Win or bust... Cliftonville legend Geordie McMullan says Reds have to throw everything at Linfield in pivotal league title clash
NIFL Premiership: Cliftonville v Linfield (today, Solitude, 5.30pm)
THE 90 minutes were up and the game was deadlocked at 2-2 when Geordie McMullan put the ball on the spot. Men, women and children in the stands held their breath but the Cliftonville captain was the coolest man in Solitude.
McMullan took a couple of steps back and then, after a hop-skip-and jump, he took the penalty.
The Linfield ’keeper went to his right, the ball went to his left and the stadium erupted in delight because the Blues were beaten and the league title – Cliftonville’s fifth in total and first since 1998 - was secured with a couple of games to spare.
The Reds defended their crown the following season (2013-14) but they’ve been out of the picture since until this year.
This evening the Belfast rivals face-off with the title race tantalisingly poised. With five games to go, Linfield lead Cliftonville by a point and, while victory won’t guarantee anything for the winners, it will be asking a lot for the losers to recover from the hammerblow of defeat, particularly for Cliftonville who finish their season with trips to Coleraine, Crusaders and Glentoran.
McMullan will be in the Solitude stands tomorrow with his kids and the skipper-turned-season ticket holder will be hoarse by the final whistle.
“You can see why people are saying: It’s win or bust,” he says.
“There’ll be plenty to play for after it because the top six are all quality teams this year and you could definitely see both teams dropping points after tomorrow’s game. But it’s a massive game, if you get the win you set the tone and get yourself on the front foot. So it’s massive and you’d be looking to land the oul knockout blow.”
McMullan played 15 seasons for his beloved Reds. A career that began in 2001 yielded 103 goals in 544 appearances and he retired in 2016 as the north Belfast club’s most decorated player. Alongside his two league medals, he won five league cups and four County Antrim Shields.
And what was the aim at the start of every season? To finish above Linfield. Any team that did that would be there, or thereabouts.
“When we were playing there was a few times we got the Blues and we always knew that if we got the better of them it would give us the edge,” he says.
“There are boys who are still there – Chrissy Curran, Joe Gormley and Levi Ives and there’s no doubt that they’ll be thinking: ‘We need to get one over these ’uns tomorrow’. Psychologically, the players will be looking at this game thinking: ‘This is it, this is the big one’. It’s like a final and whoever gets beat, it will knock their confidence so it’s definitely a game they have to win, they definitely have to win.”
You have to go back almost three months for Cliftonville’s last defeat in the league and after that 2-1 loss to Glentoran, Paddy McLaughlin’s side went on a 13-game unbeaten run that included a league cup title. A run of 11 wins and two draws was brought to an end by Crusaders in an Irish Cup semi-final a fortnight ago but Cliftonville bounced back impressively to beat a Portadown side battling relegation on Tuesday night thanks to two goals from talismanic striker Gormley.
“They did a great job going down there and Joe came up trumps again – he does what he does,” said McMullan.
“Two great strikers’ goals and it was a massive result and we know they’re up for it now. The semi-final could have burst their bubble and I was speaking to Chrissy and Joe after it and said: ‘Don’t let it burst your bubble, yous have been fantastic all year’. They have regrouped and they’ve done that all season – any time they’ve had bad results they’ve rolled the sleeves up and went at it again so they’re definitely well up for it this year and if they beat the Blues anything is possible.”
McMullan’s penalty sealed the deal but it was 29 goals from Liam Boyce that fired Cliftonville to that 2013 league title. Gormley, his understudy that season, netted 27 in the following campaign as the Reds defended their crown. Eight years on, ‘Joe the Goal’ remains a clinical finisher and that brace against the Ports stretched his scoring streak to five games in-a-row.
“I remember when Joe came into the team, he was different to what we were used to,” says McMullan.
“We had Chrissy Scannell who is a club legend who held the ball up and was good in the air but Joe had a wee bit of pace so we played the ball over the top and anything that fell in front of him he was just… clinical. The lads’ jaws used to drop at training when he first came in.
“We were like: ‘Who is this kid?’ We’d heard he had scored about 200 goals for Crumlin Star in about 50 games but it’s a big jump up to the Irish League. He took to it like a duck to water and he’s been frightening from day one. Long may it continue - I love to hear people saying he’s done.”
Gormley found the net against the Blues back in October but Cliftonville haven’t beaten David Healy’s side in four meetings this season. There have been three draws (including a County Antrim Shield semi-final Linfield won on penalties) and a 1-0 win for the reigning league champions.
Linfield have recovered from a slump in from in late January/early February during which they lost three out of four to win their last six. With a full-time squad to pick from and a more favourable run-in ahead of them, manager David Healy will know that victory today will leave the Blues in the box seat for the title.
“Year-in, year-out Linfield are always the team to beat,” said McMullan.
“Ethan Devine has hit the ground running for them, the Finnish boy (Eetu Vertainen) scored four against Dungannon… They’re riddled with quality and they have players like Jordan Stewart on the bench. It says it all when you can bring players like him off the bench. They’re full-time and you’d expect them to have the quality and numbers.
“So I hope the mid-week game at Portadown on a soggy pitch hasn’t tired the Cliftonville boys’ legs out and I just hope they have a real go. They’ve got the quality, they’ve got the momentum so let’s go for it. Have no regrets.”
Cliftonville: April 16: Larne (H), April 19: Coleraine (A), April 23: Crusaders (A), April 30: Glentoran (A)
Linfield: April 15: Glentoran (H), April 19: Crusaders (A), April 2: Larne (H), April 30: Coleraine (A)