never thought he'd see the day when he would actively welcome Celtic's exit in the competition's qualifying rounds.
And yet, 133 days on from the Scottish kingpins suffering a 5-0 aggregate defeat in Turin, the Cliftonville midfielder -- who has backed the Bhoys from the Paradise of Parkhead to the Broomloan Stand at Ibrox -- will go toe-to-toe with the very players he will proudly get behind for the rest of the season.
"I absolutely love Celtic and my whole family are the same, but there are no split loyalties here -- I'm a Cliftonville player and will be going out to win," he insists.
"I know a lot of our fans would support both clubs but I don't think any of them see this as a win-win situation either. Cliftonville comes first and, even though I would still support Celtic in the next round or in the group stages, I don't want them to get there because that would mean they'll have beaten us. Celtic mean absolutely nothing to me for these 180 minutes and that's the truth."
Despite not being quite as prolific a tweeter as some of his team mates, one need only cast a cursory glance over the 33-year-old's image gallery on the social networking site to obtain a firm understanding of his fervent support for the Glasgow giants.
Three of his six most recent uploads are none other than an homage to Henrik Larsson, a treasured handshake from Danny McGrain and a candid snap of the visitors' dressing room when Celtic's development squad visited Solitude last summer.
This week, however, it's the real thing and Johnston, no stranger to donning a hooped shirt of his own, is counting down the minutes until the action gets underway -- but not just because he'll be up against his boyhood favourites.
"This is all about representing Cliftonville in the Champions League," he explains.
"It's been too long a wait since the club were last involved in the competition and, no matter who we played this week, it was always going to be a big occasion for us.
"Obviously drawing Celtic has made it even more special, what with the extra seats going in and the massive crowd plus the fact it's live on TV, but we aren't just planning on making up the numbers -- we want to show what we can do.
"People maybe have a perception about Irish League football and, as champions, it's down to us to prove them wrong and there's no better match to do it in."
The Parkhead side have endured a frustrating pre-season programme so far, with defeats to Sevastopol and Cluj followed up by a six-goal hammering at the hands of Greuther Furth before Friday's 3-0 reverse against Union Berlin.
Johnston, however, is paying no heed.
"Friendly matches don't prove anything," he adds.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see them losing because it means they're not building up any momentum but, at the same time, it just means they'll be itching to really give someone a good going over.
"Pre-season's all about fitness and you often have trialists and young kids playing in the games, so you can't read anything into it. I mean, we drew 1-1 with Knockbreda but I doubt Neil Lennon will care too much about that.
"We know we're capable of playing good football and that's what we're going to try and do. Obviously it'll be very tough because Celtic reached the last 16 of the Champions League last year but we can't be defeatist about our chances -- shocks happen in football and we have to believe there's one waiting to happen for us.
"The odds on Celtic beating Barcelona were huge and nobody gave them a chance. We face the same sort of challenge, but they proved it can be done and we have to follow their lead."
Belfast Telegraph Digital