Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: It's a black day as Gray is shown the door by Cliftonville

Barry's game: The loss of Barry Gray from the local football scene is a blow
Barry's game: The loss of Barry Gray from the local football scene is a blow

By Billy Weir

You can't have failed to notice, if you live any part of your life on social media, a phenomenon known as the 10-year challenge.

Basically the premise is that you post a couple of pictures of yourself that were taken at least 10 years apart to prove that you haven't lost any of your cherubic good looks and continue to be a stranger to a bottle of Oil of Olay. If your challenge can stretch back several decades then it will be Oil of Ulay.

If you cast your eye up to the top of the page you will see proof that I haven't changed a bit, but for one man the eight-year challenge certainly shows up differently.

Barry Gray first came to widespread prominence when he guided little Warrenpoint Town to a huge Irish Cup shock victory over Cliftonville in 2011, the Mourne side seeing off the Reds in a replay thanks to a penalty shoot-out after they had drawn at Milltown.

Well, it was more or less eight years to the day that his challenge to move Cliftonville to the next level came to an ignominious end with a feeble 3-1 defeat at Dungannon.

Irony of ironies it was a man who cut his teeth at Warrenpoint, Daniel Hughes, who hammered the final three nails in Gray's coffin, bagging a hat-trick.

Hughes had also moved from Town to city by joining the Reds back in 2016, but with the glittering array of attacking talent at Cliftonville, he never repeated the form that had clubs clamouring for his signature.

Under Kris Lindsay at Dungannon he has had a new lease of life but he will have taken little pleasure in sinking the man who has been a towering figure in taking Warrenpoint from obscurity to a Premiership outfit.

The club celebrate their 30th anniversary with a gala event this month and Gray, rightly so, will be lauded for his achievements, not just that cup win over the Reds, but dragging Warrenpoint from the depths of intermediate football to go on to keep senior football alive in the Mournes when Newry City had their fall.

And there is that irony thing again, whose name keeps popping up amongst those tipped to replace Gray? Yep, you guessed it, Warrenpoint's Stephen McDonnell.

He is an awfully impressive young chap, although his 10-year challenge photo would probably have him sitting in a buggy sucking on a Farley's rusk, but if he has any sense he'll get the buggy wheeling well away from Cliftonville.

Now, before I am labelled as one of these mysterious 'enemies of the club' that seems to have become a thing, can I put on the record that I have not one thing against Cliftonville Football Club, the players, officials, fans or the tea lady.

There are some mighty fine people connected to the club, as passionate a bunch as you would ever like to meet and a warmth of welcome and hospitality that is sadly lacking from many other clubs in the league. However, this has not been a glorious era for the club, the ham-fisted, clumsy way in which the Jay Donnelly affair, no matter how it eventually turns out in law, has been handled is a case in point.

My views on anthems and forced handshakes have been placed in print before (I am totally against them, divisive and not needed in football) but the way the Irish Cup final protest was handled last year, in my opinion, had a negative effect on the club's chances against Coleraine.

Gray's highlights of his 20-month tenure as boss were that Irish Cup final and qualifying for the Europa League and yes, he will admit he made mistakes, but he hasn't been helped by things beyond his control and a defensive record that is nothing short of embarrassing.

Only Institute and Warrenpoint (them again) have worse goals against figures and while Joe Gormley scores for fun, you can't expect to challenge at the top level having conceded almost two goals per game.

Speaking this week for the first time since his sacking, Gray was, as ever, forthright in his opinions. Maybe this was part of his downfall, he wears his heart on his sleeve and I certainly interviewed him on several occasions after a game where he said he felt let down by his side.

How many times that can be aired before the players turn on him is a matter of conjecture, but it was interesting a couple of weeks ago when he nearly called it quits after losing to Dungannon in the Irish Cup that Rory Donnelly took to social media to defend his then boss and said the players needed to shoulder the blame.

Fast forward a week and a win over Ards and all was well with the world again, factions of the Red Army applauding Gray off the pitch, but a week later he was gone.

Chairman Gerard Lawlor, on the club's website, also pointed the finger of blame at the players.

"I believe we have a very talented playing squad but it is undoubtedly one that has underperformed and has not done justice to themselves, our fans or our badge," he said this week.

His task now is to head up the hunt to replace Gray, but whoever it is will have those same players and, even if appointed this weekend, next to no time to bring anyone new in.

As well as McDonnell, the runners and riders for the post are few and far between given the league rules for qualifications for managers.

Kenny Shiels is being bandied about and who amongst us wouldn't love to have him back? It's like having a pet alligator, you know it probably won't end well but what a crazy couple of years we'd all have.

Gerard Lyttle, who left the Reds to go full-time at Sligo Rovers, is also available but his bridges may have been burned, while, as always, Tommy Breslin has been linked to the job. There may be others from outside the league who would be interested. It's a great job at a grand old club, but with a world of headaches to deal with.

The final word, fittingly, should go to the man himself.

"The job was massive and I dealt with lots of things on and off the pitch. Whether people think it or not, they are in a better position now than they were 20 months ago," said Gray.

I wouldn't disagree with that.

So here's one for you, Stephen McDonnell departs to take over and that leaves a vacancy at Warrenpoint. I know the very man for the job - I wonder if he has a picture from 10 years ago at Milltown?

Out on the wing

Braidmen have a new fan

It can’t have been an easy watch for Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton on Saturday as his side was put to the sword by Ballymena United.

After a dodgy New Year period, the Sky Blues were superb on Saturday, ending a seven-year hoodoo at Mourneview Park with a display full of endeavour and panache and back to how they have been for the majority of the season.

Adam Lecky, a man who has always threatened to become a star, is now shining like never before, while on Saturday fellow goalscorer Jude Winchester, Leroy Millar and Cathair Friel gave Glenavon a torrid time.

And Hamilton, who knows a fair bit about tormenting defenders, picked up on it.

“I thought their two midfielders — Winchester and Millar — were really good for them, and Lecky caused us major problems at the back,” admitted Hamilton. “He won every header, he held the ball up, linked play, and you’re always wary of Friel. I thought all four of those players were excellent.”

Harry has Mallards flying

Well done to Harry McConkey and his Ballinamallard United side who, against all the odds, made it into the top six for the post-split fixtures in the Championship.

They had a horrible losing streak but they have dusted themselves down and, while no one has noticed as Larne are running away with things, the Mallards are flying.I also have to pay similar tribute to Norman Kelly at the Welders, who also made the top six after their own struggles at the start.

The top six now play each other home and away, a much better system than operated in the top division. Can you imagine two more Blues v Crues games, or two derby ding-dongs between Ballymena and Coleraine?

The Final Word

The Michael McCrudden affair shows the bad side of the transfer window, a smaller club paying the penalty for a player doing so well and having to fight tooth and nail to hold onto him. Let’s hope for Institute’s sake it ends soon.

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