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A gentleman of the game... thanks for memories Tommy, it was magic

After shock death of ex-Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin, Reds fan Henry McDonald recalls man who represented 'all that was down-to-earth and honest' about local football

Tommy Breslin passed away this week at the age of 58
Tommy Breslin passed away this week at the age of 58
Tommy Breslin getting the BT Sport Manager of the Year in 2014 from Michael O’Neill
Tommy Breslin celebrating the title in 2014

By Henry McDonald

Among the many achievements Tommy Breslin can claim is that he has left me with fond memories of Shamrock Park.

With massive respect to the good folk of Portadown FC, and in particular my good friend, the Ports fan 'Shep', until Easter Tuesday 2014 I had always found their mid-Ulster redoubt to be a foreboding place.

On a visit there in 1979 I stood out a bit, with my fluffy leopard-skin trousers, torn, pin-studded blazer and messed up spiky hair and inevitably attracted attention going in to the stadium from a knot of angry, older loyalist men spitting venom in my direction.

One of them ran his finger across his throat to signify what might happen to me when I came out; another threw a half-brick which whizzed over my head just as I reached the turnstiles.

A year later my younger, festive-drunk self was briefly arrested there on Boxing Day and bundled into a police Land Rover, where some local officers helpfully offered to drop me off near the Portadown end of the ground amid their support.

It was a nasty deterrent, but it worked and I soon sobered up.

Fast-forward into the 1990s and I found myself sitting in the living room of a semi-detached house at the back of the stadium interviewing a very nervous, haunted Billy Wright who, while polite and unthreatening himself, was surrounded by a group of extremely menacing, suspicious bodyguards.

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Yet my overriding memory of Shamrock Park these days is dominated by the sound of 1975 ringing out on Easter Tuesday 2014.

To the tune of Pilot's 1970s hit It's Magic, I can still hear the Cliftonville faithful, occupying not one but two of the three seated stands at Shamrock Park, and singing: "Oh, Oh, Oh it's magic, ya' know we're gonna do two-in-a-row."

Because we were there that day to witness history being made by Breslin and his team. By the time the final whistle blew we had easily beaten Portadown, Linfield had lost 2-0 to the Glens at Windsor and Cliftonville, for the first time, had won back-to-back league titles.

Paradoxically, Breslin never won a major trophy as a player, even though he was regarded as a talented and tenacious midfielder for the Reds. Now, on that pitch far away from our Solitude home, he had written himself into the Irish football history canon with his magnificent two-in-a-row.

Following the second league win I was fortunate to travel up to Stormont, where politicians hosted a reception for Breslin and the boys. I still cherish the picture that fellow Red Arthur Magee snapped of me holding the Gibson Cup, as well as a programme I asked Tommy Breslin to sign.

Amid all the politicos, his fellow civil servants (where he worked) and the excited cohort of fans lucky to be guests at the gig, Breslin came across as modest, polite and patient with everyone who approached him.

He had time that day for each person that stopped to buttonhole him about the glorious season just past and his plans for the future.

On hearing the terrible news about his death, while I was travelling back to Brighton from London on Wednesday evening, I started to scan Twitter for reaction.

As well as shock and sadness, another word kept recurring and continues to do so - "gentleman".

The respect he commanded everywhere in football, in the Irish League, across the border and beyond, was universal and genuine; the sense of loss collectively was, is, deep and wide.

Cliftonville stalwart and an old school friend Liam Murray described Tommy B as part of a "holy trinity" of skilful midfielders alongside Pete Murray and Jim McFadden. He later left to play for Larne after being on the losing Cliftonville side in two Gold Cup finals.

Breslin also played for Carrick Rangers, who on hearing of his death posted a grainy picture of Tommy in Carrick's orange and black colours on Twitter, accompanied by some warm words of remembrance.

Since the tragic news broke, like so many other Cliftonville supporters, I have been contacted by fans of rival clubs expressing their sorrow about Tommy Breslin.

As a player, manager and commentator on the local game, he obviously touched so many people with his down-to-earth decency and common-sense approach to both football and life in general.

Witness the voluminous tweets and Facebook posts containing the word "gent" and "gentleman" in their tributes.

I happened to get lucky as I reached the edge of my 50s.

In response to various personal crises and major re-appraisal of my own life, I decided to go back to Solitude just as the Breslin reign was reaching its zenith.

I remember in our first league winning season the aforesaid Arthur Magee pointed to the clothes and shoes and haircut I was sporting one freezing day at Solitude.

"Rich men's mid-life crisis involves a younger blonde and a Ferrari - yours, Henry, involves a crewcut, red Doc Marten shoes and a Harrington." To which I replied: "Yeah, that's a poor man's one, along with a seat at Solitude and falling in love again with the oul place."

And what a time to fall in love again! Winning the first title since 1998 by beating Linfield, with George McMullan scoring a penalty at Solitude.

The visit of Celtic in the Champions League, wearing the red and white scarf proudly amid mini-seas of green and white hoops.

Marvelling at a seven-goal hammering of Ballymena United at The Showgrounds and then being touched by the generosity of some of the home fans on the way out, congratulating us for having such a great manager and a top squad.

Then there was that seminal Easter holiday afternoon at Portadown - a great tradition club that I sincerely hope sees better days again soon - when it really was magic doing two-in-a-row.

I've a lot to thank Tommy Breslin for, but the club, its supporters and the entire Irish League have to thank him for a whole lot more.

He embodied all that was decent, down-to-earth and honest about Irish football.

In a time of stratospheric players' wages and obscene transfer fees, Breslin's passing might seem like the end of an era, but then check out the genuine grief from others in the game like Stephen Baxter and Big Davy Jeffrey.

Then you should realise that the local game is more real, more resilient, more the one of the people than the increasingly greed-fest farce of top flight soccer across the Irish Sea.

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