Cliftonville complete mother of all comebacks to seal Europa League play-off spot
Europa League play-off semi-final: Cliftonville 5 Coleraine 3 (aet)
FOOTBALL eh! Bloody hell! Last night’s Europa League play-off semi-final clash was simply outrageous entertainment as Cliftonville mounted the mother of all comebacks to seal their final place against Glentoran at Solitude on Saturday.
In a repeat of last year’s Europa League play-off decider, the winners will pocket £200,000 in prize money and can look forward to getting their passports stamped.
The north Belfast men were 2-0 and 3-1 down in normal time - but battled back to draw level and grabbed two goals in extra-time – courtesy of Levi Ives and Conor McMenamin - to complete a quite remarkable victory.
And spare a thought for James McLaughlin who bagged a brilliant hat-trick for Coleraine and finished on the losing team.
The Reds paid a heavy price for some slack defending in the opening half. Two straightforward crosses from the left flank that should have been meat and drink for any central defence yielded two goals for visitors Coleraine, both of which were nodded home by the predatory McLaughlin.
In the ninth minute, the lively Jamie Glackin put in the first cross and McLaughlin climbed highest.
His header probably should have been ruled an own goal as the ball came off the crossbar and hit the back of the unfortunate Richard Brush in the Cliftonville goal.
Before McLaughlin bagged his eighth goal of the season, Jamie McGonigle waltzed past two feeble Cliftonville challenges but Brush parried the Coleraine striker’s effort to keep the score at 1-0.
But in their very next attack, in the 29th minute, the Bannsiders doubled their lead.
This time it was Adam Mullan’s deep cross and McLaughlin’s header may have lacked power but it had sufficient direction to evade Brush’s despairing dive.
It was only when the home side fell behind by two goals that Paddy McLaughlin’s men increased the tempo and through the ever willing Joe Gormley they halved Coleraine’s lead 11 minutes before the break.
With the visiting defence showing the first signs of indecision, the Ardoyne man nipped in to lob the ball over Chris Johns in goal, but Gormley still had to follow his initial effort in to bundle it over the goal line.
Between the 46th and 71st minute, the Reds owned this Europa League play-off.
They threw everything at Coleraine - and yet ended up falling 3-1 behind.
In the 51st minute, Gormley fired over after accepting a clever Rory Donnelly pass. Five minutes later a sublime dribble from Conor McMenamin didn’t yield a goal.
A superb block from the excellent Graham Crown at the heart of the Coleraine defence denied Ryan Curran. Jamie Harney saw his header cleared off the line by the vigilant Ben Doherty.
And just when it seemed only a matter of time before the Reds would get back on level terms, McLaughlin scored with an outstanding overhead kick on 72 minutes that found the bottom corner of Cliftonville’s net to put Coleraine 3-1 ahead.
Still, the Reds kept pushing and they reduced the arrears to a single goal after a close range finish from McMenamin on 76 minutes after running onto Gormley’s lay-off.
And with the last kick of normal time Ryan Curran smashed home the equaliser from the penalty spot after being pulled down by Josh Carson.
The home side held onto their second half momentum and deservedly went in front just two minutes into extra-time when defender Levi Ives popped up to find the corner of Coleraine’s net from 20 yards.
4-3 Cliftonville. Solitude erupted.
Conor McMenamin rounded Chris Johns in the 116th minute to complete a fantastic comeback that will live long in the memory. Incredible stuff.
Now for a winner-takes-all showdown with the Glens.
Cliftonville: R Brush, C Curran, C McMenamin (J Gorman 116), L Ives, J Harney, G Breen, N Grace (L Bagnall 20), A Harkin, J Gormley, R Donnelly, R Curran Subs not used: B Neeson, J McGovern, S Garrett, T Maguire, D Rocks
Coleraine: C Johns, S Douglas, A Mullan, S McDonnell, G Crown, A Canning, B Doherty, J Carson, J Glackin (D Shiels 83), J McGonigle (I Parkhill 69), J McLaughlin (E Bradley 77) Subs not used: M Doherty, G McGonaghie, C Burke, D King
Referee: S Gregg