Belfast Telegraph

Danske Bank Premiership title race: Cliftonville 3 Linfield 2

It's a script that even the most boldly-minded Cliftonville supporter would not have dared dream of penning.

Lifelong Reds fan George McMullan was the coolest cat in north Belfast when he stepped up to stroke home the 93rd minute penalty to earn his team -- his club, his people -- the Danske Bank Premiership title.

In true 'Roy of the Rovers' style, no sooner had would-be party-poopers Linfield re-started the game than referee David Malcolm sounded the final blast of his whistle to confirm that, finally and officially, Cliftonville were the Champions.

As inevitable as their march to the crown has seemed for months, the topsy-turvy nature of yesterday's dramatic encounter only served to crank up the emotions for a climax that will forever remain in the memory.

It was never likely to be a straightforward affair but, following a pre-match silence in memory of Geraldine Holland -- mother of Reds defender Barry and legendary former striker Mark -- the hosts got off to the perfect start when Liam Boyce's sixth minute free-kick evaded goalkeeper Ross Glendinning and send Tommy Breslin's men on their way.

For the remainder of the first-half, however, it was Linfield who carved out the lion's share of chances and only an inspired display from Conor Devlin maintained Cliftonville's advantage.

Mark McAllister -- who had earlier volleyed horribly wide from a promising position -- nipped in behind McMullan and forced a fine stop from Devlin, who produced double-quick reactions to prevent team mate Jaimie McGovern from thundering an outrageous own goal into the top corner.

The former Manchester United shot-stopper also twice kept Philip Lowry at bay before McAllister was denied again just before the interval.

The Blues merited an equaliser and it arrived just after the turnaround when Lowry pounced to find the bottom corner but parity lasted just five minutes; Boyce nodding Cliftonville back in front after Marc Smyth had headed Stephen Garrett's corner into the mixer.

There was never any danger of the visitors handing their title over without a fight and David Jeffrey's men fought back once more with Jamie Mulgrew doing superbly to dig out a cross which, via a flick-on from Peter Thompson, found Michael Carvill at the back post and he made no mistake with a simple finish.

With news filtering through that Crusaders were on course for victory against Coleraine at Seaview, Cliftonville knew that a draw would not be enough to officially call themselves Champions -- only a win would do.

In truth, though, it was Linfield who looked the most likely to snatch a winner in the closing exchanges as a nervy Reds side suddenly found their intricate, one-touch passing usurped by a series of miscued clearances and under-hit connections.

But there was still time for one last, dramatic and emotional twist.

Reece Glendinning's injury-time back-pass to brother Ross was cleared as far as McMullan, who laid possession into Boyce's path.

Chasing down a last-gasp hat-trick, the striker's direct running took him away from Ryan Henderson and a fortune ricochet got him away from Billy-Joe Burns before his progress was halted by Jim Ervin's outstretched leg.

With the sold-out home end screaming for the award of a potentially title-winning penalty, referee David Malcolm added to the drama by taking an absolute age to point to the spot.

When relative calm had been restored, McMullan shouldered the responsibility of stepping forward.

One kick later and Cliftonville were Champions. The stuff boyhood dreams are made of.

CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin 9, McGovern 7, Johnston 7, Caldwell 7, McMullan 8, Garrett 8, O'Carroll 7, Seydak 7, Smyth 7, Catney 8, Boyce 8. Subs: Donnelly (for Caldwell, 80 mins) 6, Lynch, Cosgrove, McVeigh, Knowles (for O'Carroll, 83 mins) 6

LINFIELD: Ross Glendinning 7, Douglas 6, Gault 7, Lowry 7, Carvill 7, Burns 7, Reece Glendinning 6, Tipton 7, Ervin 6, Mulgrew 7, McAllister 7. Subs: Murphy, Henderson (for Gault, 89 mins) 6, Thompson (for Tipton, 70 mins), Hanley, Clarke.

REFEREE: David Malcolm (Bangor) 7

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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