Only one team can claim the title of team of the decade when it comes to the Bet McLean League Cup. With four successive wins, Cliftonville pretty much owned the trophy between 2013 and 2017.
But that all goes out the window this evening as Paddy McLaughlin’s Reds attempt to put the disappointment of last week’s losing Co Antrim Shield semi-final behind them.
Standing between Cliftonville and a fifth final in the last ten years (the competition wasn’t played last year), is a rejuvenated Ballymena United, who have accounted for both Linfield and Larne in recent weeks.
The teams also shared the spoils in two very tight league meetings this season, each decided by a solitary goal in favour of the home sides.
Often you don’t know what you’ll get with the Sky Blues, but Cliftonville have regularly been eking out results throughout the season and sit top of the pile in the Premiership. Their home record in the league is exemplary, 100% in fact, with Solitude taking on fortress proportions.
David Jeffrey will point to an annoying injury list in addressing concerns of consistency but with his squad’s health returning, he’ll be optimistic about tonight.
The Braidmen won at Crusaders and knocked out Linfield during this current cup run so won’t be daunted by a vociferous Solitude crowd this evening. And they have scores to settle with Cliftonville triumphing in the last two finals the clubs contested; this competition in 2015 and a last gasp Co Antrim Shield defeat in 2019/20.
The other semi-final which sees Warrenpoint Town travel the longest distance in senior football this season to face Coleraine, looks a foregone conclusion in the favour of the Bannsiders.
Being written off will suit ‘Point manager Barry Gray down to the ground. While his team are struggling to get any sort of foothold this season they did return from the National Stadium last weekend with a point, something no-one would have predicted.
The south Down side put in a huge shift and while such a result helps rebuild shattered confidence, you wonder if they can get up for another big game so soon after. Warrenpoint struggled through the early rounds needing extra time to defeat near neighbours Newry City and squeezing a 1-0 verdict over Loughgall, but Limavady United were dispatched comprehensively in the quarter-final, 6-1.
And they’ll need some of that to topple a Coleraine side which eliminated Glentoran in the previous round and has yet to concede a goal in the competition.
Oran Kearney’s side have been playing in front of huge home crowds this season, there’s a buzz around the Showgrounds these days, and defeat in their last two league games only increases the Bannsiders’ resolve to ensure a positive result this evening.
Sorry ‘Point fans, it’s difficult to make a case out for Warrenpoint this evening, Coleraine appear to have one foot already in the final. Whether Ballymena United can sink The Reds and set up a mouthwatering National Stadium derby final is the more intriguing poser...
Kick-off at Solitude is 7.45pm. The Coleraine v Warrenpoint game has an 8pm start at The Showgrounds.