A legend lost

The Irish League lost as uniting and respected a figure as was possible last week. That phrase unfairly limits him as he could have taken his place amongst the best of humanity anywhere. Sometimes upon loss, it is only then that the appreciation levels rise as to the realisation of exactly how substantial that loss is. I don’t think that applies here. Tommy Breslin was the sort of person that made those near and far appreciate him anytime upon encounter.

When I think of Tommy Breslin a few things come to mind. It can be easy thinking back in these moments to try and recall various instances to convey the best of the man. Many people, of course, will have plenty but from a distance, he struck a few chords with me and no doubt the rest of the football community.

He had that rare mix I felt of youthful enthusiasm and considered wisdom. They both ran so closely together with him that it came across subtly, but was all the more forceful because of it. He also seemed to possess a benign aura to him which one might think is not the first quality you look for in a football manager or indeed Irish League midfielder.

Mistake that benign aspect at your peril for he was also a driven winner. In the last forty years, Cliftonville has had the high point 1979 Cup win and fabled league win in 1998. Massive achievements they were and are properly enshrouded in love and romance for fans and players.

But in taking nothing away from them they stood a touch isolated as the club was not able to move strongly forward of those platforms. That changed in 2013. The force that Cliftonville is in the Irish League today still breathes the enduring air of the team that won the league that year and the next.

Names that will go down in Cliftonville and Irish League history emanate from Tommy Breslin’s team. The strike force of Gormley and Boyce be it in statistics or goal memory is writ large. That title-winning penalty on the last day against Linfield into the Cage end to take the title from them is a moment Tommy Breslin fed to the club and its history. He kept feeding them.

His simple decency thus must be held in parallel with his football management. He won that league again with that team which is always considered to be that mark of excellence and rightly so for a team to achieve lasting commendation.

Just to frame this wishlist perfectly from a Cliftonville fan’s point of view, you would like those achievements to be at the hand of one of the club’s finest custodians. That is someone who wore the shirt with pride and dignity and then applied the same qualities to the manager’s seat.

So being able to add that killer will-to-win in as well from the manager’s seat, yet still earning and enjoying respect and friendship from those he vanquished to such an extent tells you a lot about him. All this though is before you enter the changing room. None of us of course on the outside know what goes on in there. However, there would be few in the greater Irish League family whose first thought about a Tommy Breslin team wouldn’t be how clear it was that his players loved playing for him.

It’s often a feature that can be forgotten by fans in team analysis and assessment. It can cover all sorts of other deficiencies in a team. So when you see and read all the personal testimonials from those whose work brought them into collegial or adversarial contact with Tommy, everybody seems positively marked by him.

His short spell as Cliftonville manager simply didn’t diminish his standing as Mr Cliftonville and he was never far away from the club. He seems to have become the Irish League’s post-Manchester United equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson. Friend, confidant, font of knowledge and common sense were some of the arrays of attributes he shared with many Irish League managers and players. Let’s not forget either he was always a great communicator and was a friend to the local media as well.

Still, none will forget that ever-present gleam and sparkle in his eyes. It just always seemed to say ‘pleased to meet you’ or ‘happy to be here’. The Irish League sometimes can have a rough and tough exterior and of course, part of that is its appeal. But through all that, there are many who bind the intrinsic bonds from all of us who follow and support it. Tommy Breslin was as good an example of that as you will get.

Again, let’s not limit him as his close family will miss him hugely. We all will. But Cliftonville and the Irish League should be so proud of him. Perhaps the away end at Solitude will become the Breslin Stand. Rest in peace Tommy.