Jim Boyce's various positions take him all over the world – only last week he was in Japan – but there is one destination logged at the top of his sentimental satnav.
Ask the FIFA vice-president, UEFA Youth and Amateur Football Committee chairman and honorary Irish Football Association (IFA) life president to name his first sporting love and his reply is almost instant. "Cliftonville," he told UEFA.com. "In football that is the most important thing to me. No matter where I am in the world, I always try to get home to go to games."
Location and work commitments permitting, Boyce can be seen watching his beloved Reds from his preferred vantage spot; lounging on the edge of a low whitewash wall a handful of metres from the home dugout. It is from there that the 68-year-old Cliftonville FC president has witnessed a potpourri of highs and lows during his time supporting a club that has forever nestled beneath the shadow of Belfast's 'big two' of Linfield FC and Glentoran FC.
Pinpointing the headiest high of his six decades following the north Belfast team as both fan and director is a simple task. "Being club chairman when we won the league championship in 1998," said Boyce. "It was the first time in 88 years Cliftonville had celebrated the title, so it was very special. That is something that stays with you."
Almost 15 years later and Cliftonville are chasing their first championship since that memorable landmark moment in '98. The Reds lie seven points clear atop the Northern Irish Premiership with 20 games played of a 38-match campaign. North Belfast rivals Crusaders FC, themselves targeting a first title since 1997, head the chasing pack in second, while reigning champions Linfield – with six domestic doubles in the last seven seasons – are 14 points off the summit in fifth.
"We are doing all right at the moment," said Boyce. "We are seven points clear and also 14 points above Linfield which, believe me, is always significant, particularly at this stage of the season. Linfield have won six doubles in seven years and are the champions, so they have been the benchmark in recent times. We have gone close in the past number of seasons – we were second in 2010 and third last year – but never quite got over the finishing line.
"It does look as if it will be tighter this season and we are in a decent position, but this league is very competitive and everyone at Cliftonville knows there is a long way to go."
The Reds have won their last 11 fixtures in all competitions and are currently odds-on favourites to secure only the fourth championship in their 133-year history. Manager Tommy Breslin boasts an experienced squad and two of the league's most prolific scorers – Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley who have 19 and 16 goals respectively across all fronts this term.
"There is no doubt this team has the ability to score goals," continued Boyce, no relation of highly rated 21-year-old Northern Ireland forward Liam. "It also has a pool of 19 or 20 players of equal ability, so there is reserve strength to fall back on if there are injuries or suspensions. That's always a positive thing heading into the busy Christmas and New Year period."
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