Cliftonville ace Conor McMenamin on making sacrifices in his personal life, how Paddy McLaughlin has had major impact on him, and silverware hopes with the Reds.
Q Where did your football journey begin?
A My earliest memories would be at Killyleagh where my dad Andy played. I went to every match with him and they had a great amateur league side, winning league titles and reaching the semi-finals of the Irish Cup. I played for Killyleagh youth teams before moving on to Lisburn Youth. Chris Johns and James Singleton were in the team. Then I joined Cliftonville at Under-16 level. Our County Down Milk Cup manager John Bailie was the Linfield Under-18 boss and I scored a hat-trick for Cliftonville against Linfield, which helped get me that move to the Blues. Linfield were winning titles and I thought it was a good opportunity. Within a year I made my first-team debut as a teenager away to Ballinamallard. I was only at Cliftonville for around a year. I played the majority of my under-age football at Linfield.
Q How did you find it at Linfield?
A It was great, I loved it. Linfield are a great club and I was well looked after. I was scoring for fun with the reserves and I can remember David Jeffrey calling me into training with the first team. I was joining players like Winkie Murphy, Michael Gault, Peter Thompson, Steven Douglas and Alan Blayney. It was a phenomenal team and great learning curve for me. David said he thought highly of me and that's why he brought me into the squad. I can remember before one game at Ballinamallard, we had pre-match in the hotel and David stood up and told everyone he had left Peter Thompson, an international striker, in the house and brought me along to do a job. He was showing faith in me and that gives you confidence. We were doing passing drills in training and Winkie said he wouldn't take the ball off me early on and it was his way of helping me settle into it. But of course it's hard to break through at Linfield with all the attacking options they have.
Q What happened from there?
A David left and Warren Feeney came in. I wasn't really getting games and I can remember scoring a few goals for the reserves and wondering, 'When will I get my chance here?' Barry Holland, a close friend of mine in Downpatrick, was at Glentoran and their manager Eddie Patterson got in touch. Other clubs were interested but I decided to sign for the Glens. It was the year after they had won the Irish Cup but I scored the winner against Carrick on a Saturday, came into the changing room and Eddie had been sacked. Alan Kernaghan came in and I was young and impatient. I was knocking manager's doors as I wanted to play.
Q You were trying to make a breakthrough at two of the biggest clubs in the country. Was it always going to be tough?
A I probably didn't realise how big the clubs were because I was young and impatient. It just didn't work out under Alan and Matthew Tipton, who knew me from our time at Linfield, was at Warrenpoint Town and he persuaded me to go down there in the Championship. I played a year there and enjoyed being part of a great team including Aaron Traynor, Stephen Murray, John McGuigan, Marty Murray and Liam Bagnall. A few boys left and eventually Barry Gray went to Cliftonville and it was a no-brainer to follow him there. I'm grateful to Barry for bringing me to Cliftonville but if he was still there, I probably wouldn't be! Things didn't work out and I wasn't getting much of a chance. Barry said, 'If clubs come in for you, you're free to go. I don't see a future for you here' and I thought about packing it in. I have a wee girl at home and I was ready to take a break from January until the new season. I was training during the week but I knew I wasn't going to play and my heart wasn't in it. But I stuck it out and didn't meet other managers, I had no interest. Barry left and since Paddy McLaughlin came in the difference is night and day. I scored a winner against Newry and things took off from then. But I was so close to leaving Cliftonville and who knows what would have happened if I did that.
Q Do you feel you could have even walked away from football?
A I would have come back but it was probably the right thing to do to stick it out as I might not have come back to a top club. I wasn't thinking about fighting for my place, I just didn't have the motivation to travel when I wasn't seeing my daughter, Daisy. I can't thank Paddy enough for believing in me. I can remember Gerard (Lawlor, chairman) telling me about interest from clubs but I just wanted to spend time with my daughter. I was fed up completely with football.
Q When you think of this golden period in your Cliftonville career, it's a reminder of how a footballer's career can swing in a different direction.
A Things are a lot different now but nothing is plain sailing. Paddy and the coaching staff have been unbelievable with me and when the manager is calling you one of the best players in the league that gives me a lot of confidence. I've a manager who believes in my ability and I want to pay him back on the pitch.
Q Did you have a professional dream as a kid?
A I had a few trials in England but nothing came of it. I was at Crystal Palace and Stoke City. I was due to sign for Stoke but Linfield couldn't agree a fee and it never happened. At the time, I was a disappointed 17-year-old as the chance had gone for a financial reason. You want to be the best player you can be but I never kicked up too much fuss about it. Stoke were just unwilling to pay a fee. I signed a contract with Linfield and that took the edge off it.
Q You're scoring goals in this strong Cliftonville team. Is this the happiest you have been?
A One hundred per cent. I love playing for Cliftonville and when I signed my new contract there wasn't much negotiating involved. I could have waited for January to assess my options but I don't want to go anywhere else. I'm playing the best football I have played and the boys are great. Paddy knows when to draw the line and when to be hard on us.
Q Was the drinks ban over Christmas eventually lifted?
A He did allow us to have a few shandies but no doubt the ban will return!
Q Didn't you score big goals in the European play-offs?
A I scored two in the semi-finals against Coleraine and then in the final against Glentoran. I didn't come home for two days, there was a little drink consumed and it was like I was off on a holiday. To get into Europe was brilliant and I scored there again.
