Kyle Neill: ‘We have lost two good men in Alan McDonald and Mark Farren. Alan was the nicest guy in football and it was sad to see how a legend and gentleman was treated’
Portadown veteran Kyle Neill opens up about the heartbreaks associated with the close bonds that football delivers and why a move to management may not be for him.
Q. What can you remember about your younger days playing football?
A. I started at Annaghmore Primary School and had a good teacher in Gary Kennedy who is involved with Northern Ireland Schoolboys’ under-18s. It was a hockey primary school until Gary changed things. He tried to get everyone to sign for Linfield but the Portadown fans had none of it. My brothers and I got into football and I went from Lisburn Youth to Glenavon Thirds when I was about 16. It didn’t work out for me and I lost interest in football. I played BB football and ended up going to Linfield Swifts and then Armagh City under Scobie Uprichard, where I started to enjoy football again. My brother Mark played for Armagh City and Jonny was playing a bit too but a cruciate injury cut his career short. There was a good camaraderie and the older boys helped me get mentally and physically tougher. Steven Hyndes and I got picked for the junior international team to play in Luxembourg and that’s when clubs started to look at us. Oran Kearney played that year too. Portadown manager Ronnie McFall came in for me and I pushed on from there.
Q. At what point in your early days did you believe you could make it as a footballer?
A. The time at Glenavon was one of my biggest setbacks as I felt I was getting the blame for things. I was dropped for a big game and decided it was time to move on. It gave me a drive to succeed because you walk away feeling there’s a few people you want to sicken. I always knew I wanted to play football but I should have been enjoying it at that age. It is ironic that I went on to enjoy success with Glenavon. Back then they had guys like Glenn Ferguson and Lee Doherty who I looked up to.
Q. As a childhood Portadown fan, how excited were you to join the club?
A. At that time Colin Malone was Glenavon manager and they offered me more money but it wasn’t about that for me. I supported the Ports all my life, my dad Willie brought me to the games and they were winning the big trophies. They were great memories, watching the games with my family. Colin still jokes with me, saying: ‘I nearly had you that year’ but at that time they had a bad run and the Ports were winning the league. In that sense, I was lucky.
Q. What is your best moment in football?
A. I’ve been lucky to win the Irish Cup with Glenavon and Portadown but winning the league title with your hometown club is the pinnacle, that’s the medal you want the most. Not many people have that. I think I was too young to realise what I had achieved. A lot of players who were better than me never got a league winner’s medal. That was the best feeling. I got a buzz off scoring in big games including Cup finals and I will miss those moments. Ballymena United fans still complain about me scoring for Glenavon in the Irish Cup Final!
Q. How saddened are you to see Portadown now battling in the Championship?
A. I felt I didn’t have the pace in me to keep up with the younger and quicker players in the Premiership. Young players look after themselves better now. Many clubs approached me but when the Ports came in for me it was a no-brainer. The writing was on the wall at the Ports, they were paying too big wages and you have to respect clubs like Glenavon who keep their budgets right. Portadown spent money to win a league and they were able to do that but the books weren’t balanced right. It’s unfortunate but it was always going to happen. The Irish League, particularly Glenavon, need Portadown in the top flight. The Ports and Glenavon always brought good crowds. It helps smaller clubs financially.
Q. What was your worst moment in football?
A. The runner-up medal from the Setanta Cup Final with Glentoran was disappointing. We maybe overachieved getting there but then you think if you had pushed a bit more we could have won it but we were a part-time side playing a good Cork City team at their place. Injury has held my career a bit back too.
Q. You were at Glentoran when Alan McDonald was the manager. How shocked were you when he passed away in 2012 at the age of 48?
A. We won the league and Alan was probably the best manager I worked under. Gary Hamilton and Ronnie McFall mightn’t want to hear that but he was the nicest guy in football. He came to Glentoran and changed training for me. It wasn’t just running up hills, he brought in football ideas that he picked up in England and I was fitter and sharper. Alan got a hard time and it was hard to see the treatment he got. It was unfair criticism but the fans pushed him out, it affected his health and it was sad to see what happened to a legend and a gentleman. People don’t understand the pressure you can experience. The abuse can become personal and Alan was half the man he was when he came into the club. It was sad to see because he was such a gentleman and nice fella. He wanted to win as much as anyone else. We had won the league and the fans wanted to win it again. It was sad when I left Glentoran because I loved the club, we had a good side.
Q. Having witnessed that criticism, does it deter you from going into management?
A. It does. I’ve seen it this season with Niall Currie at Portadown. There was a feeling Portadown would walk the league. Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton got it was well. He won two Irish Cups but I’ve heard fans shouting ‘you haven’t a clue.’ Fans can say what they want but it’s hard to take when it’s personal. You do bring your work home with you. My wife Lynette has told me sometimes to quit and let it go because results and criticism was getting me down. It crosses your mind a few times, do I need this anymore but my love for Portadown has driven me on. My brothers have encouraged me to stick at it. I don’t like getting beat and fair play to the managers because you are only as good as your last game in the fans’ eyes. They will be on your back. I was talking to Oran Kearney at the Milk Cup and at one time he was coming under pressure from fans but look at how well he is doing now. People think playing Irish League football is great but it is hard to take sometimes. As a local lad playing for Portadown I sometimes thought I deserved more respect from the fans. I didn’t really want to go to Glentoran but it was probably the best decision because I made an impact at a Big Two side.
