Footballers' Lives with Gerard Lyttle: I've come through toughest time with mum's passing and learned lessons from Sligo stint but I'm ready for right opportunity
In the latest installment of our popular series, ex-Cliftonville boss Gerard Lyttle discusses living his dream at Celtic, the impact taking the Sligo Rovers job had on his family's life, and the passing of his beloved mother.
Q. What are your early football memories?
A. Eugene McGeehan at Santos was a big mentor of mine, and he was a teacher at the old St Patrick's Primary School in North Queen Street. He was a big Derry City fan. I played for the school team and Santos, with players mostly coming from the New Lodge area of Belfast. It folded and I moved on to Star of the Sea. From there I eventually got a few trials at Coventry, Wolves and Celtic, where I signed as a 16-year old. I always loved boxing but my mum never allowed me, fearing it would ruin my good looks. I always played football in the street and had a ball at my feet. If I didn't have a ball I would kick a can around in the playground. It was Derek Dougan who invited me to trials with Coventry and Wolves but once Celtic showed an interest that was it.
Q. As a boyhood Celtic fan, were you living the dream?
A. I was there for five years and it was probably the best five years of my life. I was a Celtic fanatic and it was a dream come true. I was lucky enough to work with Willie McStay, a great guy who is now chief scout on the youth recruitment side. I made great friends and played at every level up to the first team. The late Tommy Burns gave me my first professional contract and the memories are fantastic.
Q. Did you have any problems settling in?
A. The first seven months were tough but I had a good family background. My mum Anne, who sadly passed away five years ago, was a strong-willed person and an unbelievable source of strength to me as I grew up. I think there's a large element of luck involved when you're a player looking to make it across the water. At that time Celtic wanted to stop Rangers winning nine titles in a row and there were many managerial changes. The club had a great youth set-up but the boys weren't getting first-team opportunities. After I left, a new rule came in saying you had to have a certain number of Under-21 players in the squad, then Kenny Dalglish came in and I was very good friends with his son Paul, who I shared a room with. I'm a great believer in 'if it's meant to be, it's meant to be' but my chance didn't come. I was playing for Northern Ireland Under-21s and Jimmy Quinn asked me down to Peterborough. I didn't settle, and within two years I was back in Northern Ireland. Maybe I should have stayed at Celtic but the experience of the ups and downs of football helped set me up for life.
Q. How hard is it for our young players to make it as a professional?
A. I do some work with Jim Magilton in the Northern Ireland set-up and there was nothing like that when I was a kid. I think there's a better education for the young players in Club NI and we are seeing the benefits of it with players staying longer across the water. I didn't know what to expect at Celtic. You need to be mentally strong, and if we can make our lads better prepared for that it will give them a better chance.
Q. After returning home you then joined Ballymena United. How did you feel?
A. The love for football was still there even though I felt a bit deflated. Nigel Best was manager and I enjoyed my football even though we struggled on the pitch. Kenny Shiels came in as manager and we didn't see eye to eye and I moved on to Newry. Every Irish League club I played for I enjoyed my time there.
Q. What was your best moment as a player?
A. Probably playing in front of 37,500 fans at Ibrox in a Reserve game. We drew 1-1 and I got sent off in the first half after a second yellow when I tackled (Gennaro) Gattuso, who was making his debut. He was a big attraction. Big John Convery was sent off as well. You can take the Irish boys nowhere!
Q. What has been your toughest moment in football?
A. When I was Cliftonville coach and we lost the Irish Cup final to Glentoran in 2013. We were on for the treble and that was hard to take. It felt like if we didn't win it that year, we never would. I think we got a bit too cocky and maybe the coaching staff didn't manage it as well as we should have.
Q. At what point in your career did coaching or management appeal?
A. I always knew that would happen from my Celtic days. I'm quite a deep thinker and I can remember doing my B Licence as a teenager at Celtic. Like former Newry manager Gerry Flynn, I used to always take notes to learn from coaches. I'm at an early stage in my managerial career and I want to keep progressing and getting better.
Q. From Malachians you moved to Cliftonville as a coach. How exciting was that?
A. I supported Cliftonville and Celtic. I'm honoured I played for and managed Cliftonville. In my first season there I thought I got a raw deal from the fans, but it was difficult following on from Tommy Breslin and we lost top players like Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce. We had something like a 14-game unbeaten run, won the League Cup, got into Europe and progressed in Europe for the first time. For a young lad coming in as manager it was a huge challenge. We were battering teams but couldn't score. Joe re-signed and was going to hopefully complete the jigsaw.
