Belfast Telegraph

Cliftonville are not great yet, says Tommy Breslin

By Graham Luney

Tommy Breslin's message to his Cliftonville players is a simple one – if you want to wear the mantle of greatness you will have to work harder.

The past year has been the greatest in the club's history and the north-Belfast side deserved every plaudit that came their way.

Every clever turn from Liam Boyce or lethal finish from Joe Gormley captured the admiration of Irish League fans whether they followed the Reds or not.

Breslin's men produced some scintillating football on their way to winning the League Cup and Danske Bank Premiership title.

Only an astonishing performance from Glentoran, managed by former Solitude supremo Eddie Patterson, prevented them storming to the treble.

At times even Cliftonville were left embarrassed by the glowing praise they attracted.

Comparisons were made with the great Irish League sides of modern times. The Linfield clean sweep side of 2006, reunited at Michael Gault's testimonial match on Saturday, will have their own thoughts.

There is no question that this is the greatest Cliftonville side since the club's formation in 1879, but Breslin admits it's premature to claim they are one of the 'great' sides in Irish League history.

Winning a league title is tough. Defending a league title is tougher. The Reds boss accepts only a consistent run of title triumphs would justify the greatness tag.

"I was watching GAA coverage and the message coming through was that the first title is the hardest to win," says Breslin.

"It is a great achievement but then asking a team to go on and win a title for second, third and fourth time is a very different proposition.

"The great Linfield teams have done that. They won six doubles in seven seasons and I don't think we have earned the right to be alongside those great teams unless we record back to back victories and start winning on a consistent basis.

"That's why the players and all of us have to keep our feet on the ground and not get carried away with success.

"Now we are champions we will have to play like champions week in, week out. That will be the expectation levels we have to adjust to. In years gone by we have played very well in patches but never on a consistent basis the great sides have managed to do.

"The challenge for us is to repeat our performances of last season but everyone will be out to shoot us down. I'm confident the team will still produce good performances but we start off on Saturday with no points, like everyone else. That's the reality."

It's ironic that such a memorable season for the Reds ended on a bitter note when Glentoran lifted the Irish Cup.

Given our understanding of football's cruel nature, the result should not have surprised any of us and perhaps the Cliftonville players can bottle that frustration and land the prize that eluded them next May.

The Champions League battles with Celtic were dubbed 'once in a lifetime matches' but if the Reds keep qualifying for Europe's premier knockout tournament more glory nights could be on the horizon.

Chris Curran and Joe McNeill have been added to the champions' squad while Martin Donnelly has been allowed to leave, with Glentoran his expected destination.

"Martin is not happy at the club and it's better for everyone that he moves on," added Breslin.

"We wouldn't want to keep any players at the club if they did not want to be here. He's a quality player but he's had a few difficulties and it's best he moves on. Joe and Chris are great additions to the team.

"Chris is a clever, fit lad with the potential to play at a higher level and he will give us a new dimension. We haven't had a natural right sided player for some time.

"We have a good mixture of youth and experience so it's up to the players to fulfil their potential."

Cliftonville can expect a ferocious challenge from Linfield and Crusaders for the title this season, but they are the reigning champions and if there are no big name departures from Solitude in the coming weeks they will take some stopping.

Six of the best

Q: Are you looking forward to Cliftonville's title defence?

A: I am delighted we are beginning again, especially after all the hype and furore surrounding the Celtic game. The serious business starts again on Saturday.

Q: What is your opinion on the new Northern Ireland Football League?

A: I'm not expecting much of a change. The league is moving from IFA-controlled to a Premier League group but it's just a transfer of ownership and I have no real concerns about it. There may be in the future but we'll wait and see how things unravel.

Q: What challenge are you expecting from your title rivals?

A: I'm expecting a major challenge from everybody. We are used to raising our game against the champions and now it's a role reversal. For that reason it will be a very hard season.

Q: Are you confident Cliftonville will not be 'one season wonders'?

A: We have added to the squad so I'm confident, but you can never take anything for granted. We have a good mixture of youth and experience. It's up to the players to fulfil their potential.

Q: Have you had any offers or enquiries for any of your star players?

A: Not that I'm aware of but the transfer window hasn't closed yet. At the moment it's the same squad with Chris Curran and Joe McNeill added. We have young lads from the reserve team as well who can do a job for us.

Q: How do you reflect on the Champions League battles with Celtic?

A: I was happy with the second leg performance. We passed the ball well against a top side in front of a big crowd. I think Celtic showed us huge respect by fielding their strongest side in both matches. I'll look back on the occasion with immense pride.

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