Playoffs cruel on Glenavon - but we knew what we signed up: McLaughlin
Danske Bank Premiership Europa League playoff: Cliftonville v Glentoran (today, 5.30pm, Solitude)
PADDY McLaughlin was there in Istanbul for Liverpool's last great European comeback, but the avid Reds fan didn't mind missing their latest one.
While they were overwhelming Barcelona at Anfield on Tuesday night, his Cliftonville side were in the thick of their own thriller, coming from 3-1 down to see off Coleraine after extra-time.
That secured a Europa League playoff final against Glentoran, a side rejuvenated in recent weeks under Mick McDermott, who stunned Glenavon in another classic on the same night.
The Lurgan Blues thus miss out on a European place having finished third in the table, no fewer than 21 points ahead of Glentoran.
McLaughlin admits he has a certain, albeit limited, sympathy for Gary Hamilton's side, whose automatic spot in the Europa League qualifiers was taken by Crusaders following their Irish Cup success.
“They finished so many points ahead of us, so many points ahead of Glentoran, it's a bit cruel on them to be put out at the semi-final stage.
“But that's what we signed up for at the start of the year, we don't make the rules.”
Cliftonville's own form had been good from McLaughlin came in in February until their last two sobering defeats to Linfield (5-1) and Glenavon (4-0). Prior to that, they'd won seven of his first ten games in charge.
They will host Glentoran at Solitude for the final continental place, with victory worth an estimated £200,000.
“I'm sure the club would be delighted to get the financial reward of it, but as a manager and as players, we're not focussed on money,” said McLaughlin.
“We're focussed on playing at the highest level, and that's European standard. The opportunity to do that is one game away.
“It would be a reward for all the hard work and it'd be great to have something to look forward to when the season ends on Saturday, to know that we're coming back after the summer to play European football.”
Glentoran took 11 points from the last 15 to squeeze into seventh and now stand the same 90 minutes away from a major shot in the arm themselves.
McLaughlin feels their players deserve credit for doubling down after the tumultuous period that saw Gary Smyth replaced by McDermott amid a takeover, a move which attributed to McDermott having the required coaching badges to take the club into Europe.
It was a statement of ambition from their position at that time, but they've backed it up.
“For [Smyth] to be removed from the position in the circumstances it was, it could easily have had an effect on them, but Mick's come in and done a fantastic job, the players have bought into what he's doing straight away,” says McLaughlin.
“You have to give Mick credit, and the players. They could have been frustrated with how Gary Smyth was treated and how he lost his job, they could have gone the other way, but they haven't.”
The Derry city native believes that the addition of an extra night's training, adding Monday to the Tuesday and Thursday sessions, has been the key.
“Like most sides, they were Tuesday and Thursday, but we've brought them in on a Monday as well to try and get the week off to a good start and get to work on them, to get an extra physical session as well as a ball session.
“We had to get them fitter, more comfortable on the ball and buying into playing out from the back. I just thought two days a week wouldn't have been enough, you'd have been trying to rush things through and not putting enough time into what we wanted to do.
“That's why we introduced the extra night, and it's worked really well.”
Cliftonville will be without on-loan Glenavon player Niall Grace, who suffered a broken arm and dislocated elbow in Tuesday night's semi-final.