Belfast Telegraph

Cliftonville pose huge threat in race for title joy, insists wary Gault

By Graham Luney

Michael Gault believes Cliftonville are smack bang in the middle of the Danske Bank Premiership title race. Much of the title talk this season has surrounded the fortunes of champions Crusaders and last season's runners-up Linfield, but the Reds have rediscovered their swagger and confidence.

Gerard Lyttle's side will be a formidable hurdle for the Crues to overcome at Solitude on Boxing Day and former Linfield skipper Gault is looking forward to taking on a fresh festive rival.

A veteran of the Big Two and Mid-Ulster derbies, the former Northern Ireland international is now fired up to claim the Boxing Day bragging rights in the last north Belfast derby of the year.

Lyttle and his management team have needed to address a number of issues at the club this season but his leadership, coupled with a renewed drive and hunger shown by the players, has transformed the mood music.

Gault, who bagged more than 20 trophies in 480 appearances for Linfield, knows all about what qualities are needed to make up a title-winning side.

"If Cliftonville beat us they will be three points behind us," said Gault, who has expertly slotted into the centre-back role alongside Howard Beverland vacated by the injured Colin Coates.

"They are currently six points behind us and that's only two games of football.

"They are a good side and in the last game between the sides we beat them 4-3 but they should have been 6-0 ahead - they were brilliant. We owe it to ourselves to produce a better performance.

"It's a massive game. After experiencing the Big Two and Mid-Ulster derbies this will be another exciting experience for me. It will be different but Cliftonville are flying in the league as we are so it promises to be a thrilling battle and I can't wait.

"I always loved playing against Cliftonville for the Blues and they are massive occasions with great atmospheres. It's a huge game and that's why I came to Crusaders. All the boys are buzzing for it."

Crusaders fans thought their boys were going to coast seven points clear at the summit last weekend but this time it was Linfield who produced the late magic with a Mark Stafford header at the death killing off Ballymena United at Windsor Park.

The Crues will be looking to maintain or even increase that five-point advantage over the Blues going into 2017.

There is pressure on all the sides but the simple conclusion to draw is that if you fail to deliver in the big games, your big dreams could go up in smoke.

"Linfield got a late winner against Ballymena and these things happen when you know every point is crucial," added Gault.

"The shoe was on the other foot as we had got plenty of last-minute goals and they were probably getting frustrated.

"These next two matches against Cliftonville and Linfield are massive. Win them and we will be in a strong position, drop points and it's all to play for in the title race. It's up to us to deliver."

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