A new dawn begins at Milltown
9 August 2017
It’s the beginning of a new era for Warrenpoint Town Football Club.
For the first time in over a decade they will go into a new season without the input of Barry Gray.
In his time as manager, Gray, who has taken over at Premiership rivals Cliftonville, oversaw the club’s meteoric rise from Mid-Ulster football to three consecutive seasons in the top flight of football in Northern Ireland.
Having stepped down just a few months into last season, Gray handed the reins to Matthew Tipton, with the former Linfield, Dundalk, Portadown and Ballymena United striker managing his team to the Championship title.
For their return to the Premiership, Tipton has made a massive overhaul of the playing staff.
Star men from that Championship title-winning season, John McGuigan and Liam Bagnall, have gone to pastures new while others have also departed Milltown.
A total of 15 new players have come in and Tipton wants to ensure the upward curve returns to the seaside town’s team for the foreseeable future.
“We need to build this football club up. It’s not an overnight project. Think of where we’ve come before my time. It’s been meteoric and you can’t keep going up on that scale, but what we have to do now is, instead of plateauing and being a yo-yo club, we have to keep the climb gradually. Then that means we can attract better players and we can keep our younger players all the way down through the age groups,” says the former Wales Under-21 striker.
“They’ll see big clubs come calling. It happens to everybody. The bigger clubs always come and take better players from everywhere, but what we want to encourage is that we’ll be in the Premiership.
“We should look to follow the model of the likes of Dungannon, who have built themselves up as a stable Premiership club with a thriving youth set-up. I’m not saying the ambition of this club is to be Dungannon, but I think it’s a good template and a good target over the next few years – can we stay in the league and can we encourage our youth set-up to become a thriving part of it?
“We don’t have a massive fanbase, but what I’m hoping is that if people come to watch us in the Premiership and they think that it’s a decent game of football, then they’ll come and watch us again.
“People will only come and kids will only come to matches if you’re winning. My fear, what I don’t want to happen, is that they come and we have a big crowd and we’re playing Linfield or Cliftonville and they beat us, that a kid says to his parents that he wants to be a fan of one of those teams.
“We want them to come and think we’re quite good in the top level and support us. Ultimately, they want success and they want to be part of a winning club.”
A wealth of experience has arrived in the summer due to the contacts Tipton has in the game.
Darren Murray, Sean Mackle, Neil McCafferty and Alan Blayney all add Premiership experience while the likes of Martin Murray – who returns for a second spell at Milltown – TJ Murray, Seanna Foster, Danny Wallace and Luke Fisher bring with them youthful exuberance.
For Tipton, he wants to keep the exciting football that lit up the Championship last season, rather than simply playing to scrape points. Ambition is the name of the game, both for Tipton personally and his new-look squad.
“If you pay £10, £25 or £30 to watch football, you want to see goals. People want to see forward players attacking the opposition and, with all due respect to any team in the world, say Barcelona; did anyone go to watch Barca because Xavi and Iniesta played five-yard passes to one another? Probably not. We enjoyed it, I enjoyed, I studied them and I think what they did was brilliant, but didn’t it get people on their feet when Neymar, Messi and Suarez get on the ball? We want to see excitement,” he says passionately.
“When I’m a manager, I want my teams to go out and excite people. Last season, when we were running all over teams, I was happy and I was encouraging them to go and do it. I do understand that other teams are going to have a good back at us so we have to have a defensive structure.
“I was more proud last season of the run of clean sheets we went on because that’s what we work on. When we work in training and our attack is taking our defence on, it’s brilliant because they are coming up against the best attacking team in the league. I would have liked to have added maybe an experienced centre-back but then I look at Stevie Moan and Jordan Dane – they were both outstanding last season.
“Am I going to change my style of play this season because we are in the Premiership and we’re coming up against the likes of Linfield, Crusaders, Glenavon? No. I want my teams to attack with pace and penetration and that’s our mantra,” he added.
It’s difficult at any level of football to have a squad packed full of players from your town, let alone one as small as Warrenpoint. The likes of Celtic’s 1967 European Cup winning ‘Lisbon Lions’ side who all lived within a stone’s throw of Parkhead simply don’t exist any more.
