It takes a brave man to rebuke legendary Irish League boss Roy Coyle – to do it three times borders on the ridiculous!
But in the season of goodwill and understanding, Paul McAreavey still hasn’t made it on to the former Glentoran manager’s Christmas card list.
Having enjoyed a spell in full-time football with Swindon Town, the Lisburn man went on to enjoy legendary status with Glentoran’s cross-town rivals Linfield.
Not only was he an integral part of the Blues’ history-making inaugural Setanta Cup success, but the best was yet to come for Paul – known as Mackers to his friends and colleagues – as he played a major role in the club’s ‘Clean Sweep’ of trophies the following season.
In an ironic twist, he believes his ‘worst moment in football’ was the catalyst for the success he enjoyed at Windsor Park. Morgan Day is still celebrated in the East of the City – the day the former Linfield striker (Chris Morgan) bagged an injury time winner for Glentoran which duly brought the Gibson Cup to the Oval.
Glentoran chief Coyle at last had something to chuckle about after being disappointed in his three previous attempts to lure Paul to his club.
Portadown chief Ronnie McFall was first on the ball when Paul returned from England.
“Roy had telephoned me the previous year about coming to Glentoran, but I had just signed a new deal at Swindon,” recalls Paul. “But he said if I ever plan to return home to give him a ring.
“When I eventually left, Ronnie contacted me right away. Portadown had just won the League title and he offered me good money. I signed a one-year deal. Roy wasn’t too happy. He reminded me of my promise. I tried to talk my way out of it, but it didn’t wash with him.
“Being honest, I didn’t really like it a Portadown. I love Ronnie to bits now, but I didn’t enjoy my year under him. He frustrated me, playing me out of position.
“The travelling got to me and having come back from England, it was a part-time mentality at the club. If boys could get a bit of overtime at their respective jobs, they didn’t bother turning up for training. There were a few Dublin lads and they never came up. It was a bit scattered.”
It was inevitable Paul would be on the move when his contract expired – he was caught up in a tug-of-war involving Belfast’s Big Two.
“Both David Jeffrey and Roy (Coyle) were on the telephone with me,” laughs Paul. “It was the third time Roy was on my case.
“I was up front with Davy, telling him I was going to speak with Roy. I stuck to my word and met him... he actually offered me more money. Again, I turned him down. He said you’ll not get the chance to do it again!”
In the days of Civil Unrest and with his West Belfast background – he was from the Springfield Road – Paul had to think outside the box before putting pen to paper.
“When I met Davy it felt right for me, he was so enthusiastic,” remembers Paul. “He explained the club was determined to erase any religious stigma that once existed.”
After a quick consultation with his dad Danny, Paul’s mind was made up.
He went on: “Davy emphasised things were changing at Linfield, but I didn’t want my windows put in for signing for them. When I met my dad, he was having a pint with his mates up the Falls (Road).
“He didn’t believe me when I told him I’d come from Windsor Park. His mates certainly saw the funny side of it and they were having a bit of a laugh, but dad insisted there would be on drama, it was a game of football.
“He encouraged me to do what I felt was right. I had the best time of my life at Linfield. You couldn’t have written the script as the trophies just kept on coming.
“I’m still treated like a king at Windsor. Davy was rebuilding, he signed boys like Kenny Irons and Phil Charnock from England, and they brought a new mentality to the group.
“The squad that won the Clean Sweep are still worshipped. Even when a few of us left, the team just kept on winning titles. We had started it (the success) off... we had built a strong mentality.
“We were all mad and the craic was brilliant, but a soon as training started, everyone just flicked a switch... everyone knew we were in to work. You can have a laugh and a joke, but once the work starts, you had to knuckle down, it was down to business.”
Paul insists the change of mindset all stemmed from that madcap day in front of a sell-out crowd across town at the Oval.
He adds: “A draw would have won us the title, but we were beaten by Chris Morgan’s injury time winner. I’ll never forget it.
“There were a lot of big characters in the dressing at that time... Winkie (William Murphy), (Pat) McShane, Spike (Glenn Ferguson), Noel Bailie, (Oran) Kearney, Gaultie (Michael Gault), Dougie (Stephen Douglas) and Aidie O’Kane.
“We sat in the dressing room for over an hour after the game and not one person spoke. Even all the big characters... no one opened their mouth. People didn’t realise how devastated we were. We all knew the consequences. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in football.
“But if anything, it kicked us on. We went on to win the Setanta Cup the following week against all the odds, beating Shelbourne on their home patch in Dublin.
“Then, the following season, we completed the Clean Sweep. In many ways, Morgan Day did us a favour. We could have fallen apart as a team – instead we regrouped. If anything, it helped galvanise us.
“Linfield was certainly the most professional club I was that, including Swindon. The team basically picked itself for a few seasons... big Davy would even admit that.
“He used to say, ‘I never managed you, you managed yourselves’. He was probably right. It was the best time of my career... big Davy was brilliant as a boss and as a person. He won so many trophies in his time at Linfield – six League and Cup doubles in seven years. I doubt if that will ever be repeated.”
In his early days, Paul left Northern Ireland as a 16-year-old, having been offered a contract at Swindon Town, but returned five years later. He reckons in today’s modern game, players have a better chance of making the grade after cutting their teeth in the Irish League.
“In my opinion if lads get a few years grounding in the Irish League, it will stand by them in good stead,” he adds. “Look at Trai Hume (Linfield) for example, look at the amount of first team football he has played over here and, when he does go across the water, he’ll be better for that.
“A lot of boys return home after leaving at 16. Yes, a few make it, but the ratio is not good. I was there five years, and I still didn’t make it. For me, it makes sense to stay a bit longer and play Irish League football. If you are good enough, you’ll get a move.
“When you go over there at 16, people don’t realise it’s only the first step on a massive ladder.
“When I got a contract, I thought I’d made it in England. I’m a top player, I’ll make plenty of money . . . I suppose it’s only natural it would go to your head. Unfortunately, for most it doesn’t happen. It’s then all downhill and their lives end up spiraling.”
It was a case of so near, yet so far for Paul, adding: “I made my debut at 16 and I always trained with the first team. I was doing well at one stage when the club was top of the Championship.
“But then the usual things kick in... I picked up a few injuries and the club went into a bit of financial turmoil. Manager after manager arrived. I don’t remember how many I played under... Alan McDonald, Jimmy Quinn, Steve McMahon, Roy Evans, Neil Ruddock, Colin Todd, Andy King.
“Roy (Evans) was great with me. He offered me a new deal and, while I dithered signing it, Andy King came in to replace him. He told me he wasn’t honouring Roy’s contract offer.
“My head just went. I packed up the car with my belongings and drove up to Liverpool to board the Belfast boat. That was me finished with England.”