Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir's Irish League Column: Private Ryan could be the man to save Barry's Red Army

Billy Weir: Every Thursday, frank, funny, fearless and always on the ball on the Irish League

It was 5.03pm on Saturday evening in an eerily quiet, near empty dressing room at the Ballymena Showgrounds, and Barry Gray was as low as a puff adder's rude bits.

He had just watched his new Cliftonville side slide meekly to a disappointing defeat on a day that was supposed to herald the Reds' bright new future with a stellar line-up of Joe Gormley and the fabulous Donnelly boys.

It may sound like a showband, but there was nothing to sing about for siblings Rory and Jay, or Joe the Goal, as they barely mustered an effort worthy of the name, and the hoohah of their opening day six-hit was but a dim and distant memory.

But for Gray, who admits the job at Solitude is much tougher than he ever imagined, it is not the lack of goals that is the issue at hand, it is the absence of leaders, the midfield general or backline brigadier to rally the troops when the stars fail to shine.

Cliftonville teams of the past have been blessed in that department. You immediately think of the likes of Marty Tabb, Mickey Donnelly, big Deccy O'Hara and George McMullan, and these are big boots to fill.

"People keep talking about Cliftonville and this 'leadership' and compare it against teams of Cliftonville past, who had very experienced and particular types of player," explained Gray. "Cliftonville don't have one now, nor do most teams to be fair. Modern-day leadership isn't the same as it was 15 years ago.

"The young player coming through doesn't dictate in the same way that your old Marc Smyths and Barry Johnstons and boys like that did. These players don't exist in the modern era."

It's hard to argue. I started watching Irish League football on a regular basis in the early Eighties, brought up on tales of the hard men of the game in the previous generation, the Peter Raffertys, Rab McCreerys and Johnny McCurdys.

My era seemed to be blessed by the unmeek, men who could start a row in a graveyard, sort it out, gnaw on a bone, pat the earth back into place and who were universally hated by almost all and adored by all of their own.

Lee Doherty was my enemy No.1. Coming down to Ballymena, strutting around like he owned the place with his Timotei-tassled blonde hair and an unerring knack of finding a man in a blue shirt, usually Martin McGaughey, who would then score.

It was a crushing day when, much later, as a journalist I interviewed him for the first time after a match and found him to be one of the nicest men I'd ever met, when I had really wanted him to come out, kick me, pretend he'd done nothing wrong, and then kick me again. Still time I suppose.

Others of a similar ilk spring to mind from that era and into the Nineties and Noughties - Billy Caskey, Pat McAllister, Roy McCreadie, Ray McGuinness, Alan Dornan, Glenn Dunlop, Michael Cash, Winkie Murphy, Darren Murphy, Shane McCabe, Colin Nixon, Johnny Montgomery and most of any Portadown team who played under Ronnie McFall.

Gregg Davidson, Philip Major and Mickey Collins to name but three, there were more and I'm sure you can all pluck out your own personal nemesis, but they had all one thing in common - they were leaders, and how you would have loved them in your team.

So, is Barry right? Is there a lack of backbone and bulldog spirit in the youngsters coming through? I certainly wouldn't have Robbie Garrett or Colin Coates filed under 'shrinking violets', but they are also a different generation.

Again, Allan Jenkins was an inspirational leader at Ballymena, and some would argue he was let go too soon, but they have Jim Ervin and Emmet Friars, who has already made a huge impact in his time by the Braid.

And Gray doesn't have too far to find just what he is looking for. Ryan Catney is just what he and this Cliftonville side need at the minute. Injured in the line of duty, putting his body in where it hurts and paying the price for it with a broken leg back in January.

He is on the slow road to recovery; Cliftonville fans would love to see him back, to take this team by the scruff of the neck and all other supporters too so they can have a pop at him and wish he was playing for them.

So like Creamola Foam, Spangles, leg warmers, Margaret Thatcher and the Krankies, the hardmen and leaders of the Eighties and Nineties have all but gone. There are still one or two hanging around but the game is making them a rare and endangered breed.

The game is changing, the way it is refereed now means that the days of putting the boot in repeatedly are gone, but there are still plenty of aggravating types who will grow to become really annoying and then spoil it all by being really good blokes when you meet them.

