Cliftonville will switch on title power
Warning! Cliftonville’s title rivals should look away now.
And it will happen without manager Tommy Breslin doing any business in the January transfer window.
The Solitude boss is in the process of welcoming back four big players back into the squad, with probably their biggest player of all also on the comeback trail.
James Knowles made his first start in a month in the 1-0 win over Donegal Celtic on Tuesday night while Barry Holland, who has played just once in the last two months, was on the bench.
Ciaran Donaghy and Ciaran Caldwell are both working their way back and club captain Chris Scannell may even play again this season, despite snapping his Achilles tendon in August.
And for Crusaders and Linfield, who are both battling to overturn the Reds advantage, that is a worrying sight.
“I have had people say to me that we’ve been lucky with injuries, but they are forgetting that Barry Holland, Ciaran Donaghy, Ciaran Caldwell have all been out for quite a while,” said Breslin, who will take his team to Portadown today.
“We lost Chris Scannell early in the season and James Knowles has been out recently.
“That’s quite a list and I think every one of them would walk into most other teams.
“They will come back fresh and determined to put pressure on those that are in the team at present and that means they can’t drop their guard.
“Standards have to be maintained and we will have competition for places and some strength in depth.
“They will also give us more options in defence and attack.
“Our bench has been strong this season, but it will get stronger now and I’ve had defenders on the bench, whereas I prefer to have players that can go on and affect the game or change it if that’s what we need.”
There were fears that Scannell’s injury may not only spell the end of his season, but also his career.
The 35-year-old hitman had considered retirement at the end of last season and the general feeling was that he would call it quits rather than try to work his way back.
The fact that the Reds are in the hunt for four trophies could well be acting as motivation.
And although he won’t be back in time for Saturday week’s IRN-BRU Cup final against Crusaders and is already unable to accumulate enough league appearances to claim a medal if Cliftonville do take the title, Breslin is still hoping that his talisman will have an influence when the pressure cranks up in the final weeks of the campaign.
“Chris Scannell is working in the gym at the minute and things are going well for him, but he’s probably still a month away from running,” said Breslin.
“If I am being an optimist I’d say I’m hopeful that he will play again this season, but realistically, maybe not.
“The next big period of the season is Easter, when there are a few games in a short period of time and it would be nice to be able to call upon him them and have a player of Chris’ ability for the final games of the season.”
The fact that the Reds are the league’s top goalscorers — 62 goals in 25 games, 12 more than Linfield — without Scannell is as big a compliment as can be paid to those who have more than picked up the slack in his absence.
Liam Boyce’s 18 goals have put him at the top of the Premiership’s scoring charts, Joe Gormley has hit 11 and stand-in skipper George McMullan has nine, with most of those coming since he was moved to right-back.
“On the day Chris got injured we drew 1-1 with Glentoran and a lot of people thought that we wold struggle without him,” said Breslin.
“At the time nobody could have expected Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley to go on and score the goals they have this season.
“You have to remember that they are only in their early 20s as well.
“That’s why we took Joe out for a couple of games and Diarmuid O’Carroll went in and scored goals too.
“Their contribution has been fantastic and others have weighed in with goals too, which you need if you are going to be challenging for trophies.”