A one-time hate figure for Cliftonville fans is willing to enter the lions’ den of Solitude to try and resurrect the fortunes of the stalling Irish League club.
Former Linfield boss Warren Feeney has put his name forward for the vacant managerial position at Cliftonville, after Barry Gray’s sacking last Saturday, and will be interviewed by the Reds this week.
In a shock development, east-Belfast born Feeney, a striker capped 46 times by Northern Ireland, has fallen into the lap of Solitude chiefs after he made it known to Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor that he was keen to return home to Northern Ireland with his family and secure a top job in the Danske Bank Premiership, following full time professional management and coaching stints with Newport County, Crawley Town and Notts County.
The 38-year-old — who managed the Blues for 18 months following David Jeffrey’s departure from Windsor Park — is unconcerned by the fact he may prove to be an unpopular choice with diehard Cliftonville fans and, indeed, would relish the opportunity to win over the supporters by producing a successful team on the pitch.
Feeney, having played in hostile environments such as the south Wales derby between Swansea City and Cardiff City — where he featured for both sides — along with the fact he lived in the east Belfast heartland of Glentoran when he was Linfield manager, would argue he is battle-hardened for any challenge that may lie ahead if he is chosen as the next boss of Cliftonville.
He would also insist that taking over from such a huge personality in Jeffrey, one of the most successful managers in Linfield’s history during an incredible 17-year stretch, showed tremendous strength of character and, when he quit the Blues to join Newport County in October 2015, the Blues were top of the League.
The ex-striker, who started his career alongside Rio Ferdinand and Harry Kewell at Leeds United, is not afraid to make bold decisions in a bid to stamp his authority on a club and Linfield favourite Michael Gault was the biggest casualty on his arrival at Windsor Park five years ago.
Feeney, with endorsements from Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill, the IFA’s Head of Scouting Andy Cousins, former Liverpool goalscoring sensation Robbie Fowler and ex-Liverpool and Leeds superstar Harry Kewell, would make it clear from the outset that religion plays no role in his teams and has been heartened by the revelation Cliftonville want to be a more inclusive football club.
Sunday Life Sport understands that Reds chiefs, concerned about the perception of being a predominantly nationalist club with an overwhelming majority of Catholic playing staff, would welcome the appointment of a manager from the Protestant community.
Cliftonville have been left pleasantly surprised by Feeney’s interest and, following the bad publicity and uproar in recent months surrounding the Jay Donnelly case, in which the Reds striker admitted to distributing an indecent image of child, they are thrilled with the high standard of managers who have asked to be considered for the role.
They know that any future boss must deal with the fall-out of Donnelly’s sentence appeal and rebuild a squad capable of being title contenders again.
While silverware may be out of the equation for Cliftonville this year after they were dumped out of the Irish Cup by Dungannon Swifts earlier this month, those in power at Solitude — who are hoping to appoint a new manager before their next Premiership match against Newry City in a fortnight — still have a return to Europe in their sights through the end-of-season play-offs.
As exclusively revealed in Sunday Life Sport last week, former Kilmarnock and Derry City manager Kenny Shiels is also in contention and being seriously considered by Cliftonville, while ex-Reds midfielder and former Institute chief John Gregg, now a youth coach at Coleraine, is an outsider for the post. There are also a host of candidates from the Republic.
Current Stute supremo Paddy McLaughlin and Warrenpoint Town’s impressive Stephen McDonnell will not be considered for interview this week.
Fans’ favourite Gary Hamilton said he was committed to Glenavon after yesterday’s 1-1 draw with the Reds at Solitude.
Reds chairman Lawlor, who appointed Michael Press as his interim manager for yesterday’s clash with Glenavon, says: “This season is by no means over for Cliftonville, we can still qualify for Europe.
“The deadline for applications closed on Friday and we are very happy with the calibre and the high standard of candidates who have applied.
“We will follow due process in appointing the next manager and I would envisage the successful applicant could be in charge for our next League game against Newry City. If not, we can take our time to get the correct person because following the Newry match we will not have another game until the end of February.”
With troubling off-field issues and a struggling team on the pitch, Cliftonville chiefs know any hope of prosperity at the club depends on the appointment of their next manager.
It will be interesting to see if the Reds, who have taken great pride from promoting from within, turn to a former Linfield boss to help resurrect their beleaguered club.