Luke Turner might be approaching the new season with a raft of personal accolades under his belt but the Cliftonville defender has revealed he nearly walked away from football entirely last summer.
Disillusioned with life at Aberdeen following loan spells with Turriff United and Wexford, it was with some degree of hesitation that the Dubliner agreed to another loan move when Paddy McLaughlin’s Reds came calling.
Fast forward 12 months, however, and Turner has firmly established himself as one of the top talents in the Danske Bank Premiership, having landed the Young Player of the Year honour at the NI Football Awards, the Ulster Young Footballer of the Year gong and a similar decoration in Cliftonville’s own end-of-term prize ceremony.
It’s fair to say that the prospect of such acclaim was not on the 20-year-old’s horizon when he first touched down at Solitude.
“If I’m being honest, I wasn’t enjoying my football at all,” says Turner, who penned a new deal with the Reds after leaving Aberdeen in the close season.
“I thought I’d play maybe three or four games off the bench if I was needed but I didn’t think I’d get much game time.
“I was thinking about quitting football this time last year, but look what this club’s done for me. Not just the club — the city and the fans have made me enjoy my football again and I love everything about it.”
The clear affinity he holds for Cliftonville was, he says, a key factor in his return to the club this summer.
With Nottingham Forest among those whose radar he had crept on, Turner made Solitude custodians a promise that if he came back to the Danske Bank Premiership, it would be with the Reds — a declaration that supporters of the north Belfast club have grown wearily accustomed to hearing as a precursor to a player inevitably being unveiled by a rival just a matter of weeks down the line.
Turner, however, insists he never had any intention of going back on his word.
“There was no other club for me in the League,” he says.
“Other clubs offered but I said straight away that I wasn’t interested in joining — the only one I was interested in was Cliftonville.
“That’s down to the fans, the club, the project that we have going on and I do think we can go that step further and win more trophies over the next couple of years.”
The former Shamrock Rovers man lifted the BetMcLean League Cup during his maiden season with the Reds and was part of the team that topped the table for a spell on the final day of a gripping campaign that ultimately ended with Cliftonville missing out on the title by a single point.
If Turner’s personal achievements were hard to predict, the team’s soaring form likewise confounded expectations across the board.
“What can you say, I don’t think anybody expected us to have a season like that but all I’m thinking is ‘can we do it again?’,” he adds.
“There’s no point in looking back but it was a great year and everything about the place — the club, the team and the fans — was brilliant.
“It’s over now though and we’re just looking forward to trying to go and get what we didn’t get last season.
“People are saying we’re in with a chance of winning the League which is madness when you think of what the expectations were this time last year.
“We want to be in the chase for every trophy, including the Irish Cup even though we don’t talk about that around here.”
Despite his youth, Turner has already plied his trade at numerous levels either side of the Irish Sea and, as such, is speaking from experience when he says that the Premiership provides invaluable experiences for up-and-coming talents.
“They take no prisoners in this League and I found that out quite early on,” he laughs.
“The first game I came on, I think it was against Carrick, and they had a six foot five centre-back that came on and hit me one straight away.
“It’s not even the top players in the League that are great to test yourself against, it’s playing against the teams that are playing off passion and nothing else — I think it’s one of the best Leagues to learn and become a senior player in because in a lot of other Leagues, there’s a lot of tippy-tappy passing the ball around, but here you’re going to get physical, you’re going to get your back and forth, your possession, everything that you look for in a football game. You have to learn fast.”
Turner did just that when he quickly established himself in the Cliftonville XI before displaying the consistency that earned him a multitude of awards when the curtain came down — not that he felt particularly worthy of such acknowledgement.
“I didn’t really think I deserved them, to be honest,” he says.
“I know everybody says it but it’s the club’s awards and it’s the team’s awards for letting me play and being a part of this team. There were other players that could have won it — I think Cricky Gallagher was eligible for it and he’d have been a worthy winner.
“Then you have the older lads who were in the running for some of the other awards but, for me, what I won was a team trophy. It wasn’t anything I done — the team made me win them.”