Cliftonville ready for dream night against CSKA Sofia
It’s certainly a world away from Mill Road. Cliftonville’s players touched down in Bulgaria last night, 24 hours ahead of their Europa League showdown with the giants of CSKA Sofia – on an evening that had originally been pencilled in for a pre-season clash with Crumlin United.
Instead, the Reds find themselves in excess of 2,000 miles away and preparing for one of the most daunting nights of their lives, following their aggregate victory over HNK Cibalia of Croatia in the last round.
That second-leg date in Vinkovci was just five days ago and, having overcome a host of hurdles – ranging from arranging travel and accommodation to securing time off work from sympathetic employers – it’s perhaps just as well that the Solitude side have had little or no time to fully contemplate what’s ahead of them at the Vasil Levski Stadium this evening.
“It’s been a whirlwind few days,” said boss Eddie Patterson.
“We’ve not had time to think. We enjoyed a night with our fans after the game in Croatia, but we had to be away at 7.00am the following morning, didn’t get back to Belfast until late at night and, having spent Saturday catching up on some much-needed rest, we were back in for training on Sunday.
“Some of the boys still hadn’t ensured time off work, so they were heading in to their employers on Monday morning not knowing whether or not they’d be on the plane a few hours later.
“It’s been a week I don’t think we’ll ever forget – and that’s before we’ve even kicked a ball against CSKA.”
Tonight marks the ninth European match in which Patterson has led his side and he knows the Bulgarians represent one of the toughest opponents of his tenure.
“We played and beat Dinaburg of Latvia in 2007 and our reward for that was a trip to Belgium to face Gent. We did quite well out there and only lost 2-0, but they took things up a few more levels the following week and beat us 4-0 in Belfast.
“A couple of years ago, we were drawn against Copenhagen and, although we lost 11-0 over the two legs, it was still an incredible experience for us all.
“When you play part-time football, you never expect to test yourself against that level of opponent.”
Patterson added: “It’s going to be something similar against CSKA Sofia.
“They are right up there with the most famous clubs in Europe and, again, just to be on the same pitch as them will be great for my players – but they’ve earned the right to be there.
“They showed their ability by beating full-time opponents from a very strong league in the last round and, though it promises to be a gruelling test, we’ll be giving it our very best shot because we know how much occasions like this mean to everyone associated with our club.”
Work favours allow Chris to lead attack
By Stuart McKinley
Chris Scannell will get his teeth into CSKA Sofia tonight — thanks to his workmates at Belfast’s School of Dentistry.
And the presence of their captain will give Cliftonville’s attack much more bite than if he’d been ruled out of the Europa League clash in the Bulgarian capital.
It was only a few hours before the Reds squad departed Belfast at tea-time yesterday that Scannell delivered the good news to manager Eddie Patterson that he would be on the flight, leaving the Solitude boss with a beaming smile as he prepares for the club’s biggest European night.
Scannell had no problem in getting time off work to travel to Croatia for last week’s second-round tie against Cibalia. Difficulties arose when the Reds achieved a scoreless draw in that game, which was enough to send them through to tonight’s meeting with CSKA.
The 32-year-old only returned to work yesterday morning, with his priority being to gain permission to take another day-and-a-half off before returning on Wednesday. Having that permission granted is Cliftonville’s first victory of the week: a second will be a much tougher task.
“Big thank-yous to all my colleagues in work; the bosses for letting me get away; and my colleagues for covering for me,” said Scannell (pictured), who is a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Dental Education.
“I really owe them big time and I’m just delighted to be here.
“I had to go in and ask for a few favours and run around trying to find people who could cover my clinic on Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday.
“It was after 12 o’clock before I actually knew that I could get Monday covered. It was a bit of a panic in the end and then I had to let the manager know that I was available.”
Patterson himself had to get clearance to lead the team to Bulgaria. For him though, the main thing is having all his players available, with only Mark Holland missing out after picking up an Achilles injury in Croatia.
“I’m delighted that the captain is going to be there with us,” said Patterson, who had received similar good news over the weekend when teenage striker Liam Boyce was excused from duty with the Northern Ireland under-20 team for this week’s Milk Cup tournament.
“I have all sorts of thanks to give out to all sorts of employers.”
Although Cliftonville are massive underdogs they don’t lack quality in their line-up.
In fact the Reds boast the 2008-09 Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Player of the Year in Scannell and the 2009-10 Carling Young Player of the Year in his strike partner Boyce.
“We’ll give a good account of ourselves and as long as we keep it reasonable and can come back and make the second tie competitive, we’ll be quite happy,” said Scannell.