Distillery boss Clapham dealing with not meeting his players three weeks after starting job

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Johnny Clapham
Clapham enjoyed three seasons as a player at Ballyskeagh

He may not have met any of them almost three weeks after being appointed, but new Lisburn Distillery manager Johnny Clapham believes he has got to know his players better than he ever could.

Having been part of the Whites playing squad that won promotion to the top flight in 1999, it was something of a dream for the 44-year-old when he got the manager's job.

However, given that appointment was made on 16 March, just after all football in Northern Ireland was suspended due to coronavirus, it has been far from a dream start for the Donaghadee man.

Clapham, though, has used the time to get firmly reacquainted with a club - now in the third tier of the Irish League - that he has hugely fond memories of playing for.

"There's no denying it's been strange. It's been challenging as well, but I've tried to make a positive out of it as that's the type of person I am," he said.

"I have 22 players in the first-team squad and I have spent an hour on the phone with every single one of them. That has allowed me to learn more about them as people through those conversations than I would ever know in taking dozens of training sessions.

"And not just the players - I've contacted every person in the club, including the PA announcer and the staff in the bar, right up to the chairman.

"That has allowed me the opportunity to sell my vision and my plans for how the club can move forward together. Communication is vital and it has allowed the players and staff to get to know me also."

Kirk 'opened my eyes' to coaching

Paul Kirk
Former Distillery boss Paul Kirk won the league as a player with Glentoran, Crusaders and Linfield

Distillery may have fallen down the Irish League pyramid considerably since Clapham's playing days - when he picked up an old First Division and Ulster Cup winners' medal - but he said it didn't make the feeling of walking back in through the doors at Ballyskeagh any less sweeter.

"Just walking down that tunnel leading into the dressing rooms again was special - so many great memories came flooding back," said Clapham, who had a spell on Warren Feeney's coaching team at Ards last season.

"I had great times here as a player, such as scoring the winner against Portadown on our first home game after we got promoted. I've had so many well wishes from ex-teammates since getting the job.

"I'm so excited to be the Distillery manager and feel the coaching path that I've taken, which has also included stints in the youth teams of Knockbreda and Ards, was always leading to this job."

Paul Kirk was the Whites manager who plucked Clapham from Amateur League side Comber Rec and the Donaghadee man says he has a lot to thank the former Irish League winner for.

"I'm a big believer in giving people opportunities in life and 'Kirker' did that for me. He was my mentor and I would hang on his every word.

"He also opened my eyes to what it means to coach and, without him, I probably wouldn't be a coach now. The patterns of play he used to do were superb and he would teach me to make runs that so often led to me getting in behind defences."

'I don't like to look too far ahead'

Darren Armour
Clapham's team-mate Darren Armour joined Distillery from Amateur League side Bloomfield

While no Irish League clubs are able to do any meaningful forward planning in the current climate, Clapham has revealed that even when football does return he will be working to more short-term objectives.

Having lost their Premiership status again in 2013, Distillery dropped down a further level three years later and were sitting eighth in the NIFL Premier Intermediate League before the football shutdown.

"I don't like to look too far ahead. In fact, rather than the old saying of taking things one game at a time, I will be breaking it down even further to looking at it one training session at a time," Clapham explained.

"We want to get promoted, of course, but I won't be putting any time limits on that. It is going to be a slow process as I want to get the culture right first of all. There is no pressure from the club to say we need immediate promotion."

In terms of potential new recruits when he gets the opportunity, Clapham said he will be tapping into the talent he believes exists in amateur football, citing his old Distillery strike partner Darren Armour as the perfect example.

"I've got a great knowledge of, and contacts in, the Amateur League and youth football, and these will no doubt be useful when it comes to adding to the squad.

"I always look at Darren's career and how much of a success he was, eventually signing for Glentoran and winning the league title. Paul Kirk signed Darren from the Amateur League and he never looked back from there."

Before any new signings, though, Clapham has a current squad of players that he can't wait to work with. A squad, of course, that he has got to know so well over the phone.

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