An interview with Gerard Lyttle, by Callum McFadden for WFi.
You are currently the manager of the Northern Ireland under-17 and under-19 teams. How do you reflect on your time in charge so far?
“I am massively proud to manage both sides and of what we have achieved so far.
“For the first time in the history of Northern Irish football, we have managed to qualify both sides for the elite level stage of their respective European championships.
“So, to be the manager of both squads and achieve that with each group makes me immensely proud and excited to work with the players each time that we meet up.
“The key to our work with the players is hard work and dedication. I am thankful to my staff – many of whom work at both levels with me – for what they bring to training and a match day.
“The players themselves deserve a lot of credit too because they have produced strong performances to get us to be able to play at this level.
“It will be a massive learning experience for them and for us as staff.
“Overall, taking both teams to the elite level of European competition is my biggest achievement as a coach to date.”
I spoke to Jim Magilton last year and he was complimentary of your work at the Irish FA, having worked alongside you for a period of time. What was he like to work with?
“It was great to work alongside Jim for two years or so. I had just left Sligo Rovers as manager and Jim invited me in to put on a few training sessions for the Northern Irish under 15’s squad.
“From there, I went in to do that and he and I just clicked. We got on very well from day one and we share similar ideas on how football should be played which led to me moving into the international teams on a full-time basis.
“I became head of the elite academy for the Irish FA before moving into my current role with the youth international teams.
“Jim has such a wealth of knowledge about football that it upsets me that is not involved in football with a club at this time.
“I learned a lot from him and I still do now as he has become a close friend of mine. He has so much to give to the game and I hope to see him return to management or another role again soon.”
As manager of two youth international sides for the Irish FA, how excited are you by the return of Michael O’Neill as manager of the Northern Ireland first team?
“I am as excited as everyone else in Northern Ireland because the success that Michael had in his first spell as manager speaks for itself.
“He did a magnificent job which led to him being headhunted by Stoke City.
“Now that he has returned, it is an exciting time for our nation and also, for me in my role, because Michael has never been afraid to call up young players to the senior team and give them their opportunity.
“If you are good enough then Michael will play you regardless of your age which allows for a fluid pathway in the national setup.
“We have spoken about the talent that we have coming through and I am enjoying working alongside him. It can only be a good thing for my personal development as a coach to learn from someone who has worked at the highest level as Michael has.”
✈️ Our U19s are on their way 🙌 Best of luck to boss Gerard Lyttle, his players and staff in the @UEFA Euro Elite Round in France 🇫🇷 #GAWA pic.twitter.com/RSRXZmDGkV
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 19, 2023
If we can rewind back to your playing days, you were in the academy system Celtic as a young player. What did you learn from your time in Scotland?
“I have great memories from my time at Celtic. To play for the club that I supported as a young boy was incredible. I would go and watch the team on the ferry as a young supporter with my dad which are fond memories of mine.
“Then, to go on and be in around the club myself as a player was unbelievable. Looking back, those days are probably the best days of my life from a playing perspective.
“I learned so much from Willie McStay who was my youth team manager and he is someone I am still in contact with today.
“Nothing was better than going into Celtic Park every day for training and working within the club. Those days will never leave me.”
You moved on from Celtic to join Peterborough United and had spells at clubs such as Ballymena United, Cliftonville and Lisburn Distillery in your career. How would you sum up your playing career as a whole?
“I look back with a degree of disappointment because leaving Celtic was a culture shock to me when I signed for Peterborough United in the old Third Division of English football.
“I wanted to go down to England and play first-team football at Peterborough to prove myself and work my way back up the levels.
“Unfortunately, I did not seem to have any luck with injuries and they derailed my progress and meant that I was not playing on a regular basis.
“From there, I knew I had a decision to make, and I decided to return home to Northern Ireland.
“I wanted to be close to my family after a challenging and disappointing time for myself and I had the opportunity to play in the Irish league.
“I enjoyed my time back home but I knew from an early age that I wanted to become a coach or a manager and set myself on the path to do that from an early age.
“I took my coaching badges as far back as when I was on a YTS scheme at Celtic and continued to progress through the levels of coaching while I was playing.
“That meant that when I was forced to retire through injury at a relatively young age, I was set up to go into coaching and make that my priority going forward.”
Your first senior job in management was at Cliftonville who are a club that you also played for. You won the Northern Irish League Cup with the club in 2016. How would you reflect on your time in charge at Solitude?
“It was a massive opportunity for me because I was first-team coach under the late, great Tommy Breslin.
“We created the most successful side in the club’s history under Tommy’s leadership by winning back-to-back league and cup doubles. It was the first time in the club’s history that such a feat was achieved.
“Tommy was great to learn from and he trusted me to coach the team on the training field which was an invaluable experience for me.
“Gaining that experience in three or four years under him stood me in good stead when I took over as first team manager when Tommy resigned from the post in late 2015.
“Replacing a legend such as Tommy was like taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson because he has won everything while in charge of the club.
“It was a transitional period for the club when he left as players were coming towards the end of their careers or some moved on which meant that I had to try and rebuild a new squad.
“I won my first game 1-0 against a strong Glentoran side who were flying at that time and from there, we went on a good unbeaten run.
“We qualified for European football in my first season and it was a great experience to be taking a team into Europe as a young manager.”
You moved to the Republic of Ireland to manage Sligo Rovers in 2017. How did that experience compare to your time at Cliftonville?
“Upon reflection, I probably jumped into the role too quickly, however, I had always made it clear to everyone that becoming a full-time manager was my aim and Sligo gave me the opportunity to do so.
“That was my main motivation for taking the job because I wanted to prove myself at that level.
“It was a tough decision for me to make the move because we were rebuilding a team at Cliftonville and I was happy there but I did not know if I would get another opportunity to become a full-time manager in the medium term so I felt like I had to take it.
“Sligo are a massive club in the League of Ireland and at the time that I went in as manager, they were struggling at the wrong end of the table and were in a battle to avoid relegation.
“That was a different experience for me in comparison to Cliftonville where challenging to win league titles was the aim.
“There was also a restructuring of the League of Ireland at that time which meant that three teams would be relegated which made the task ahead of me even more challenging.
“Thankfully, we managed to stay in the league by four points and I achieved what I had to achieve in that first season given the position that I had inherited the team in.
“Having stayed up, I thought that the budget at the club would be increased to allow us to bring players to the club that would allow us to challenge higher up the table.
“That was not the case which was disappointing and we knew that we would face another battle to stay in the division which we did in my second season with three games to go.
“Following my second season, they wanted to bring in a more experienced manager and go in a different direction which was disappointing for me because I enjoyed my time at the club working with some great people.”
Last but not least, Gerard, what do you hope to achieve in the future as a manager?
“First and foremost, my full focus in the short term is on working with the Under 17s and under 19s of Northern Ireland ahead of the elite stage of the European Championship.
“My contract is due to expire after those elite level games and we are looking forward to testing ourselves against some of the best sides in the world at those age groups.
“Longer term, I would like to return to management at club level, but the timing would have to be right and the club would have to be right for me too.
“Those ambitions are clear but my full focus is on the here and now with Northern Ireland with our young players ahead of the European championship.”