Q. Sligo Rovers came in for you. Was it a hard decision to leave the Cliftonville job?
A. I was ambitious and here was a chance to be a full-time manager, but it was a very hard decision. Gerard Lawlor (Cliftonville chairman) gave me my chance as a manager and I owe him a lot for that. He tried to talk me out of going but it was a challenge I relished. I can't have regrets but it was a massive challenge. Sligo had a poor budget and the club needed rebuilt. The structures were wrong, attitudes were wrong, the professionalism, fitness approach was wrong. We stayed up and brought through talented young players. There's been instability at the club but it was a different test for me as a manager. I've learned a lot. The League of Ireland product is excellent and if the Irish League can continue to embrace a more full-time environment it will reap the benefits. But football can be a ruthless, unforgiving business and sometimes you wrongly believe you can trust people.
Q. What impact did the Sligo move have on your family?
A. Massive, I wouldn't bring my family down if the opportunity came again. We wanted to keep everyone together and I felt the board had great faith in me. We didn't get the time needed to build the club after doing the hard work of putting the structures in place. The kids were in school and settled with friends, we lived in a beautiful part of Sligo, then suddenly it feels like a bomb hits you. We are back in Belfast resettling again and my wife Kellie has the Fe Male Salon on the Antrim Road. Life's full of lessons and we will now be based in Belfast. Kellie does beauty and Botox treatments and now she can focus on the Belfast business. I've two boys, Bradley is 17 and Flynn is 11. Bradley was playing for Sligo so he needs to readjust. The younger one is more into boxing. Unfortunately their lives have been messed about a bit and we've now got thinking to do.
Q. How did you and Kellie meet?
A. Kellie was a very good triathlete and competed for Ireland. We are both from the New Lodge but she was a bit snobbier than me (laughs). When I was at Celtic we got talking about sport one night while in the Lansdowne Hotel. She was going to get me an injury prevention book and we met after Mass. She waited on me and gave me the book and from then we kept in contact and she moved over to Scotland. We've been through everything you can imagine. We're very close.
Q. Was Kellie a big support when you lost your mum?
A. Absolutely. Just before that she lost her grandmother, who she was close to. Kellie has always been there for me during the good and bad times but she hates football. She would watch the odd game but can't relate to it. The kids are getting older and we are very family orientated.
Q. How tough was it for you when your mum passed away?
A. It was the most horrific time ever after my mum passed away on July 30, 2013. You hear people say, 'I know what you're going through', but they don't because it's different for everyone. You learn to deal with it but you'll never get over it. It was sudden and hard to deal with it. My mum knew I was going into management and always supported me but never saw me take charge of Cliftonville or Sligo. If she was still alive she would have probably come down to Sligo with me to make sure I was okay. I was the oldest in the family with two younger sisters, Brenda and Katrina, and my mum worked hard to keep us tight knit. We were brought up in the height of the Troubles in the New Lodge and times could be difficult but my family were always very supportive. I've a great relationship with my dad Gerard, and my mum was also good at keeping me positive and making sure I believed in myself. She was there to pick me up when I was down. She was an unbelievable lady who worked many jobs to keep us on the right road, the most unselfish person you could meet. She had a blood clot in her leg and it travelled up and gave her a heart attack. I remember going to the Mater Hospital not too worried, but she was in a coma and I couldn't say goodbye. There's nothing worse than losing someone close to you. I'm close to my dad now.
Q. What are your plans now?
A. I feel I'm a better manager with more experience. I've managed two massive clubs and am still a young manager. I'm more hungry for success and am looking at different offers. Paul Dalglish invited me to Miami and I've turned down a few League of Ireland offers. I've huge respect for Jim Magilton and Club NI and that could be a coaching option. The next job needs to be the right one.
Date of birth: November 27, 1977
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Santos, Star of the Sea, Celtic, Swindon Town (loan), Peterborough United, Kingstonian, Northampton Town, Ballymena United, Newry City, Cliftonville, Lisburn Distillery, Newington YC
Managerial posts: Cliftonville, Sligo Rovers