Q You've played in different positions, has that been hard?
A Looking back, I think that versatility has been a bad thing as I couldn't get settled in one position. I was all over the pitch but Paddy sees me as a wide forward and I've been on the left. If you have that regular role in the team you can work on it. We don't have a formation, Paddy tells myself, Joe (Gormley) and Ryan (Curran) to play wherever we want in the final third. You have to go with your instinct.
Q What makes Paddy an effective manager?
A He has a special bond with the players, we love going to training and the craic is brilliant. On match day he's focused and knows what's required. He takes a lot of pride in our defensive shape and the clean sheets. Being a defender himself, that's his goal. If we are beaten, in training he'll make us work harder because that shouldn't be accepted. He's instilled a winning mentality into us and the boys don't want to lose in training, never mind matches.
Q When you hang up your boots you'll be able to reflect on playing alongside an Irish League great in Joe Gormley. How would you describe him?
A Joe is unbelievable. He's an even better person than he is a footballer. Joe is so down to earth and we are close friends. We'll have a beer together on a Saturday night and I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him. His record speaks for itself and when I shout at him to pass he sticks one in the top corner. He's a top, top player. We played Dungannon at home and Joe did nothing in the first half and it was 0-0. He was getting frustrated but within 12 minutes of the second half he had a hat-trick. Only a special player has that talent. With Joe in your team, you always know you have a chance of winning any game.
Q What support have you got from your family?
A I can't thank my mum and dad enough and they still go to every game. My mum Esther will be there every Saturday. I could hear her shouting at me if I missed a chance in an under-age game but thankfully I can't hear her with the big crowds. My parents will travel anywhere and my mum even wanted to come down to Sligo in pre-season. My wee cousin Jay is Cliftonville mad and I'd love to walk out with my three-year-old daughter Daisy at a cup final. She's a bit too young to understand football but I try to spend as much time as I can with her.
Daddy’s girl: Conor McMenamin with three-year-old daughter Daisy
She was in the house watching the play-off game with Glentoran and when I scored I took my top off. She said, 'Daddy, why did you take your top off?'… she just didn't understand! Football is important to me but Daisy comes first and Paddy recognises that. There's more to life than football and we all have families. I work nine to five and go straight to training and time with her is limited. Her mum and I are separated but we work it out. It's hard at times and I found that out at Christmas when the schedule is packed. They are the big games you want to play in but time spent with Daisy is precious.
Q So was Daisy's arrival the best day of your life?
A One hundred per cent. I was born on August 24 and she was due on May 18. I have worn 24 on my shirt and thought about the chances of her being born on May 24. On that day I got the phone call to tell me she was ready to be born and it's a special number to me. It changes your life and I can't wait to take her to games when she can understand. I took her to a match against Glenavon when I was injured and 10 minutes into the game she wanted to go home. After one game against Glentoran I went over to her and she was sleeping.
Q But when you're older she will have memories of watching you play which will be nice.
A It's just hard when you get a phone call and she says, 'Daddy, can you lift me tonight? I want to see you' and you have to go to football. Probably the hardest time I had was over Christmas when it was the first time we were apart. I wasn't with her on Christmas Eve night and I lay in bed crying my eyes out because it hit home, I wasn't with her in the build-up to Christmas morning. You see families together and it was hard being on my own. I had just scored the winner against Coleraine but then it hit home that I wasn't going to be with Daisy to help her leave something out for Santa. It was tough to take, not being able to put her to bed or seeing the excitement on her face.
Q How often do you see her?
A It's hard because you put on a brave face in front of people. People think, 'He's flying, scoring goals for Cliftonville' and 'His life's great' but there's more to life than football. I see her on a Wednesday and Friday for three hours and some weekends.
Q Has she got the full Cliftonville kit?
A I got her the away one. She used to wear it a lot. I think she prefers the dresses at the moment. The odd time if I'm wearing my tracksuit she'll decide to put it on. I take her swimming, she loves that and I like to have my own time with her to have that bond.
Q What are you looking forward to over the next few years?
A I want to win more trophies. I won the Championship with Warrenpoint but the County Antrim Shield win this season was special, my first final and one to remember. We didn't play well against Ballymena United at Windsor Park but we still know how dangerous we can be. When the seven minutes of added time went up, that gave us a little hope and we thought that we'd get at least one chance. Just when I was looking forward to extra time we went and won it right at the death. It was this team's first triumph and it was wonderful to share that moment with our brilliant fans. You may not get to many finals in your career so we will cherish that one forever.
Q You also hit a hot streak over the festive season, scoring winners against Coleraine, Crusaders and Larne. How did that happen?
A There's probably a number of factors behind that. I just try and do the same things and have the same pre-game routine. I'll wear the same shoes until I have a bad game! An old job held me back with respect to my training schedule but I now work for Killyleagh Health Centre, nine to five so I don't miss any training. If you start missing training, you'll likely lose your place in the team.
Q Can the Reds end their Irish Cup pain this season?
A It's been a long time for the club, and I haven't played in an Irish Cup final. You watch them but want to be involved in a huge game like that. I have to be honest and say that I would rather win the league than the Irish Cup but I can appreciate that it would be a special day out and the Cliftonville fans have wanted it for a long time. The fans have been following us in huge numbers and getting behind us. We won at Seaview on Boxing Day for the first time in 10 years and Paddy keeps challenging us to go on and make more history.