Cliftonville return to action ahead of Glentoran Irish Cup semi-final
WITH their Irish Cup semi-final against Glentoran looming on July 27, Cliftonville returned to action after a fourth-month, Covid-19-enforced lay-off with a behind-closed-doors friendly against Shamrocks Rovers in Dublin last Saturday.
The game ended in a 3-0 defeat for Paddy McLaughlin's Reds but it was a valuable exercise for the north Belfast side who haven't won the Cup since the halcyon days of 1979 when Tony Bell scored a late winner in a 3-2 thriller against Portadown.
“It was good to get back on the pitch again,” said McLaughlin, reflecting on Saturday's visit to Tallaght Stadium.
“Rovers are the best team in the country at the minute so it was a lot of hard work trying to get the ball back off them. They are quality but it was our first game in four months so it was a good workout for us and it gives us something to work on going into the next couple of weeks.
“It was all about getting some game-time under the boys' belts and we made a load of changes were able to get all the boys a game.”
Victory over their city rivals will see Cliftonville progress to the final against Ballymena United or Coleraine on July 31 and, while the prospect of two high-profile games in the space of five days is daunting, it's much better than no football at all.
“Hopefully we'll get two games in a week,” said McLaughlin.
“That's what we're setting ourselves up for now but Glentoran will be a tough game, they have had a good year under Mick McDermott but we're all looking forward to it.
“Ideally we'd like to be going into a game like this in the middle of the season when the players are all fit and in form but the whole country, the whole world basically, has been in lockdown for the last four months, so it's difficult to get back up-and-running. We just have to train as hard as we can and get into the best shape we can.
“It's the hand we've been dealt and it's same for all four clubs. At the end of the day we almost lost the Irish Cup, the season almost folded, so we are just grateful to be able to get a shot at it.”
In a nice touch of symmetry, Cliftonville's return is against the last club they played in competitive action. The Reds and Glens met in the league on March 7, the final game before lockdown, and the Reds won 2-0 thanks to goals from Chris and Ryan Curran.
That victory meant McLaughlin's men have won 2-1 in the meetings this season – Cliftonville were 1-0 winners in October but the Glens avenged that loss at the Oval by travelling across Belfast to win 2-0 at Solitude a month later.
“The boys all had training programmes to work on during the lockdown and when they came back they were all in great shape. They've worked hard since they came back in and they're really looking forward to it,” said McLaughlin.
“We'd be hoping to have a full squad to pick from but between now and then a lot can happen and we have picked up a few knocks and niggles since we came back, we'll have to careful about what we're doing over the next week to keep them all right.”