Coleraine still aiming high ahead of Cliftonville clash: Oran Kearney
Danske Bank Irish Premiership: Coleraine v Cliftonville (tonight, Ballycastle Road, 7.45pm)
ECLIPSING last season's third place finish and an Irish Cup final appearance will be “a heck of an achievement” says Coleraine boss Oran Kearney.
Given their moderate resources, the Bannsiders were many people's team of the 2016/17 season and Kearney the best manager of the campaign – but the former Linfield player says nobody at Ballycastle Road will be resting on their laurels this year.
Coleraine got their new league campaign off to a flying start with a 3-1 away win over Dungannon Swifts despite being reduced to 10 men for the last 35 minutes at Stangmore Park.
Prior to their league opener Kearney signed a new three-year deal – reward for Coleraine consistently punching above their weight during his six-and-a-half years at the helm.
“It has been a tough shift and there has been a serious amount of building to try and break into the top six, top four teams in the league,” Kearney said ahead of tonight's visit of Cliftonville.
“I don't think some people realise how hard it is to break into that bracket. We'd a great finish to last season and it was great to be up there.
“I've told our lads that it would be a heck of a season to do it again. There are loads of teams breathing down our necks and Cliftonville will be one of them.
“But we haven't rested on our laurels and we want to see how far we can go.”
Despite being “schooled” by Linfield in last season's Irish Cup decider, Kearney believes the experience the younger members of the squad accrued from the day will stand to them.
“For the younger members of the team last season's Irish Cup final experience is probably worth 40 or 50 matches rolled into one,” he said.
“We were schooled on the day by Linfield but I know the players have gained a huge amount from it and I'd rather have been there in the final than not being in it.”
Tonight's visitors hit six past Ards in their opening league game last weekend, with Joe Gormley grabbing a brace, and Kearney expects arguably a tougher examination from Cliftonville than previous years.
“Every test is a tough test but particularly Cliftonville with having a new manager and a new regime in there; you obviously expect a different test to the one we had last year.
“Obviously with Cliftonville scoring six goals on Saturday they'll be in buoyant mood.”
Steven Douglas was red-carded on Saturday and is ruled out of tonight's clash while striker and GAA ace Eoin ‘Skinner' Bradley will be able to give even more focus to Coleraine after Glenullin were knocked out of the Derry Championship at the weekend.
“The big curve ball for us this year was playing in Europe but we took 10 days off in the middle of July when everybody else was training to try and keep them fresh and hopefully we'll see that,” Kearney added.
“We went down to 10 men after 55 minutes but our fitness and sharpness was really, really good. So I'm more than happy with where we're at right now.”
Tonight's Danske Bank Irish Premiership fixtures: Ards v Linfield, Carrick Rangers v Ballymena, Coleraine v Cliftonville, Crusaders v Warrenpoint, Glenavon v Ballinamallard United, Glentoran v Dungannon (all 7.45pm kick-offs)