Cliftonville Football Club toasts double: history books rewritten as classy Reds prove they are great achievers
Portadown 0-2 Cliftonville
Cliftonville Football Club is wearing the label of greatness with pride.
The Red Army, who have passionately followed their heroes since the Champions League battles against Celtic, were united again at Shamrock Park to belt out the words: 'There's only one Tommy Breslin'.
It was an emotional moment for everyone connected with the north-Belfast side but particularly for the manager, who can now finally wave farewell to those sleepless nights.
The Reds are now celebrating the first back-to-back title success in the club's history – only four other teams can claim that honour – Belfast Celtic, Linfield, Portadown and Glentoran.
Reminder, as if it were needed, that retaining the championship is not a stroll in the sunshine. Cliftonville's fifth championship success also denied Linfield manager David Jeffrey the opportunity to claim a 32nd trophy as Blues boss – moving one clear of Roy Coyle.
Jeffrey knows all about the standards required to win 'two in a row' so he will applaud his rivals from across the city while reflecting on what might have been as the curtain falls on his 17 years and three months in charge at Windsor Park.
Questions were rightly asked at the start of the season – Are the Reds one season wonders? Can they do it all again? Those questions have been emphatically answered and now the spotlight will turn sharply towards Windsor.
Can Linfield, under rookie boss Warren Feeney – when his appointment is confirmed – rise again and bring down the monster that has been created on the Cliftonville Road?
Portadown dented Linfield's title hopes on Saturday but Cliftonville, as they have been for most of the season, were a different animal.
Breslin's half-time team talks have been instrumental in driving this team to the promised land and it was business as usual.
Second half goals from Chris Curran and Stephen Garrett killed off the home side's European ambitions while Glentoran set about crushing Linfield's Gibson Cup dream.
On a firm, bumpy and dry surface, the Reds – in their green away strip – wouldn't have anticipated a smooth path to back-to-back title success and it took them a while to sparkle but inevitably they did.
Breslin (below), not surprisingly, detected nerves within his ranks.
"We have a relatively young squad so you will get that," he said. "This isn't an easy place to come to, especially with such a big prize dangling in front of us. We asked the boys to step it up at half-time, they did that and we are deserved winners.
"Last year we were floating along on the crest of a wave. We were out in front but there was no huge expectation on us. We enjoyed our football from week to week and before we knew it it was over. We have come from behind and it takes a lot of character to fight back and finish on top."
Garry Breen's shot sailed wide of the post in the early stages but neither side could find the early breakthrough to settle nerves. There were injury concerns for the visitors when Liam Boyce twisted his ankle and keeper Conor Devlin took a whack on his arm but the wounded warriors soldiered on.
Sean Mackle poked a shot wide from close range on 32 minutes as his finish mirrored the first half passing of both sides – it was wayward. Four minutes before the break, Gary Twigg's header was blocked by Devlin and the half-time whistle sounded with Breslin knowing he needed to inject some urgency into his title-chasing side. The Solitude boss did just that. His players showed more zip after the restart and the home defence had to scramble to clear an effort from Martin Donnelly.
But Cliftonville's frustration evaporated in the 54th minute when Curran powered in a stunning low shot from outside the box which sneaked in just inside the post.
In the 66th minute, Boyce missed a glorious chance to place a cherry on the cake when his header dropped the wrong side of the crossbar.
The Ports rarely threatened but Devlin did need to turn Darren Murray's low drive around the post.
Then on 77 minutes, Chris Casement's free-kick from 25 yards bounced back off the crossbar and Emmett Friars couldn't convert the rebound.
Substitute Stephen Garrett's angled drive beat the crossbar but five minutes before the end the striker directed home a bullet header from Martin Murray's cross to get the party started among the travelling support.
Linfield deserve praise for displaying more fighting spirit this season but they lost to the champions on four occasions – further proof that Breslin's men really are the cream of the crop.
PORTADOWN: Miskelly, Casement, O'Hara, Mouncey (McCafferty 68), Breen, Friars, McMahon (Barton 68), Ramsey, Mackle, Murray, Twigg. Subs (not used): Brennan, McStay, Redman.
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Scannell, Johnston, McMullan, Donnelly (Garrett 74), Seydak, Smyth, Gormley, Curran (O'Carroll 74), Boyce (Murray 81). Subs (not used): Winchester, Cosgrove.
Referee: Raymond Hetherington (Dungannon).
Hitman Gormley already setting sights on future goals
Records are being smashed at Cliftonville – both the personal and team variety.
When the Reds lifted the League Cup this season it was the first time the club had retained a trophy.
Now they seem in the mood to make a habit of it!
For the first time in the club's 135-year history, back-to-back titles have now been secured.
And their ace marksman Joe Gormley is still basking in the glory of his 37th goal of the season at the weekend – breaking the club record set by his team-mate Liam Boyce last season.
But personal records pale into insignificance when team goals are to be achieved and Gormley's sole focus has been on grasping another league winner's medal.
"It's an unbelievable feeling to win two in a row," said Gormley.
"I remember at the start of the year we were told by a certain manager (David Jeffrey) that a good team can win it one year but great teams win it the year after.
"We have proved now how good we are and we totally deserve it. Records don't mean anything to me – I'd rather have three points from the matches and then the league titles – that's what it is all about here, championships and other trophies.
"This team is better than last season and we are getting better too. Chris Curran is something else – he showed that with his goal again. He is coming along brilliantly.
"I don't see why we cannot set out to win three league titles in a row because I can see us improving and hopefully I can do the damage next season again.
"I always aim to do better than what I did the previous season so it would be nice to do that but the points are what matter.
"What Tommy (Breslin) has done for this club is unbelievable. All the players really want to play for him and that's credit to him as a great manager."
The fans paid their own special vocal tribute to Breslin but the man himself was hungry to heap all the praise on the men who wear the Cliftonville jersey.
"It seems like only yesterday that I was coming to the club to train to play and that was 30 years ago!" said Breslin.
"But it's not about me – football is all about the players.
"The board, fans and my coaching staff will be happy and what's important is there's a good conveyor belt of talent coming though as well.
"We always had good players at Cliftonville but maybe not enough. If other Cliftonville teams had had Joe Gormley or Liam Boyce they might have won more trophies.
"These players only come along very often. Linfield had Spike (Glenn Ferguson) while Glentoran would have had Gary McCartney.
"We will make the most of what we have and it's just great we are up there challenging – a wee club but one that has players who have a great affiliation with the club.
"They are the best of mates and I'd call them a big family.
"They will fight among themselves but when someone else wants to have a go they will come together.
"It's a special achievement by them and I'm especially pleased for Chris Curran, who over the last few weeks has really calmed us down and scored very important goals.
"He came up to me and said 'Thanks Bressy for signing me' but that was never in doubt and we have humble, unassuming lads here who deserve all the praise that comes their way.
"When we beat Linfield at Windsor Park that was a key moment for us but we knew we had to perform against other teams.
"Previous Cliftonville teams had beaten the Blues but not turned up for other matches. There's a maturity and desire about the team despite the youthful nature of the side. They know how to come through hard tests and they have had quite a few."