Belfast Telegraph

'It's been a long time coming': How Conor McMenamin went from Big Two reject to Cliftonville star via four managerial changes

Cliftonville's Conor McMenamin was the Reds' Boxing Day hero.
Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Cliftonville's Conor McMenamin was the Reds' Boxing Day hero. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

From Big Two reject to the Irish League's in-form forward via a spell as Warrenpoint Town's makeshift left-back; it's been quite a career trajectory for Conor McMenamin.

The Cliftonville forward has already tied his best eight-goal haul for a Danske Bank Premiership season, hitting form with four goals in three games to end 2019.

By his own admission, such a run has been a 'long time coming' for a man that once forced then Linfield boss David Jeffrey to leave heroic Blues forward Peter Thompson out of the squad.

It's hard to believe it was almost seven years ago that the Downpatrick man made that Irish League bow, and even more strange that he's only realised his potential in recent months at the Reds.

So just what's been going on since March 2013? It's a tale of four clubs, four managerial changes and a positional runaround.

It begins at Ballinamallard United's Ferney Park, McMenamin an 81st minute substitute for Matthew Tipton in a 0-0 draw.

"I had just signed my first senior deal with Linfield the week before," the 24-year-old recalls.

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"We were on the team bus to Ballinamallard and had stopped off on the way to get food. David (Jeffrey) stood up and gave everybody a big speech about me, saying he had left Peter Thompson, an international striker, in the house for a 17-year-old, which showed how much he thought of me.

"I'll never forget him saying that in front of everybody. I'll always appreciate it and be thankful to him for it.

"I was going into a changing full of people like Winkie Murphy, Jamie Mulgrew, Michael Gault and Alan Blayney. They were all top players so for a 17-year-old it was daunting but David saying those things made it easier.

"During the match, I had my coat on while I was on the bench. David told me to get stripped to come on. I'll never forget it, I couldn't get my coat zip undone. He turned round and said 'if you're not ready in two minutes, you're not going on' so I had to pull my arms out of the sleeves and sort of wiggle out of the coat."

He should perhaps have known at that moment that his particular path to Irish League stardom was not going to run smooth.

McMenamin made his only Premiership start for Linfield against Ballinamallard at Windsor.

Jeffrey would go on to give McMenamin another five substitute appearances and one league start for the Blues until the long-standing boss departed the club in 2014. Life under his successor Warren Feeney wasn't quite to so easy for the aspiring attacker.

The 14/15 season failed to yield a single Premiership appearance.

"I was scoring goals for the reserves but wasn't really getting a chance," he explains. "I knew Barry Holland at Glentoran and he was on saying Eddie Patterson wanted me. So I met them and signed a two year contract there.

"It was another big club. I started the season playing a lot of football and then I scored my first league goal against Carrick."

Conor McMenamin celebrates his goal for Glentoran against MSK Zilina in the Europa League in 2015.

Typically, however, it was a case of one step forward and two back. Just minutes after McMenamin's breakthrough goal in a 2-0 win at the Oval, Patterson was sacked.

Managerial switch number two.

The second half of the 15/16 season was a write-off, McMenamin not involved in a Premiership match-day squad after mid-January and made available for transfer come the summer.

Dumped by both of the Big Two and still only 20, did he still believe Jeffrey's words from March 2013?

"I always felt that if I had broken through at Linfield, I must have something about me because that was a team that had everything," he says. "But I just thought I wasn't getting any luck. I kept finding myself out of the team and I suppose I was wondering if it was ever going to work out for me."

It was then that a turning point finally arrived, via a phone call from the man he had replaced that day in 2013 at Ferney Park.

"Matthew Tipton had always stayed in contact with me and he got in touch. He was coaching at Warrenpoint," says McMenamin.

"I went down there to see how it would go for a year and where it might take me.

"We won the Championship at Warrenpoint that season. Then Aaron Traynor went to Coleraine, Stephen Murray went to Glenavon and Liam Bagnall went to Cliftonville. I was sort of wondering would I get my turn?"

McMenamin put in a string of impressive displays for Warrenpoint.

While an immediate move wasn't to come, McMenamin was finally given an extended run in the top tier.

He started 24 Premiership games that season, scoring six times and winning many admirers. The only problem was, most of those appearances came at the wrong end of the pitch.

"I had been a left-back when I played for Cliftonville Under 16s," he explained. "Then one day our striker got injured, I went up front for a bit of craic and scored a hat-trick. Since then, I had been an attacker.

"But at Warrenpoint, our left-back got injured and I filled in. It was supposed to be a one-off but I scored one and set one up, was named man of the match against Carrick and that was it. I was there for three or four months.

"We had Daniel Hughes and Darren Murray up front and Matthew loved me being so attacking from left-back. It gave us another option. He kept telling me I hadn't done anything wrong but I never felt like a defender. I always wanted to go back up front."

Things could never be simple. Before long, McMenamin was the victim of another managerial change. Three in as many seasons at this stage.

This time Stephen McDonnell was the man to come in.

"I could only make certain nights at training because I used to work shifts but Stephen didn't want that so it just didn't work," he said.

This time though, McMenamin's Premiership performances were enough to ensure his next move would be a step forward.

"I had scored a few goals and had been playing well," he admits. "So I got the call from Barry Gray, the Cliftonville manager, and it was easy to go back to one of the big clubs."

It was a move in the right direction, no doubt, but still it wasn't the final step to his ultimate ambition of becoming a first choice forward for a top Irish League side.

One look at the press reports of his arrival at Solitude tell the tale, McMenamin described as a midfielder in some and a defender in others.

"All the talk, from Barry and other people, was about me being a versatile player," he says. "I slotted in for Levi (Ives) at left-back, then I was playing up front, left midfield and even in centre midfield once. I was all over the place."

It could easily have resulted in another premature end to a stay at one of the four big Belfast teams.

Having been told by Barry Gray that he could leave in January, McMenamin rejected a series of offers from elsewhere.

"I didn't want to leave so my plan was just to see out the season and spend time with my daughter Daisy - sort of take the rest of the season off and take things from there," he said.

"Then the following week, Barry was sacked, Paddy McLaughlin came in and I've never looked back. In the space of a week, I went from leaving Cliftonville to scoring for a new manager."

There's a refreshing irony that the fourth managerial switch should be the thing to kick-start his career.

"I bonded with Paddy straight away," he said. "He's a great man manager who always tells me how good he thinks I am. He fills me with confidence and thankfully I'm repaying him on the pitch.

"He sees me as an attacker and that won't change. He said that from day one and it means I can just focus on doing better as an attacker because I know where I'm going to be playing."

In McLaughlin's almost year-long reign so far, McMenamin has netted in both of the end-of-season European play-offs, as well as against both Barry Town and Haugesund in the Europa League during the summer.

Then, of course, came his four goals, including three winners, against Coleraine, Crusaders and Larne during Christmas week to fire the Reds' title challenge into action.

"I've always seemed to score big goals for Paddy at big times," he says.

"I always believed I could get to this stage. Some of it was probably my fault and some of it was just bad luck but it's been a long time coming for me.

"I'm just delighted. To get the two on Boxing Day was right up there with the best moments I've had in football. Then to cap it off against Larne two days later, it was a crazy week but a great one. It was a week I'll not forget."

With McLaughlin at the helm, it's easy to think it's all just the start for McMenamin and for the Reds.

Cliftonville fans will just be hoping his penchant for a managerial change is at an end.

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