Football/Soccer

Linfield will be our toughest test to date: Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin

Paddy McLaughlin is not thinking about a title challenge with Cliftonville

Danske Bank Irish Premiership: Linfield v Cliftonville (today, 3pm)

CLIFTONVILLE boss Paddy McLaughlin says today’s trip to Linfield will be their “toughest of the season” – and insists it’s far too early to consider the Reds as title contenders.

McLaughlin has guided the north Belfast men to the summit and are five points ahead of second-placed Larne and nine points clear of champions Linfield who are back in fifth.

With McLaughlin working with a much smaller squad than other big hitters in the Irish Premiership, the Derryman has been hugely resourceful in his recruitment.

Jonny Addis, Rory Hale, Kris Lowe, Luke Turner (on loan), Jamie McDonagh and Chris Gallagher among them have made excellent impressions since signing for the Solitude club, with McLaughlin looking for versatility as well as quality in all of his signings.

“You obviously do your homework on players before signing them,” said McLaughlin, who will celebrate three years in the job in February.

“If we need a right back or a left back, we just can’t go out and spend a fortune of money and wages on that one player in that one position. You’re almost looking for two for the price of one and you’re also trying to attract the right player to the group.

“The signings over the summer have been perfect and I think their performances and their standards have rubbed off on the rest of the squad. The likes of Jonny Addis has been unbelievable for us, Chrissy Gallagher in the middle of the park, all of them.

“Colin Coates off the pitch has been unbelievable. He’s been one of the key signings of them all with his leadership skills; it’s just the standards he sets and other people feeding off it. It’s been a brilliant move for us.”

Undoubtedly, there are several other clubs with bigger budgets than Cliftonville – and yet the Reds lead the way after 13 rounds of games.

“I’m sure the chairmen of those clubs want to be winning league titles and cups for what they’re investing,” said McLaughlin.

“But football can throw up surprises and I’d say we probably have surprised a few people. There is no real shock in our team, we know how good we can be.

“We haven’t got the biggest squad in the league but when they are all fit we’re as good as anybody. Of course, our squad will be tested at some stage and we’ll enjoy it for as long as it lasts. It’s a marathon not a sprint.”

With a few unnamed injuries to contend with ahead of today’s crosstown trip, the Reds could put 12 points of daylight between themselves and the champions who lost to Crusaders and were recently held to a scoreless draw with Portadown.

But McLaughlin is wary of a backlash from the Blues.

“When Linfield’s backs are to the wall they always seem to come out and get results. This will be our toughest challenge of the season so far. But we look forward to it.

“On our last visit there we were delighted with our performance and we got a draw [1-1], we might have taken the win. But any Linfield team is always a top side. The fact they’ve dropped a couple of points in recent weeks doesn’t come into it at all.”

On whispers of a league challenge at Solitude, McLaughlin was keen to quell the giddy talk around the club despite their lofty position and excellent form.

“If, come the turn of the year and we’re in the position we’re in, then you’ll sit up and take notice. But there are about 10 or 12 matches until then. I’m sure nobody else in the league is getting too excited with how things are going. But it’s brilliant that the fans are getting excited but over the course of the season and with such a small panel of players and other clubs with more resources and teams going full-time and the squad depth they have, we’re just trying to balance all that right now.”

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Football/Soccer