Cliftonville boss Eddie Patterson is sweating on being able to field a full-strength side in Bulgaria next Tuesday after his Reds heroes saw off Croatian full-timers Cibalia last night.
Patterson’s players will return to Belfast today to beg their employers to give them more time off as the Solitude men’s Europa League adventure takes them to CSKA Sofia.
“I don’t even know what sort of team I will be able to put out because everyone will have to try to get time off work which won’t be easy,” said Patterson.
“We can worry about that tomorrow though, we just want to enjoy a proud night in our history — the first time we’ve progressed in a major European competition.
“To come to Croatia and see off a full-time side in blistering heat was beyond our wildest dreams but we did it.
“It may have been unexpected for a lot of people but the players deserve all the credit because this is their moment.
“It was backs to the wall stuff for long periods but that is always going to happen in European football, especially away from home.
“They stuck to their task though and to a man they were sensational. We defended heroically and even had a few chances of our own. Now I can’t wait for the CSKA game.”
Cliftonville defied the blistering Croatian heat and apparent gulf in class to enjoy the proudest moment in their 130-year history last night.
Eddie Patterson’s heroic troops battled their way to a superb goalless draw against full-time outfit Cibalia in the Europa League second qualifying round second-leg.
Leading 1-0 from last week’s first-leg at Windsor Park, the Reds knew a clean sheet would mean a money-spinning date with CSKA Sofia next Tuesday and in goalkeeper John Connolly they had a man inspired.
With the home side throwing everything but the kitchen sink at his goal throughout the second-half, he stood firm and blocked everything that came his way with hands, arms, legs and body.
There was no way past the Reds custodian and despite creating countless chances, Cibalia failed to find a breakthrough which would have forced the tie into extra-time.
He denied Tomislav Radotic, skipper Mario Lucic, Dino Kresinger and substitute Kreimir Prgomet went on all-out attack, but to no avail.
Reds chairman Gerard Lawlor couldn’t contain his joy at watching his side book their place in the next round and admitted the financial rewards will be huge for the north-Belfast club.
He said: “It is a wonderful night for Cliftonville Football Club and the players deserve all the praise in the world.
“Getting through this round is a dream come true for the lads, but it is also a huge boost for the club from a financial point of view.
“The plight of Irish League clubs is well known and we are no different. This will do wonders for us and I know it will certainly help me sleep better at night.
“That said, nothing should take away from what the players and coaching staff achieved. They had to fight all the way, but with the strength of character and determination they showed they deserve their place in the next round.”
The Croatian side had to go for it from the start with only a win good enough for them to progress after last week’s defeat in Belfast, thanks to Ciaran Caldwell’s strike.
Far from taking every opportunity to shoot on sight, Cibalia seemed content to stroke the ball around, looking for the killer pass.
And that ball rarely looked likely as the red sea of defenders stood strong and organised.
Zeljko Malcic, Tomislav Mazalovic and Ivan Baraban all had a sight of goal in the first 21 minutes, but they failed to make their advantage on the ball count.
Lucic had another opportunity to drag his side back into the tie but, once again, his effort failed to test the ever-alert Connolly.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic and George McMullan, who was booked for a foul on Dino Kresinger, shot over the bar from his first free-kick.
If the Reds were going to increase their lead, set-pieces seemed the likely route to goal, but just when they grew in confidence, they were almost hit with a sucker punch 10 minutes before the break.
Malcic’s corner wasn’t properly cleared and Lucic smashed a shot goalwards and with Connolly rooted to the spot, the ball crashed off the post.
Cliftonville were then forced into a change when Mark Hol
land was stretchered off with a suspected achilles tendon tear, but it failed to alter their determined and assured defending, with Declan O’Hara a more than able replacement.
Cibalia made two changes at the break in an attempt to rescue the tie and although they certainly showed more urgency, more poor finishing and stubborn Reds backline kept the door shut.
And with the home side throwing men into attack, Liam Boyce should have added to Reds’ lead, but he shot straight at the keeper when clean through in injury-time — not that anyone seemed to care at the final whistle.
CIBALIA: Matkovic, Tomic, Kresinger, Parmakovic, Radotic, Bozic, Bozic (Culjak 68), Juric, Baraban, Mazalovic (Prgomet 46), Lucic, Malcic (Grgic 46). Subs not used: Paradzikovic, Duvnjak, Andricevic, Simunac.
CLIFTONVILLE: Connolly, B Holland, Donaghy, M Holland (O’Hara 40), R Scannell, Garrett, Caldwell (Smyth 81), Catney, McMullan, C Scannell (Patterson 81), Boyce. Subs not used: McKane, Burns.
Referee: Clement Turpin (France).
Keeper John Connolly has hailed Cliftonville’s European adventure as the highlight of his career.
The Dubliner produced the performance of his life to ensure the Reds booked their place in the next round of the Europa League against Bulgarian giants CSKA Sofia, thanks to a string of second half saves.
Even when Cibalia did manage to wrong-foot Connolly, the Solitude men received the slice of luck their stubborn resistance deserved as Mario Lucic’s thunderous strike crashed off the post and away from the danger zone.
With Eddie Patterson’s part-time stars the overwhelming underdogs in Sofia next Tuesday, Connolly will once again be called upon to produce another outstanding display — and he can’t wait.
“This moment is right up there with anything I have ever achieved, if not the best,” said Connolly. “Winning Cups is something every player strives to do and I’ve been lucky enough to win a few with Cliftonville in recent years but this is a totally different feeling.
“Not many people give Irish League sides a prayer in Europe but everyone has raised the bar this season and I’m delighted we have made it through.
“The effort the lads put it was incredible. People will look to some of the saves I made in the second half but the fitness levels
and endurance of the lads in front of me was something special.
“The heat was unbearable yet they stood strong and gave me fantastic protection. I don’t think I could have been that strong if I had to run about for 90 minutes in that heat and chase the ball for long periods.
“Then, when I was called upon, I was lucky enough to make a few saves and keeping a clean sheet in an away European tie against full-time opposition is no mean feat for us as a team.”
Instead of basking in the glory however, Connolly (below) has challenged his team-mates to use their heroics as a springboard for greater domestic success.
He added: “This is a great night and I hope we have a few more against CSKA Sofia but we want to improve in the league.
“We’ve been there or thereabouts for a few years but now we’ve shown we can up our game and all the lads want to go that step further.”
Another man who will need his grin surgically removed this morning his former Reds chairman and Irish FA Honorary Life President, Jim Boyce.
A life-long fan of the north Belfast club, Boyce jetted in from the UEFA under-19 Championships in France to see his team.
He said: “For part-time players to come here and play like that is something very special.
“That has to be, without doubt, the greatest night in our history.
“Not only is it a boost to the club but also football in Northern Ireland as a whole because I think every club has done our league proud this year.
“Unfortunately the players won’t have much time to enjoy the result or to celebrate as we will leave for Sofia next Monday but they all deserve all the praise they will receive.”