Christmas chaos at the Brandywell fails to cover up Cliftonville's defensive frailty

Michael McCrudden bagged four for Institute against Cliftonville on Saturday
Pádraig Ó Meiscill

Danske Bank Premiership: Institute 6 Cliftonville 4

TEN goals, one striker bagging four, another grabbing a hat-trick, two penalties, one sending-off: where to begin in what was undoubtedly the Irish League’s game of the season to date?

Cliftonville manager Barry Gray is in no doubt about the answer. It wasn’t Michael McCrudden’s four goals for Institute or Rory Donnelly’s three for the Reds, Donnelly’s penalty miss when the game was finely poised or even his ’keeper Brian Neeson’s sending-off. For Gray, Cliftonville’s poor defending in the first-half at the Brandywell set the scene for what was to follow.

“It was a crazy game. We’d a poor first 45 minutes, we found ourselves 3-1 down, which is where our problems lay. What happened in the second-half happened,” the Cliftonville boss said.

“I think there’s positives to take from it, there’s positives to take from our reaction, it would’ve been easy to roll over at half-time and feel sorry for ourselves. Yesterday again, our two strikers were superb and done all that they needed to do. Individual decisions and mistakes have cost us dearly but, as manager, my focus will be on the first-half performance in relation to us not doing enough, most definitely defensively.

“A lot of people will talk about the penalties and the sending-off, but my focus will be on why we were in that position in the first place.”

If four first-half goals will have been welcomed by the home fans, the chaos that followed left that in the shade. Within minutes of the restart, Cliftonville were level with goals from Donnelly and Joe Gormley. Then came Donnelly’s penalty miss, Neeson’s sending-off following a rash challenge on McCrudden, defender Jamie Harney’s donning of the ’keeper’s jersey and an Institute flourish to end the game as a contest.

“For me, the decision to send Bam [Neeson] off was wrong,” added Gray.

“Speaking to the referee after the game, he told us the challenge was reckless and his feet were high. The challenge was reckless, yes, but his feet weren’t high and, by the letter of the law, it’s a bookable offence. It’s a penalty kick, but it shouldn’t have been a red card.

“I don’t think it’s fair to criticise Rory Donnelly because he was absolutely outstanding in the game – when one of your strikers score a hat-trick, you think to yourself ‘we shouldn’t be having to score four to win a game, it’s just pathetic’.”

Next up for the Reds is their traditional St Stephen’s Day showdown with Crusaders, and Gray is keen to move on from the madness at the Brandywell as quickly as possible.

“Regardless of the result or performance yesterday, derby games at Solitude on Boxing Day tend to look after themselves, they tend to take on a new lease of life,” he said.

“We let the gap at the top of the table go to 10 points on Saturday, so we need to claw some of that back.”

Also on Saturday, Ballymena extended their lead at the top of the table with a 2-0 win over Ards, while Linfield were held to a scoreless draw by Glenavon. Coleraine beat Dungannon 2-1, while the Crues had a 3-1 win over Warrenpoint.

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