Belfast Telegraph

Cliftonville's Stephen Garrett: Competition for places is driving Reds hat-trick quest

By Stuart McKinley

Stephen Garrett has joked that he might have to score two goals every week in order to keep his place in the Cliftonville team.

The fight for a place in the starting line-up at Solitude, however, is no laughing matter.

That, though, is a major positive as far as Garrett is concerned, as the Reds pursue a record-breaking third successive Irish League championship.

The 27-year-old came back with a bang last Saturday when his brace helped Cliftonville to a 3-1 win against Glenavon to keep them level on points with Portadown at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership.

Now he plans to stay around as Tommy Breslin's men target the title, but he is well aware that getting into the team is probably the easy part.

"It was good to get a start because it's been a while and it was nice to score too," said Garrett, ahead of tomorrow's home clash with Ballymena United.

"It was about this time last year that I picked up an injury. I came back in the final few weeks of the season and scored a couple of important goals, but I got injured again in pre-season.

"I saw a really good consultant and had an injection in my ankle and I can feel myself over the last six weeks getting stronger and quicker and I've been better in training.

"I've had to wait for my chance because the team has been doing well and the squad is so strong, but none of us can have any complaints - there isn't a player in the squad who you wouldn't want in the team.

"There are players who can't get into the team who would walk into a lot of other teams in the league.

"That's great for the club and there are a lot of quality players with great hunger fighting for places. By and large if we're winning the team stays the same, but I might have to score two goals every week to stay in."

Cliftonville are very much contenders for the title, thanks largely to a six-match winning run throughout October and into early November, having taken only half the points from their opening 10 matches of the season.

Part of the reason for that run of form, which, by Cliftonville's lofty standards was rather poor, was the fact that they couldn't get a win at home.

Glentoran, Glenavon, Linfield and Dungannon Swifts have all left Solitude with a point, while Coleraine marched away with all three.

Garrett believes that with three successive wins on their own patch, the Reds are on their way to restoring the Solitude fear factor that played a big part in helping them to win back-to-back titles.

"It was crazy," admitted Garrett.

"There was a lot of talk about how we were struggling at the start of the season. It wasn't perfect, but I thought we were still playing well enough.

"Our home form was ridiculously bad and I think that was what people were focusing on, but we have come through it, we've put a few wins on the board at home now and we want to work on making Solitude a fortress again, like it was when we won the league last season and the season before."

It is that experience of winning the title that Garrett hopes will stand them in good stead as they try to win it again.

"The first year we ran away with it - and it was good that we ran away with it because if it had come down to the last week or two of the season it could have got nervy and we didn't have the experience of dealing with that kind of situation," said Garrett.

"Last season was different. It was about this time of the year that we hit a good run and closed the gap on Linfield.

"We went above them just before the split and then we knew that as long as we won our games we would be league champions again.

"If we are going to win it again this season it is going to be different again.

"There are at least three or four teams who are all capable of winning the league and the matches are going to get bigger and bigger.

"We are prepared for that and we know that at times playing good football will win us matches, but at other times we'll have to grind out results."

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