Belfast Telegraph

'He just wanted his family to be happy': Friends pay tribute to Cliftonville legend Tommy Breslin

Pals Lyttle and Johnston reveal their pain and disbelief at shock death of ex-Cliftonville boss

True legend: Tommy Breslin with the Gibson Cup in 2013
True legend: Tommy Breslin with the Gibson Cup in 2013
Tommy Breslin with Peter Murray and Gerard Lyttle at Parkhead
Tommy Breslin at Solitude following his appointment as manager in 2011
Tommy Breslin hailed by his players after a League Cup win in 2013

By Graham Luney

The outpouring of grief and shock following the tragic death of Cliftonville legend Tommy Breslin is continuing among the close-knit Irish League community.

Tommy died on Wednesday while on a family holiday in Spain, aged 58, though the Red Army will ensure his legendary status at Solitude will last forever.

Loved and respected in equal measure, although he was small in stature he became a giant of Irish League football, one of the greats whose warm personality and humour earned him so many friends.

Tommy's managerial record speaks for itself. Back-to-back league titles in 2013 and 2014 and eight trophies lifted while in charge of the Reds between 2011-15. Supporters have cherished memories from that golden period in the club's history but the privileged few are the people who got to know Tommy and enjoy his company.

Everyone will have their own special memories but all of them will reflect the former midfielder's generous and caring nature.

Gerard Lyttle was Cliftonville's coach during Tommy's remarkable reign in north Belfast and he's struggling to digest the news.

"I'm absolutely gutted," he said. "I can't get my head around it. It's a massive shock to the system.

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"You don't expect to see such tragic news about a person with the calibre of Tommy Breslin. Tommy was such a fantastic personality and it's news that is so hard to take.

"One of his guilty pleasures was going on holiday and he loved to go to places like Spain for a bit of sun. He loved those breaks and getting away with his partner Valerie."

Gerard said it didn't take him long to appreciate Tommy's engaging personality.

"I knew Tommy from his playing days and our association with Cliftonville," added the former Sligo boss.

"When I first met him he approached me about possibly coming on board as a coach at Cliftonville and we went for a coffee. Within minutes I just knew it was a special opportunity to work with him and at the club.

"He had such a great demeanour and way of dealing with people. I immediately knew he was a man I wanted to work with and from that point we became very good friends.

"He looked after me and got me onto the coaching ladder at a young age. He showed faith and trust in me.

"I took charge of the coaching and Tommy trusted me. He had a first-class personality.

"Our first trophy was a County Antrim Shield and we eventually won the back-to-back Championships. Only an Irish Cup final loss stopped us doing a treble.

"It was a privilege for me to be there for every one of Tommy's trophy wins. Him, myself and Minto (Peter Murray) shared those great memories, both at home and on the European trips. We had great nights, the memories will always be there and I also feel for the club's chairman Gerard Lawlor because I know how close he was to Tommy.

"My heart goes out to Gerard and of course Tommy's family. I get emotional when I talk about it because I can't believe we have lost such a nice man."

Gerard often turned to Tommy for advice and he can easily understand why so many people are mourning the loss of the gentle giant of our game.

"Tommy gave me advice when I left Cliftonville to go to Sligo and he was always ready and willing to offer advice," added Gerard.

"Tommy loved a wee small bet and we used to call him a lucky so and so because most of his bets came off.

"I spoke to him a few weeks back and it's so sad to know we won't be with him again. If you just look at social media it's incredible to see Tommy trending at one point because of the tributes.

"I'm not going to meet a person who would say a bad word about him because that person does not exist.

"He had a personality everyone could warm to and nothing really fazed him. He handled pressure so well and never took football seriously which is a fantastic quality to have.

"This game can be tough and stressful, it's easy to be worried but Tommy let it all wash off him. He likes a joke and was always relaxed, even before a big game.

"Tommy was a phenomenal man and I was just blessed to know him and be part of his success at Cliftonville. The good times were really good and no one can take those memories away from us."

Barry Johnston, a midfield warrior in Breslin's title-winning sides, is also in a state of shock following the news.

"Ciaran Stitt, who is part of my coaching staff at St James' Swifts, called me and told me what happened," said Barry.

"I phoned Bressy's number and it just rang through. That never happens and as I panicked I phoned Gerard (Lawlor) and when I found out it was true I was absolutely devastated.

"Tommy will probably be remembered more for being a gentleman rather than a football man. Football was just a hobby to him, he could take it or leave it. I know he was offered jobs after he left Cliftonville but turned them down. Football can make or break you but it never consumed Tommy.

"He just wanted him and his family to be happy. He loved chatting about football but it wasn't the centre of his world."

Johnston will always have the memories of the title-winning glory years.

"Tommy gave me everything in football that I dreamed of as a kid," he added. "I can remember watching Tommy and Minto play. I was fortunate to train with them at the end of their careers as a 16-year-old.

"Cliftonville were the hard luck story of the Irish League, losing finals, but Bressy and his support staff gave me the opportunity to win trophies with Cliftonville.

"I will be so thankful for the rest of my life for what Tommy did for myself and my family.

"It's often said someone is a lovely person when they pass away but in this case it's genuinely true. I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him. He's revered in our game and he had time for everyone."

Tommy's funeral is not expected to take place until late next week.

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