Irish League Lives: Barry Johnston's Cliftonville debut was so bad, the club pretended it never happened
He makes no apology for admitting he’ll always bleed Red — but you wouldn’t expect anything else from the irrepressible Barry Johnston.
They say footballers should never return to a former club. Well, the much-travelled midfielder certainly explodes that myth because he joined his beloved Cliftonville on THREE occasions.
It was during a record-breaking third spell when ‘Janty’ wrote his name into the rich fabric of the club, being an instrumental member of a squad that not only achieved back-to-back Premiership title wins but also celebrated successive League Cup victories.
Under the shrewd managerial expertise of the late Tommy Breslin, the Reds were simply unstoppable — the most successful spell in the history of the famous north Belfast side.
It was fairytale stuff for Barry, who stood on the terracing for many years cheering on his heroes.
“I was at Solitude, in the ‘cage end’, the day we won the League back in 1998,” he recalls.
“It was unbelievable, the place was packed. We had to agonise for an hour waiting on the Coleraine-Linfield match to finish — but no-one left the ground. The Blues needed a victory to win the League, but it finished in a draw.
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“Once the whistle went, Solitude erupted. The fans invaded the pitch, with the players all lifted on the shoulders of the supporters, Mickey Donnelly, Gerry Flynn, Stevie Small, Damien Davey, Tabber (Marty Tabb), Tim McCann and Gary Sliney.”
Having begun his football days at Celtic Boys, Barry moved to the Reds as a 16-year-old winger, joining the Scannell brothers, Chris and Ronan, along with Aidan O’Kane in the youth team.
Marty Quinn handed him his debut the season after that League win.
“Although it was reported in a match programme I made my debut against Omagh Town, it was actually against Crusaders in the Boxing Day match,” recalls Barry. “I only lasted until half-time, I was trailed off.
“The occasion was too big for me. I was about two stone soaking wet. Every time I got the ball, I just passed it back to Stevie Small. I didn’t play in the first team again until the end of January — and that was against Omagh.”
Barry then suffered a bad injury playing in a regional tournament for the Post Office over the summer, which kept him out long-term. He had plates and screws inserted in his leg.
He returned to action after eight months out in a reserve game against Coleraine and adds: “Packie McAllister hit me with a 50-50 tackle, it was a ferocious whack. He lifted me and hit me a pat on the back, saying, ‘That will do you a world of good, wee man’. At least I knew my leg was fine again.”
At the end of that season, Barry got the opportunity to go to the USA on a scholarship at the William Carey University. On his return, his first point of contact was Quinn, who had taken over at Coleraine.
“Marty always looked out for me and he signed me again,” says Barry. “I went into a team of journeymen with the likes of Packie (McAllister), Tony Gorman, Stephen Beatty, Ian McCoosh, Gareth McAuley and Gerry Flynn.
“With Packie’s impressive disciplinary record, I was able to get plenty of game time! It was a good grounding for me.
“My big disappointment was being left out of the squad for the 2003 Irish Cup Final win against Glentoran — big Army (Sean Armstrong) got the nod ahead of me.
“It was a knock back, but I don’t look back with any gripes or grudges. I looked at it as a good grounding for a young lad. I could have either sulked and went into my shell and hid from it or tried to prove people wrong. You must be man enough to stand up and take it on the chin.
“I was in the squad for the following season but, of course, we lost to Glentoran.
“After that, the team began to break up. I made 99 appearances for Coleraine. I was there for nearly three years. It’s a brilliant club. I’ve fond memories of it up there, with plenty of great people about the club.”
Larne boss Kenny Shiels attempted to lure Barry to Inver Park, while McAllister and Paul Millar offered him terms to join Newry City. But when Eddie Patterson made contact, Barry required little persuasion.
“We met at the Lansdowne Hotel,” smiles Barry.
“The deal was sealed almost immediately. I was a fan and Cliftonville were my club. Eddie was rebuilding. Conor Downey, Georgie (McMullan), Fra Murphy, Sean Friars and Sean Cleary were all battling for the midfield slots, so it was difficult for me to break through.
“But I benefited from a bit of luck in pre-season when Sean Cleary turned up late for a game against Wrexham down in Newcastle. I begged Eddie to play me in the centre of midfield.
“The pitch at Castlewellan was immaculate. Eddie had no choice but to play me and I had a stormer, we beat Wrexham 1-0. I played the remainder of the pre-season matches in that position and, in the first game of the season, we beat Linfield 3-0 at Windsor Park. I got man of the match. I never looked back after that.”
Shamrock Rovers was Barry’s next port of call. He adds: “Michael O’Neill had got the Rovers job. Tommy Wright was his goalkeeper coach and he asked me if I would be interested. I was there for seven months. I didn’t play a lot, but it was a great learning curve.
“Having lived in Dublin for seven years as a kid, I still had family down there in Tallaght so it was handy for me.”
Barry returned north of the border with Glenavon, renewing his relationship with Quinn. But it was a romance that lasted merely six months.
With the January transfer window about to close, Barry drove to Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor’s home to plead with him to bring him back to Solitude.
“I arrived about 11 o’clock at night on the final day of the transfer window,” laughs Barry.
“I literally asked him to bring me back. I signed the form there and then. I didn’t even discuss terms. I didn’t know how much I was being paid. I was on good money at Glenavon, so Gerard had me over a barrel.”
When Patterson departed the Cliftonville manager’s post, Breslin was his natural successor, but it took a bit of persuading from Lawlor before the wee man agreed to take over.
“The players pleaded with him to have a go at it,” adds Barry. “I always got on well with Eddie and still do. He is a real football man. He went on to do brilliant things with Glentoran, so that speaks volumes for the man.
“When Bressie took over, he took us to a different level. The following season, Marc Smyth and Conor Devlin and Joe Gormley came in.
“God rest him, but Bressie would be the first to admit he hit the jackpot with those boys. Chris Scannell suffered a bad Achilles injury which gave Joe the chance he didn’t expect.
“Joe would probably never have played had Chris been fit because he was our talisman. The camaraderie we had in the dressing room was brilliant.”
The trophies began to arrive. The League Cup was first to be paraded following a 4-0 drubbing of Crusaders at Windsor Park.
“That was me content — I’d won a trophy at Cliftonville, the club I’d supported all my life,” says Barry.
“But what came after that was fairytale stuff, winning back-to-back League titles and we achieved a hat-trick of League Cup wins — unbelievable.”
The tragic death of Breslin earlier this year rocked Cliftonville to its foundations, but Barry prefers to focus on the happy memories.
“Bressie wouldn’t want people to dwell on what happened,” he concludes.
“I’ve done my crying. He would want to be remembered for what he was. He would have hit me a slap if I was to shed any more tears because he was the type of man who wanted people to live their lives.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital