Luke Turner may be approaching the new season with a slew of personal accolades, but the Cliftonville defender has revealed he almost gave up football altogether last summer.
After being disappointed with life in Aberdeen after stints at Turriff United and Wexford, the Dubliner agreed to another loan with some hesitation when Paddy McLaughlins Reds called.
Twelve months later, however, Turner has firmly established himself as one of the top talents in the Danske Bank Premiership after winning Young Player of the Year, Ulster Young Footballer of the Year and a similar decoration at Cliftonville’s own end-of-semester awards ceremony.
It’s fair to say that the 20-year-old had no chance of such recognition when he first landed at Solitude.
“To be honest, I didn’t enjoy my football at all,” said Turner, who signed a new contract with the Reds after leaving Aberdeen last season.
“I thought I might play three or four games off the bench if I was needed, but I didn’t think I was going to get a lot of playing time.
“I was thinking about quitting football this time last year but look what this club did for me. Not just the club – the city and the fans have made football fun again for me and I love everything about it.”
The clear affinity he has for Cliftonville he says was a key factor in his return to the club this summer.
With Nottingham Forest among those on whose radar he had wormed his way, Turner made a promise to Solitude administrators that he would return to the Danske Bank Premiership with the Reds – a statement the club’s supporters from North America have embraced. Belfast have tired of hearing as a precursor to a player being inevitably revealed by a rival just weeks later.
However, Turner insists he never intended to go back on his word.
“For me there was no other club in the league,” he says.
“Other clubs offered but I said straight away I wouldn’t be interested in joining – the only one I was interested in was Cliftonville.
“It’s because of the fans, the club, the project we have going and I think we can go further and win more trophies in the next few years.”
The former Shamrock Rovers man won the BetMcLean League Cup in his debut season with the Reds and was part of the team topping the table on the final day of a thrilling season that ultimately ended with Cliftonville missing out on the title by a mere lone Point.
While Turner’s personal performances were difficult to predict, the team’s improving form fell short of expectations across the board.
“What can I say, I don’t think anyone was expecting a season like this, but I’m just like, ‘Can we do it again?'” he adds.
“There’s no point in looking back but it’s been a great year and everything about this place – the club, the team and the fans – has been brilliant.
“But now it’s over and we’re looking forward to trying to get what we didn’t get last season.
“People are saying we have a chance to win the league, which is insane considering what the expectations were this time last year.
“We want to chase every trophy, including the Irish Cup, even if we don’t talk about it here.”
Despite his youth, Turner has already practiced his craft at numerous levels on both sides of the Irish Sea and speaks from experience when he says the Premiership offers invaluable experience for up-and-coming talent.
“No prisoners are taken in this league and I found that out early on,” he laughs.
“The first game I played was against Carrick and they had a 1.80m centre-back who came on and hit me straight away.
“It’s not even the top players in the league to go head-to-head against, it’s about playing against the teams that are playing for passion and nothing else – I think it’s one of the best leagues around to learn and become a senior player because in a lot of other leagues there’s a lot of tippy-tappy where the ball is played around, but this is where you get physically active, you’re going to get your back and forth, your possession, everything what you are looking for in a football game. You have to learn fast.”
Turner did just that as he quickly established himself in the Cliftonville XI before showing the consistency that earned him a host of awards when the curtain fell — not that he felt particularly worthy of such recognition.
“I didn’t really think I deserved it, to be honest,” he says.
“I know everyone says it but it’s the club’s awards and the team’s awards for allowing me to play and be a part of this team. There were other players who could have won it – I think Cricky Gallagher was entitled to that and he would have been a worthy winner.
“Then you have the older guys who were in contention for some of the other awards but for me what I won was a team trophy. It wasn’t something I did – the team made me win them.