Billy Weir: Dungannon Swifts have always kept their feet firmly on the ground
I have always had a bit of a soft spot for Dungannon Swifts. Bizarrely, it stretches back to when I was a mere slip of a lad in 1990 and a Wednesday afternoon when Ballymena United had to travel to Stangmore Park for an Irish Cup replay in defence of their crown.
It didn't end well, a controversial penalty and then defeat in the shoot-out and a long, miserable bus journey home - but Dungannon had struck a chord.
Back then, little Dungannon were just that, a B Division side but with big plans and big-hearted people at the heart of those plans, and any success they have had then and since has been well deserved.
I also fondly remember travelling down on one crisp New Year's day with the sun splitting the stones only to dander in to Stangmore Park and be met by manager Joe McAree to tell me the game was off.
He perhaps sensed my incredulity and escorted me, my Torvill to his Dean, on a trip across the frozen surface and it was great to get a chance to talk football with one of the game's legends.
His son, Rodney, was to take over the reins in time, in a double act with Darren Murphy, and it was a real shock when back in October 2015 after a dreadfully disappointing display at Ballymena, Murph resigned in front of me and the assembled media.
My gast was flabbered. Here was one of the good guys, a whole-hearted, honest player who seemed to have taken to management like a duck to water, calling it a day.
Three years working for the IFA and he came back to the game as coach at Linfield and it was fascinating to hear him on the Beeb's Irish League Show explain why he had quit.
"I struggled with the game," he said.
"My last 18 months at Dungannon weren't nice, they were very uncomfortable. Not because of anything to do with Dungannon as a football club, but because of me personally.
"It was a really difficult time in my life and people who are close to me know what I went through.
"I became paranoid and used to walk about the football club wondering 'does anyone like me?' It was a really strange place to be.
"I used to put a face on to do my TV interviews and everyone enjoyed watching them, but I hated doing every one of them. I just wanted to get them done and get away."
Typically forthright and fascinating stuff from Murph and I hadn't known any of this when I was talking to the present incumbent of the Swifts job, Kris Lindsay, on Saturday afternoon.
He probably thinks I'm stalking him, but I happened to be at his first game as manager when he succeeded McAree Jnr in the hotseat back in September, as the law of Sod would dictate, up against his old side Glenavon.
He was also at Ballymena a fortnight later, almost three years to the day from when Murphy made his startling announcement, and again last Saturday when the league's newest manager took on its most decorated in David Jeffrey.
And his 10-men deservedly picked up a share of the spoils, playing the game the Dungannon way, fighting spirit matched with verve and flair, and so, with his feet well and truly under the management table now, I wondered how life had been since he took over.
"I am feeling comfortable but, listen, it's always easier when you're winning and picking up results, it's when you're losing that things start to get difficult," he explained.
"I'm really enjoying it, the players have been excellent since I came in. It has taken us a while to get certain ideas across but we're getting there and we're moving in the right direction.
"It will still take time. This is obviously my first transfer window. It has been mental, the phone bill is through the roof but it is part and parcel of the job."
Having played and won trophies at Linfield and Glenavon before a stint as coach at Mourneview Park, Kris has served a thorough apprenticeship, but he admits that life as a manager, a full-time role in a part-time game, is a continual learning curve.
"The emotions are a little bit different because you are the man in charge and all the pressure is on you, but we've all been in the game long enough, you don't get too carried away when you're winning games and you don't get too despondent when you're losing them," he added.
"You have to try and keep that on an even keel and you have to keep that from the players because the last thing you want is to be in the depths of desperation every time you lose a football game because that drags on into training and your other matches.
"It's the same when you're winning, yes you enjoy the buzz, it breeds a little bit of confidence, but you don't let things get too out of hand. You have to make sure you are still doing the basics and working hard and doing those hard yards to continue to win.
"I am loving it. Dungannon's a good family club, the board have been excellent with me and the fans are top notch. I am really enjoying it and hopefully we can start moving up the table.
"I didn't come to Dungannon to just avoid relegation every year, I want to look at breaking into the top six and when you look at clubs like Glenavon when Gary (Hamilton) took over they were in a similar position to what we are here.
"He has slowly built it, brought in wee bits of experience, exciting talent and they are one of the top teams in the country now and that's got to be the blueprint we all have to follow."
And as well as that blueprint, he is following in the footsteps of some fine men who have been proud to serve as Dungannon boss. Here's to Kris and Murph and plenty of good days ahead, although I still maintain that was never a penalty back in 1990.
A fantastic milestone for Baxter but game 701 is a tough one
And talking of managers, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the remarkable achievement of Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter in notching up his 700th game in charge.
The footballing landscape has changed beyond recognition since he came in to give the Seaview side a hand out back in 2005 and now, some 14 years on, he finds himself as full-time boss of a club that is unrecognisable from all those years ago.
His 409th victory came at Newry City on Friday night and while Baxter, who was awarded a B.E.M. in the New Year Honours, was proud to have reached the landmark figure, his pleasure and mindset was summed up with one simple sentence - 'It was all about a result.'
And that will be same for match 701 this Saturday, probably one of the most important he will have faced in his tenure, as Linfield come to north Belfast for a crucial title clash.
Ballymena United may be the filling in the sandwich between the two perennial challengers at the moment, but whoever comes out on top of this one will, you would think, have struck a major blow in the race for the Gibson Cup.
The Blues are three points ahead with a game in hand over the Crues, so have a little more breathing space, but Baxter's men will still be smarting from their 4-1 spanking earlier in the season.
"All the games against Linfield are big and, to be honest, our last outing against them was hopeless and they beat us quite easily," he said.
"Although we lost that game at Windsor 4-1, that really doesn't come into play next week."
Hmmm, not so sure about that one, he'll have them kicking down the door to get at them for win 410. It should be a real cracker.
Out on the Wing
Suddenly it’s gone from Gray to alright for Reds
It's bizarre how footballing fortunes can change on the kick of a ball.
A few weeks ago, Cliftonville’s outside title hopes seemed to be alive and well as they clambered their way back from a 3-1 deficit at Institute to draw level and then were awarded a penalty to take the lead.
Had that gone in then Barry Gary would have been hailed as a football genius, and the subsequent free fall of that penalty miss, subsequent 6-4 capitulation and the wheels coming completely off the Reds’ bus would have been highly unlikely.
A number of bad defeats had the fans calling for the manager’s head and Gray himself admitting that he had lost their support and was going home to consider his own position.
Well he did that and, despite all the unwelcome hoohah off the pitch, he did decide to stay on and was rewarded with a 4-1 win over Ards, and suddenly he is the bee’s knees again, but had no desire to lap up his rediscovered adulation.
“Some of the players were actually telling me to go over and milk that applause a little bit but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that,” Gray said.
“I never did it when we’ve had good winning runs in the past and, maybe if we go on another good run, I’d think about it but, at the end of the day, it isn’t about me and never has been. Cliftonville getting the result is all that matters.”
Congratulations to Oran Kearney, formerly of this parish, who came back home to pick up the Tele's Manager of the Year at the Sports Awards on Monday night. A well-deserved honour for the former Coleraine boss, who has also brought another ex-Bannsider in Brad Lyons to rejoin him at St Mirren. A good week’s work.