That will take time, and time is not a luxury for Barry Gray or indeed any manager.

What he really needs now is Private Ryan to come back to save the day and be that general he, and the league as a whole, so badly needs and misses.

Out on the wing

Goal forth and multiply

Irish League fans will have heard this line a thousand times: “Why would I go there? Sure the standard’s rubbish”. Sure enough, I heard it trotted out again by a non-believer at the weekend.

 They were quickly put in their place by being told in no uncertain terms to sit down, shut up and watch the goals and there were some absolute belters at the weekend.

 Curtis Allen’s free-kick for the Glens, Emmet Friars’ Messi-like flick for Ballymena Utd, Ryan Mayse’s classy curler for Dungannon and up at Coleraine you could take your pick from Darren McCauley’s brace or Ciaron Harkin’s ripper into the top corner.

 Consider the culprit re-educated, the apology has been accepted and they will be untied and freed back into civilisation shortly.

Darren gives it a lash

Talking of Darren McCauley and goals, his Panenka-like penalty on Saturday to set the league leaders (that hurts) on their way against Glenavon was superb.

 As was his interview on Final Score afterwards where he admitted it was ‘cheeky’ and he thought he ‘would grow a set and come up with something different’.

 He certainly did, although I would have feared for that ‘set’ had the ball landed in Jonny Tuffey’s arms, but it didn’t earn him much respect from his team-mates who were lashing water out the dressing room window during his live interview.

 I wonder if that happened to Panenka back in 1976?

Linfield are Sky high

AN oft levied charge at media types and the powers that be is that there is a pro-Linfield bias, and sadly I have to report that this is still alive and well.

 On Tuesday morning I happened upon Sky Sports News where the tables were filtering down the screen when up it popped, the Danske Bank Premiership table, with, yep, you guessed it, the Blues perched proudly on top of it.

 Pretty poor show from Sky and, while we’re on the subject, five games in (or four on Sky’s table) and still no sign of them for one of their live games, with the first scheduled for next month. I dare say the Blues will still be top of the table.

Predictions: Billy tackles... JAMES SINGLETON

I really don’t know what to say. I have let you down, myself, my family and other members of the great unwashed community of the world we call journalism.

 Not for the first time, I am pointless, not even a sausage from last week’s games, but for Crusaders’ Howard Beverland it was a good week, a win for his side in the IRN BRU Cup but, more importantly, a whopping two points from correctly predicting wins for Glentoran and Dungannon Swifts.

 I promise to do better, in fairness I can’t do much worse, and hardly quaking in his size nines at taking me on this week is Glenavon’s James Singleton.

 Usual rules, three points for an exact scoreline, one for the correct outcome and the player isn’t allowed to call on his own game.

Linfield v Glentoran Saturday (3.00pm)

Both of them are in very good form. Linfield are unbeaten and haven’t conceded a goal and the Glens are doing pretty well themselves too. Just from playing against the Glens last week, I know they are a much better side than last season but I still think Linfield will edge this one with home advantage. I’ll go 2-1 Linfield because I think Glentoran will score.

Singleton prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 3-2

Ards v Coleraine Saturday (3.00pm)

Ards have had a pretty disappointing start to the season and they’ll be going out to try and get a few points on the board, but I can still see Coleraine winning. They had a good Saturday against us last week but it wasn’t our best performance.

Singleton prediction: 1-3

Weir prediction: 1-1

Cliftonville v Dungannon Swifts Saturday (3.00pm)

It’s usually a good game between these two and neither Cliftonville nor Dungannon have had the best of starts to the season. Cliftonville need to tank somebody and go on a run, and now I’ve said 1-1 it’ll probably be this weekend!

Singleton prediction: 1-1

Weir prediction: 3-1

Ballinamallard Utd v Crusaders Saturday (3.00pm)

I just can’t see Crusaders being beaten in this one. Ballinamallard are a bit like Ards in that they’re struggling to score goals. I just can’t see them causing an upset.

Singleton prediction: 1-3

Weir prediction: 1-4

Warrenpoint Town v Ballymena Utd Saturday (3.00pm)

Ballymena had their first league win of the season last weekend so they could be on a bit of a high. It will be a tough, tough game for them but I’ll go for a Ballymena win.

Singleton prediction: 0-2

Weir prediction: 1-3

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