Q. Have you found it difficult to balance family, football and work commitments?
A. We are busy and I feel as if I neglect the kids a bit but you miss the football too. I’ve been married to Lynette eight years last May and I’ve three kids Jackson (8), Daisy (5) and Millie (4). I’m lucky to have the kids. When you come home from football the kids bring you round and remind you there’s more to life. They keep me sane by taking my mind off it. I met Lynette in a Banbridge nightclub and she was going to university in Stirling but she came to see me asking why I never went to see her. We stuck together and are blessed with three children. Lynette is from just outside Markethill and she’s not into football. Sometimes she will say ‘Not everyone likes football, I’m sick of listening to you boys talk about it!’ She wants to see me do well but was happy to stay out of it. We have a family business, W G Neill Building Contractors, with my dad. Nobody messed with my dad growing up. He brought a good work ethic into all of us and I used to have to feed the cows before playing for Portadown on a Saturday, an unusual pre-match preparation. My dad still has a few cows and is a hard worker, I’ve always looked up to my mum and dad. My mum Gloria, who has just turned 70, holds the house together. She still makes our lunches! But she bans football talk now and again. I’ve a sister Jill who is a primary school teacher. My granda Gray, who was in his 90s, sadly passed away and he read every newspaper to see what was going on. It’s a hard game and you have low moments when you think about quitting but my family have kept me strong. Good times outweigh the bad and I wanted to win more. I’ve half my B licence done and I’ll need to see how I feel in the coming months. I get bored very easily if I’m not working or playing football. The wee boy plays football and has an interest in boxing. I think I will miss the game when I do retire. I’m 40 this year and that banter has been my life. I’m convinced former players miss the game. I’ve still got that fire in my belly to play at the moment. Working harder made my career. That extra bit of fitness helps my performance. I feel okay when I’m playing but the recovery is tougher. Listen, I’ve drunk an odd pint with Gary Hamilton and Paul Millar and survived.
Q. Has Gary been a major influence in your career?
A. Gary’s very smart, he knows Irish League football. He’s got a great eye for a player and takes no nonsense in the changing room. If you cross him it will take something unbelievable to happen to get back on his good side. He just works hard and thinks about the game all the time. His knowledge of the game is good and he’s played under good managers. He probably made my game easier because with him and Vinny Arkins in the box looking the ball I just had to knock it in. I always saw a manager in him. The Irish Cup is the best day out for a fan and player and Glenavon have tasted that. What I liked about Gary was he sorted out his youth policy and brought in young players to the reserve team like Rhys Marshall, Andy McGrory and James Singleton. He’s reaped the rewards from that.
Q. Is it hard to believe Rhys Marshall hasn’t got a full-time move?
A. I can’t understand why someone hasn’t taken a chance on this fella. I was amazed at how fit he was, he’s strong, not afraid to tackle and Mark Sykes is another one who has the pace to hurt teams.
Q. The Irish Cup win over Linfield in 2016 was tinged with sadness because it was also an emotional tribute to Mark Farren who lost his battle with an aggressive brain tumour in February that year. How emotional was that moment?
A. Mark was an absolute gentleman, that’s an old saying but it was true with him. He was a quiet, genuinely nice fella and a great goalscorer. I set up a few goals for him and they say it always happens to the good ones. The club was distraught but Gary paid a good tribute and his family, including his wife Terri-Louise, came to the final. The boys were always thinking about him because he was very popular and Terri-Louise watched the games so the players knew her well. It’s so sad when something like that happens. You don’t know what’s around the corner and you can only make the most of every day. Mark came to games and it was sad to see his movement and speech was going. The family kept positive that he could pull out of it but it’s hard to accept a person taken away when they’re that young. The final was a brilliant day out and it was a great achievement by the boys beating Crusaders in the semi-final and then Linfield.
Q. Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A. Vinny Arkins was special. One minute he would defend a corner then the next minute he would score a goal. Gary McKinstry played for Armagh City and on the ball he was probably one of the most skilful players I’ve played with. Toughest opponent would be probably Jim Ervin or Colin Nixon. Later in my career, Billy Joe Burns was tough but Crusaders have Gavin Whyte now and it was one of my last games for Glenavon against Crusaders when I thought my time was up. Gavin and Paul Heatley were on the wings and it was like the red arrows coming at you. I couldn’t get a breath and Gary gave me a telling off at half-time. I just gave him a dirty look as if to say: ‘I’m trying to mark these boys and they are flying around everywhere.’
Q. Has the attitude of young players changed over the years?
A. I don’t think young players are as mentally strong now. I would try to help young players but they will go into their shells. When Vinny Arkins shouted at me I took it on board because I respected him. Some players might think if they are wearing the club’s tracksuit they have made it. I think some of them watch the Premier League in England and don’t know the Irish League players. I grew up knowing Glenn Ferguson and Stevie McBride, I was in awe of them. I just don’t think the new generation have the same winning mentality or respect. As for me, I was just an average player who worked very hard.
Q. Paul Millar has been a big influence on you. He lost his son Philip to a drug overdose in March last year. I’m sure that tragedy hit everyone at the club hard.
A. ‘Windy’ gave me a chance at Glentoran and I thank him for that. Philip came to a few games when we were at the Glens and I knew him from then. Paul didn’t talk much about what was going on but when he mentioned to me about an addiction I didn’t think much of it because many of us have problems. It was really sad and Paul is a tough guy who you wouldn’t mess with but when you see something like that happen to someone close to you, it’s hard to take. You don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives and what they are going through. Paul is a strong guy in my eyes and he’s made a real effort to raise money for those with addiction problems,w though he told me that a month off the drink didn’t make him feel any better. He came back to Glenavon a week after it happened and it was his way of dealing with it. The football club was a family and home to him and everyone has their own ways of coping. There are probably players out there suffering in silence. I’ve seen players wanting wages early and you wonder why is that? You’ve got to be aware of people around you.
Date of birth: March 30, 1978
Place of birth: Portadown
Previous clubs: Armagh City, Portadown (2001-2006), Glentoran, Glenavon
Portadown record: 36 goals in 224 appearances