Cliftonville clash the most important of our season: Ballymena ace Tony Kane

Tony Kane (right) has spent eight seasons at Ballymena and clocked up over 300 appearances

BALLYMENA United ace Tony Kane says tonight's clash with resurgent Cliftonville at the Showgrounds is the club's “most important game” of the season and will test their strength of character.

The Braidmen have been one of the success stories of the year after rocketing to the top end of the league table and making a couple of impressive cup charges.

However, back-to-back defeats to league leaders Linfield – in the League Cup final and a Premier League clash – in successive weeks were body blows.

The Blues have now stretched their lead at the top to nine points but David Jeffrey's men still have a game in hand.

Although the Sky Blues have an Irish Cup quarter-final encounter with Crusaders to look forward to this weekend, Kane says tonight's visit of Cliftonville is crucial for so many reasons.

“It's probably the most important game of our season especially after suffering two hard defeats to Linfield,” said Kane, who played briefly with the Reds back in 2011.

“This game will show us what we're made of. I know the boys are up for it. We need to rack up three points and keep plugging away.”

Ballymena were the better side across the two games with the Blues but they still lost both on a 1-0 scoreline.

Kane, formerly of Blackburn Rovers, added: “We should have got something out of the two games against Linfield but the harsh reality is when you look at the paper on a Sunday, it says: ‘Linfield 1 Ballymena 0.'

“It was two kicks in the teeth two weeks in a row. Everyone knows how well we played in the cup final, but they score and keep a clean sheet and they win the cup. We had something like 74 per cent of possession but we were never going to score that night.

“The more important game for us was last Saturday's league game against them. We'd the better play and we should have had a stonewall penalty but Linfield, fair play to them, they win 1-0 again and stick it out.”

The Reds, meanwhile, kept another clean sheet in their 2-0 win over Warrenpoint last weekend as new boss Paddy McLaughlin continues to make a positive impression at Solitude.

“I'd be friendly with Joe [Gormley] and he was saying that everyone is buzzing at Cliftonville under Paddy McLaughlin, so you might see a different Cliftonville now. You know what it's like when a new manager comes in – it gives everybody a lift.”

After returning home from England in 2011, Kane soon left the Reds for Ballymena where he has spent eight seasons and clocked up over 300 appearances. During that time, the versatile 31-year-old has evolved into one of the most accomplished players in local football.

“The last eight years have been brilliant,” said the Ardoyne native.

“There have been a lot of downs during that time but over the last couple of seasons there have been a lot of ups and it's looking good at the club over the next few years.

“There was a big overhaul of players in the summer and I didn't think it would have clicked as well as it has. Clicking so quickly should mean things can only get better for the club. Hopefully we're not a one-season wonder, but I can't see that being the case with the quality we have in the squad and under the management. I don't think David [Jeffrey] or Bryan [McLaughlin] would allow that to happen.

“Their attention to detail is second to none. Everything is sorted before you go out on the pitch. And with the GPS systems now there is no hiding place any more. I was initially sceptical of them but, to be fair, they are useful. Still, the GPS systems don't tell you about a through ball or sticking one in the top corner!”

Elsewhere tonight Linfield will look to claim another victory over Newry to maintain their commanding advantage at the top, while Warrenpoint travel to Glentoran hoping to put more daylight between themselves and bottom clubs Newry and Ards.

Danske Bank Irish Premiership fixtures (7.45pm): Ballymena United v Cliftonville, Glentoran v Warrenpoint Town, Newry City v Linfield

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