WHEN Cliftonville’s name was paired with Celtic in the second qualifying round of the 2103-14 Champions League, a communal roar of delight echoed round the quaintly-named Solitude, home ground of the Northern Ireland Football League Premiership champions.
The Belfast club is traditionally supported by the Catholic community in the city, and has had a long rivalry with the other clubs in Northern Ireland’s capital, namely Linfield, Glentoran, and their biggest rivals Crusaders, against whom they feature in the North Belfast Derby.
The Reds have just enjoyed the most successful season in the club’s history, winning the Irish League Cup as well as the championship, the latter title bringing them the opportunity of Champions League football against Celtic.
Now the part-timers are preparing for what their manager Tommy Breslin, a civil servant by day, happily calls the biggest game of their career. Breslin, above, explained: “There’s a big connection between Celtic and Ireland in general and a lot of players and supporters would also be Celtic fans, so it’s been a dream come true to be tied against them in a competitive game.
“It’s a small, compact stadium with an artificial pitch, and we have managed to get some additional seating into the ground, so the crowd will be just over the 5,000 mark.
“That will be in our favour, and if we can play as well as we did in the Europa League last season when we beat Kalmar of Sweden 1-0 here, and if Celtic are below par, then we could give them a run for their money.”
So who should the Celtic supporters fear in the Cliftonville contingent?
“Three of our boys attracted most of the attention last year,” said Breslin. “Liam Boyce is a 21-year-old striker, who came through our ranks and then was over with Werder Bremen for a couple of years before coming back. Another striker is Joe Gormley, a young lad who came through from the amateur ranks and between him and Liam they scored 66 goals which propelled us to the league title.
“Conor Devlin is a young goalkeeper who was with Manchester United for four or five years before coming home to try and resurrect his career with us.
“But we have a whole squad of players that I would describe as good quality Irish League players. We are part-time, they do their own training outside of what the club does, but we all realise that we have an immense task against Celtic.”
A former player with the Reds, Breslin grew up around the corner from Solitude and after nine years as a player and a spell as assistant manager, he took over the reins two years ago. His enthusiasm for the club and his immediate task is evident.
“We will look forward to it, and hope to give a good account of ourselves,” said Breslin.
“We haven’t done anything special to prepare ourselves for Celtic. We were on the go for 49 weeks last season, so in our wisdom, or maybe the lack of it, we didn’t come back into training until three weeks ago – had we known that we were going to draw Celtic, obviously we would have come back a bit sooner!
“We have had three friendlies against junior and amateur teams, deliberately so the boys could get the confidence of hitting the back of the net. It’s been very warm and the boys have had a good run out or two.
“We will train again on Monday night, and that will be us ready to go – we won’t be overtraining because we are part-timers and we don’t want to be dead on our feet come Christmas time.”
Celtic, of course, have had a fairly disastrous pre-season tour of Austria and Germany, losing all four matches and conceding 12 goals.
“They haven’t had the best of trips, have they?” said Breslin with a smile in his voice. But he is not kidded – Breslin knows it’s a huge ask for his men to avoid a drubbing. He said: “We have a lot of young players who are very keen and very capable on the day, and if you look at our home record you see that we won 25 of our 28 matches at Solitude last season. We have made our ground a bit of a fortress and hopefully we can keep that going on Wednesday.
“I will be telling the boys that this is a once-in-a-lifetime game, and who knows, maybe in 20 or 30 years’ time, people will still be talking about it.”
This being Northern Ireland where sport, religion, and politics often form a poisonous brew, the principal hope of everyone involved in this week’s match is that Cliftonville and Celtic can play in safety and that the Scottish champions can visit Belfast and return home sound and secure.
In many respects, the result will be secondary to that achievement, but Tommy Breslin and his men will undoubtedly give their all to ensure that Celtic will still have work to do in the second leg in Glasgow.