Cliftonville 2 Crusaders 1
Cliftonville boss Tommy Breslin called on his side to show greater consistency following their last-minute derby triumph over Crusaders at Solitude.
Though delighted with the Reds’ dominant performance, Breslin acknowledged that one poor display could easily halt the momentum built up by a fourth successive home victory.
“We’ve been in this position before and it’s important we keep our feet on the ground,” he explained.
“You often hear people talking about the importance of how a team reacts to a defeat but, to be honest, I want us to make sure we show the right kind of reaction to this win.
“We deserved the points and to get them in injury-time just adds to the drama of it all. It’s a good feeling, a good day, makes for a good weekend but we face Linfield on Wednesday night and, four wins in a row or not, we start all over again.”
Cliftonville’s hero was rookie frontman Joe Gormley, who pounced to stab home a loose ball just as the clock ticked past 90 minutes, rewarding Breslin for his positivity in sacrificing a man at the back for the contest’s closing stages.
True, Crusaders were also a man light in defence after Gareth McKeown’s 84th minute red card but Breslin’s decision to switch to a 3-4-3 formation remained a courageous one against a visiting outfit who, with the likes of Stuart Dallas, Chris Morrow, David Rainey, Michael Halliday and goalscorer Jordan Owens still on the park, remained a credible attacking threat.
“Crusaders are a very talented side with a lot of very good players but, the way I saw it, we were drawing at home against 10 men and that’s not a good enough result,” added Breslin.
“We had played well enough before the sending-off but, when that happened, we just had to go for it. Martin Donnelly had already scored against his old club so I suppose the only thing left on the script was for Joe Gormley to get the winner and, thankfully, that’s how it’s turned out.”
That ‘Roy of the Rovers’ factor is something the north Belfast derby — perhaps the most pulsating fixture in the Irish League in recent seasons — has never been short on.
Late goals are a common occurrence and, thanks to Gormley’s intervention on Saturday, the last eight clashes between the Reds and the Crues have thrown up no fewer than 11 strikes in the final 10 minutes.
Sendings off are a similarly prominent theme and, though the infamous Boxing Day 2009 showdown — which boasted no fewer than six red cards — was never in danger of being repeated here, McKeown became the latest recipient of a derby dismissal when a dangerous challenge on Barry Johnston earned him a second booking from referee Mark Courtney.
Things had started so well for the visitors and they took a deserved lead on 18 minutes when McKeown delivered an inch-perfect ball into the area and, when Declan Caddell’s diving header was turned onto the bar by Ryan Brown, Owens was on hand to nod home.
Thereafter, however, the Crues failed to find any sort of rhythm and were pegged back when old boy Martin Donnelly thundered home a superb half-volley just past the half-hour.
While all eyes were on the goalscorer in his first Solitude derby in Cliftonville colours, the Reds’ top man on the day was his namesake Rory, who time and again caused Crusaders all sorts of bother in the air and on the deck, and would have had a hat-trick himself but for the brilliance of shot-stopper Sean O’Neill.
“When your goalkeeper proves to be your best player in a game as big as this, that’s got to be a concern,” admitted Crues boss Stephen Baxter.
“Sean has made some exceptional saves out there and, but for him, it could have been five or six.
“Credit must go to Cliftonville because they were deserved winners. We did well for the first 15 or 20 minutes but didn’t produce anything like a Crusaders performance after that.
“Cliftonville looked hungrier than us and had greater energy, drive and enthusiasm. When you come up against wave after wave of attacks, there’s only likely to be one outcome.
“We’ve had a long discussion about that in the changing room, which I think is the right thing to do because it’s important these things are talked about and addressed.”
Despite their below-par showing, the Shore Road side looked to have held on for a point until the 90th minute when incessant Cliftonville pressure was finally rewarded.
Both Donnellys linked up inside the area and, when Martin’s shot was repelled by O’Neill, Gormley nipped in to claim the glory.
Just nine weeks remain until the sides lock horns again and the countdown has already started amongst fans on both sides.
You might just want to make sure you get along to Seaview yourself because it’s certain to be a cracker. They always are.