Cliftonville 4 Glentoran 1
Cliftonville roared past Glentoran to restore their six-point lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership with an epic display on live TV.
After falling behind when Stephen Carson gave the visitors the lead with just 10 minutes on the clock, the Reds turned things around with a George McMullan double and built on that momentum when first Liam Boyce and then Tomas Cosgrove found the net in a second-half that was virtually one-way traffic. Can anyone stop them now?
It may not have been the prettiest of occasions at times, but the hosts had more than enough about them to claim the victory which gets their title campaign back on track after their New Year’s Day defeat to Linfield.
With a quirk of the fixture schedule allowing Cliftonville's title rivals to turn the heat up a little before kick-off, Tommy Breslin's side entered the game amid questions being asked of his players' mental stamina.
The postponement of last month's trip to Donegal Celtic combined with both Linfield and Crusaders having boosted their tallies with three-point returns at the weekend meant the Reds had been forced to sit back and watch their fellow title rivals steal a march over a hectic festive period.
Despite their much documented financial woes, Eddie Patterson's side remain in with a very real shout of European qualification and approached last night's fixture sitting just seven points behind the third-placed Blues — and, like Cliftonville, have an additional game in hand to come next week.
While Linfield's 5-2 victory over Coleraine on Saturday might not, at first glance, have been particularly good news for the Glens, it did did at least keep the Bannsiders behind the Oval outfit in the table — just another interesting aside in the build-up to the Premiership's meanest defence taking on its own most potent attacking threat.
And it was Cliftonville who almost got off to the perfect start when Liam Boyce’s low cross found Martin Donnelly, but his shot was blocked by Sean Ward with a section of the home support screaming for a handball offence against the Glentoran skipper.
Ryan Catney was next to try his luck, but it was at the other end where the net first rippled when Andy Waterworth’s meandering right-flank run ended with a delivery that fell straight to the feet of Carson and he made no mistake with a confident finish.
Carson almost doubled his side’s advantage with a dipping 30th minute strike that whistled against the bar but, in between times, the visitors suffered a double blow when first Calum Birney and then Richard Clarke made injury-enforced exits from proceedings, forcing Patterson to shuffle his pack with the introductions of Stephen McAlorum and John McGuigan.
Cliftonville had huffed and puffed their way through the opening 45 minutes and their best chance of a first-half leveller looked to have come when Boyce’s audacious lob almost deceived a backtracking Elliott Morris — that was until McMullan capitalised on Carson’s miscued clearance to hook home with his left-foot just before the interval.
The same player struck again soon after the re-start; latching on to a Donnelly free-kick to glance a header past Morris.
From that point on, despite hitting the post through Waterworth, Glentoran rarely looked like claiming anything from the contest and were grateful to a shocking offside decision that saw a Stephen Garrett strike ruled out after some fine build-up play from substitute Diarmuid O’Carroll.
Just five minutes after that, though, the Reds did get the security goal they had been after and it’s not one Jay Magee will want to see again.
His underhit backpass and subsequent slip put Boyce in the clear and, after skipping round Morris, he stroked home from an acute angle to take his season’s tally to 22.
Cliftonville’s final goal of the evening came deep into injury-time from one of the most unlikely sources as young substitute Cosgrove found the net to claim his first ever strike from the club and put the seal on his side extending their lead at the summit to half-a-dozen points — and still with that crucial game in hand against Donegal Celtic to come.
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, R Scannell, Johnston, McMullan, Garrett, Donnelly, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Boyce. Subs: O’Carroll (for Gormley, 67 mins), Seydak (for McMullan, 87 mins), Lynch, Cosgrove (for Boyce, 87 mins), O’Kane.
GLENTORAN: Morris, Ward, Hill, Magee, Burney, M Clarke, Callacher, Kane, Waterworth, R Clarke, Carson. Subs: O’Hanlon, McComb (for Carson, 73 mins), McAlorum (for Birney, 12 mins), McGuigan (for R Clarke, 27 mins), Bradley.
Referee: Mervyn Smyth (Belfast).