Donegal Celtic 0 Cliftonville 1
Cliftonville moved nine points clear of closest title challengers Crusaders and a massive 13 ahead of champions Linfield, in the Danske Bank Premiership, after an ugly but crucial victory at Donegal Celtic.
The narrow victory, gained by Stephen Garrett’s first-half goal, had all the characteristics of what makes a league champion — winning away from home and doing just about enough to stave off a brave challenge from a relegation-threatened host.
With eight games to go before the split and then five more when the top six teams face-off against each other for the title, there is no sign of Cliftonville surrendering their place at the summit.
Instead they continue to strengthen their position their title rivals are now relying on favours from other teams to give them a chance of pipping the Solitude side to the crown.
Celtic were left to rue missed chances in either half, subsequently missing out on an opportunity to increase the gap at the bottom of the table with Lisburn Distillery.
It is the gap at the top though that was increased thanks to the brilliance of Liam Boyce — even though he didn’t actually score the goal.
It took just one flick from his gifted boot to set-up the 35th minute match-winner.
Boyce, acutely aware of those around him in a frantic moment, delivered a precise flick from Jamie McGovern’s pass into the path of the grateful Garrett, who slid in to slip the ball around advanced Celtic goalkeeper Niall Murphy. It was a goal worth waiting for.
Celtic, for all their endeavour, couldn’t muster up a clear effort on Conor Devlin’s goal, but they did have the Reds goalkeeper worried on two occasions from set-pieces — firstly a Ciaran Gargan corner that led to new signing Ciaran Burns drilling a volley over the crossbar after just three minutes.
Then, three minutes later, Gargan had the former Manchester United trainee on his toes, almost catching him cold with a free-kick that Devlin grappled clear, having raced to his near post to do so.
Cliftonville had to wait until the 25th minute before registering a first effort on target, a free-kick from the subdued Martin Donnelly that Murphy did well to gather after Gargan had almost fouled Garrett on the edge of the goalmouth.
Gargan and Garrett were enjoying a duel and the latter was having the upper hand. Indeed, in the 41st minute Garrett’s cheeky hand on Gargan’s shoulder went unseen by referee Andrew Davey, allowing the Reds forward to sneak in behind Murphy, only to miss the open net from a wide angle.
Mark Miskimmin alerted Cliftonville to the danger he posed when in the 52nd minute he latched on to Kevin Keegan’s cross and almost beat Devlin from close range.
Celtic, playing anything like a team fighting for their lives at the foot of the table, grew in confidence and former Linfield midfielder Paul McAreavey had the visitors gasping in the 57th minute when his overhead-kick whistled just wide of goal.
Miskimmin, a constant thorn in Cliftonville’s side, drilled another effort just wide after McAreavey’s pass released Celtic’s new signing Kevin Hughes into the goalmouth.
Then, in the 72nd minute, Miskimmin was in the thick of it again, attempting to find Hughes at the far post, only to have his threatening cross cut-out by Devlin.
Try as they did, Celtic couldn’t find the composure in front of goal that Garrett showed in the first-half.
Cliftonville smartly rung out the final minutes of the game to greet victory with a fair helping of relief.
Should Tommy Breslin’s men, who face Portadown this weekend, go on to win the Gibson Cup, this win at Celtic Park will be recalled as one of the most important of the campaign — the performance, however, will be easily forgotten, although the points were far more important.
For Celtic boss Pat McAllister, there’s no let-up, with champions Linfield next on the agenda at Celtic Park on Saturday.
Donegal Celtic: Murphy, McShane, Bradley, Keegan, C Burns, Gargan, McAreavey, Downey, Cleary (McAllister 70), Miskimmin, Todd (Hughes 58).
Cliftonville: Devlin, McGovern, R Scannell, Johnstone, McMullan, Garrett, Donnelly (Lynch 73), Smyth, Gormley, Knowles (O’Carroll 63), Boyce.
Referee: Andrew Davey.