Cliftonville ..... (0)2 ..... Coleraine ..... (0)0
Gareth Deane was the difference between Coleraine and an even heavier defeat at Solitude yesterday. Yet it was an error of judgement by the Coleraine ‘keeper which finally enabled Cliftonville to break the deadlock.
Deane was hesitant on Kris Lowe’s simple cross from the right and in nipped Ryan Curran, almost apologetically, to touch the ball home. That was on 48, and four minutes later the same player grabbed his 14th of the season, beginning and finishing a neat move also involving Doherty and McDonagh.
In fact the first half had threatened to become the McDonagh v Deane show, three times the Coleraine custodian saving from the in-form winger. When he departed the stage close to the end, McDonagh, January’s Player of the Month, must have wondered how he hadn’t added to his growing goal tally. On 82 mins he finally looked to have beaten Deane with a delicate chip, but the ball kissed the cross-bar before being ushered to safety.
Such was the Reds’ superiority over lack-lustre Coleraine, substitute Joe Gormley could afford to squander a couple of good opportunities without causing alarm. The Bannsiders were so far off the pace and only really threatened briefly after the cause appeared lost.
They almost pulled a goal back on 67 minutes, when Glackin, their silkiest performer danced into the box and crossed for Lowry to glance a header off McNicholas’ left-hand post. It was Glackin too, who almost created an equalizer between the Cliftonville goals but the busy McKendry couldn’t quite reach his invitation at the far post.
But in truth, for a side with five strikers on the bench, they were punchless in attack.
Two weeks ago the Bannsiders had their result of the season, despatching champions Linfield 3-0 at Ballycastle Road. It must have felt like a return to headier days; as autumn turned to winter, Kearney’s men went 13 unbeaten and dumped Glentoran from the League Cup.
That very same League Cup could now save their season when they meet Cliftonville (again) in next month’s National Stadium final, although not on the evidence of yesterday.
Since going 13 unbeaten, a run that saw Coleraine hit the net 25 times, their next 11 outings produced only 3 wins... and twice as many defeats. They tumbled down the table averaging only a goal per game. It seems incongruous the mauling of Linfield came amidst such poor form.
A top six place which once looked a formality is now anything but.
It’s the goalscoring and creativity department that’s lost functionality. The vibrancy of early season when I watched them sweep aside Larne on an electric-charged night at The Showgrounds and win efficiently at Seaview has evaporated. The fans must agree! There was only about 200 of them at Solitude yesterday.
Cliftonville on the other hand look a side rejuvenated after their own relatively shorter blip as the new year began. Paddy McLaughlin is garnering a burgeoning reputation and has worked wonders at Solitude playing attractive football. One brilliant spell of quick passing possession yesterday with Rory Hale as the main orchestrator, gave Jamie McDonagh one of those plethora of chances.
The Reds have hauled themselves back in contention, just a point behind second-placed Linfield and will be waiting to pounce should there be slippage at the summit. They still have a meeting with Glentoran to come at the Oval, where the east Belfast men have not exactly been stellar this season.
While automatic qualification for Europe is certainly not beyond capability, squad depth compared to the full-timers above them in the table is to their detriment. But there’s an inner strength and spirit built into McLaughlin’s model that Reds fans hope will compensate.
The returning Hale was a breath of fresh air yesterday for the first 50 minutes. It will help immensely if he stays injury-free. Johnny Addis at the back, is one of the signings of the season and Jamie McDonagh is in the Irish League form of his life.
Only Jay Donnelly and Christy Manzinga have scored more goals than the superbly consistent Ryan Curran and if Joe Gormley’s time can be managed effectively, who knows where all of that can take Cliftonville?
Cliftonville: McNicholas - Lowe, Turner, Addis, Ives (c) - Kearns (C Curran, 72), Hale (Gormley, 53), Doherty, Gallagher - McDonagh (O’Neill, 88), R Curran
Bench (not used): McKenna, McDermott, Donnelly, Coates
Coleraine: Deane - Kane, Brown, O’Donnell (c), Traynor (Bradley, 78) - Jarvis (Allen, 63), McKendry, Lowry, Carson - Glackin, Shevlin (McLaughlin, 63)
Bench (not used): Gallagher, Wilson, Mitchell, Kelly
Referee: Keith Kennedy