Yet there have been murmurings of criticism that the ‘Point haven’t tried to keep their local players at Milltown and that’s something Tipton is at odds with.
“Every local player that has left this club has requested to leave. I didn’t want them to leave. Maybe the mindset at this club needs to change. It’s professional now. You’re competing for your jersey and you’re not guaranteed to play. Just because you’ve been at the club for 10 years, eight years or five years, that means nothing to me. It’s a game of football and we’re here to win a game of football. That’s my ruthless nature I suppose and the way I’ve been brought up in football over the past 25 years in the game,” he admits.
“If you’ve been guaranteed a game all your days, obviously it’s hard to accept that someone might come in and take your place for a week or two. But if you’re playing well every week then nobody will take your place.
“Do we want to bring players through and fill the team full of kids from the local area? Of course, that’s what we’re trying to do. But we also realise that, going into the Premiership this season, we couldn’t just rely on the younger fellas.
“If you think of who we lost over the summer – Aaron Traynor, John McGuigan, Liam Bagnall - they are all experienced players at this level and we didn’t want to lose them. Dermot McVeigh had to go to England to university, Darren King, these are all players who are irreplaceable to us. That’s five players, the bulk of a team and half of my players that I didn’t want to lose. I have to replace them.
“We’ve replaced those players with different styles of players in some cases and we also had to fill out the squad. Last season we were running with a squad of 16 for four or five months of the season. That isn’t realistic in the Premiership,” Tipton feels.
“I feel that we have done our business properly and early so all our players have been in with us for the whole of pre-season, apart from Neil McCafferty.
“I think we’ve done good business this summer. The only problem we have is that I think people are looking in from the outside not necessarily thinking we’re a newly-promoted side with the players we’ve brought in who have Premiership experience. I think they might be a bit more wary of us.”
While the manager is very much his own person and isn’t shy in stating his opinion, he does admit the added responsibility now on his shoulders given Barry Gray’s departure is something that he’s still getting used to.
Things are different, not only for the club, but for Tipton himself.
“It’s completely different because obviously I’ve never had to worry about anything else than managing the team. I suppose I do miss the daily phonecalls that we had [between himself and Barry Gray], picking his brain and him picking my brain. I’d be interested to see if he had taken any of my training practices up to Cliftonville and I wonder have I picked up any of his mannerisms in dealing with the players,” Tipton smiled.
“He will be missed, but I suppose I’ve had to step up. I always knew that, if I wanted to become a manager, it wasn’t just a case of putting a training session on. You have to deal with the other side of it.
“The drama only really happens in the summer. Because there is such a long time between ‘real’ matches, players think they’re out of the team, not realising that I have to give everyone the same amount of minutes in pre-season. You can’t please everyone. But that side of it I can deal with because they’re players; they’re human.
“It’s just the admin side of it. I’m not great at that in general life! It’s about juggling budgets too. I think I have juggled them well and I’ve kept below what I’ve been given. The only time I’ve asked for anything is to sign Neil McCafferty because I felt we needed someone of his experience in that position.”
The real action and Tipton’s first managerial taste of the Premiership begins in earnest on Saturday when Warrenpoint host Glenavon with an unusual 5.30pm kick-off time in a bid to get more support through the turnstiles.
As expected from someone so bubbly in general, Tipton simply can’t wait to get started and to test himself against the best managers the country has to offer.
“I’ve missed it. I hate all the soaps sitting at home in the evening and there’s been no football on the television. It’s driven me bonkers so coming down here [for pre-season] has been brilliant,” he beams.
“I honestly can’t wait. It’s moreso the players that I’m excited for because I’ve watched a dozen of them grow from this time last year, knowing that we had that promise of getting back to the Premiership. Now we’re only a few days away from kicking off, you can see the belief growing in the players that they’re nearly there.
“Towards the end of my career, I knew I was going to go into management and that was the path I wanted to go down. Managing in the Championship was brilliant and it was a massive learning curve. But now I want to challenge myself against the best and the best in this country is in the Premiership.
“I want to see where we are as a football club and where I am as a manager compared to the other 11 best clubs.”
You certainly get the impression that, regardless of how the season goes for Warrenpoint and Tipton himself, there won’t be a lack of passion and excitement at Milltown for the next 10 months or so.To read more subscribe to our online Newspaper