Belfast Telegraph

Cliftonville facing bumpy road

By Graham Luney

No-one said it would be easy. Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin and his players certainly didn't.

In fact, everyone kept telling the Reds that winning the championship was tough but retaining it was even tougher.

There's two main reasons for that – one of which the champions can do something about but the other they can't.

Firstly, Breslin has to look at his players and find out whether they still have the hunger to do it again. Do they want it as much as they wanted it last year?

When the Solitude men clinched their first title in 15 years they were swept across the finishing line on a tide of emotion. It was their holy grail, their burning ambition, their destiny.

After only losing three league games last season they lifted the Gibson Cup in sparkling style, but the club has never retained the championship and that's why the attitude of the players will come under the microscope.

It's a different type of pressure the players have never experienced.

Nine games into this season and the champions have lost three and drawn one of those matches.

Dungannon Swifts held them 1-1 at Stangmore Park on Saturday, leaving them to go into Saturday's north-Belfast derby with Crusaders after pocketing one point from a possible six.

Keeper Conor Devlin has allowed his own high standards to drop, spilling shots that led to goals against Glenavon and the Swifts.

Now the players must show their character and mettle like they did last season.

Questions were asked when Breslin's boys lost at Linfield – did they possess the bottle needed to win the league?

Those questions were answered in emphatic fashion, so don't think about writing them off.

The burst of pace produced by Portadown and Linfield in the title race will intensify the spotlight on the champions.

And many tough hurdles remain for the Reds because the second reason why the championship is difficult to retain is now obvious to them.

Teams are now gauging how good they are by standing up to and trying to beat the best team in the country.

It's a massive feather in their cap, a badge of honour to beat the side that has been dubbed one of the great teams in Irish League history.

But the 'greatness' label comes when you defend titles and everyone at Cliftonville knows it.

A day to remember

Ards are back in the title race.. maybe not but what a thumping 4-1 victory they enjoyed against Ballinamallard United. That result will dramatically lift confidence levels in Niall Currie's camp but they were less amused by Warrenpoint Town's win at Ballymena United. Victories are going to be precious for both the promoted sides and things are falling into place for the North Down side who have their sights on a new home in Newtownards.

...and one to forget

You have to feel for Coleraine, unless you are a Linfield fan of course. The Bannsiders came agonisingly close to snatching a point at Windsor Park against a rejuvented Linfield side before Peter Thompson delivered the late blow. Just to make the afternoon even more forgettable for boss Oran Kearney, two of his men – Howard Beverland and Steven Douglas – saw red. Keeper Wayne Drummond was in inspired form for the visitors but you can never switch off against a side like Linfield who will keep going right to the end.

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