Cliftonville can sign off on a high with Euro delight, insists Barry Gray
Cliftonville may have ended the regular season without a trophy, but manager Barry Gray believes his boys can pocket a pot of gold at Solitude today.
Just seven days on from losing out to Coleraine in the Irish Cup final, the north Belfast team have the chance of putting all their disappointments behind them when they face Glentoran in the Europa League play-off final with an estimated £200,000 up for grabs.
The Reds easily disposed of David Jeffrey's 10-man Ballymena United - who had Kevin Braniff sent off early on - in the midweek semi-final, with Joe Gormley's double in their 4-0 win taking his goal tally to 33 for the season.
It was a performance that suggested Gray's team had erased their Cup heartbreak.
The former Warrenpoint Town chief admits today's clash with the erratic Glens is on a par with last week's Cup showdown.
"This is a massive match for both sides," he said. "There will be no trophy on offer, but the significance of winning is crucial because the financial benefits are huge. Not only is the prestige of playing in Europe on offer, but the financial rewards are unbelievable.
"The board have backed me throughout the whole season, so it would be nice to give something back to them. It would help take the pressure off them to a certain degree."
Gray is aware Glentoran will approach the game in the best possible shape, having had them watched in the dramatic 4-3 victory over Linfield at Windsor Park on Wednesday night.
With temporary boss Ronnie McFall in charge, the east Belfast boys roared back from a two-goal deficit to claim a famous win at the National Stadium.
"By all accounts they were very impressive and hungry for the win," said Gray.
"It's always difficult facing the Blues on their home patch and few teams would come back after going two down.
"It takes a lot of bottle and character to do that, so it's a big warning to us. I know Big Ronnie will have them fired up when they come to our place.
"By their own standards, they haven't had a good season, but they'll see this as a possible gateway to a financial bonanza.
"It's a big opportunity for them, as it is for us."
Gray reckons if his boys reach the same level of performance they achieved against Ballymena, that European slot will be well within their grasp.
"Although we had a numerical advantage for some time, we were comfortable," he said. "Sometimes when teams lose a player, they tend to sit back and make things difficult.
"We missed quite a few good chances but once we broke the deadlock, it was practically done and dusted."
Gray also hailed the contribution of Stephen Garrett, who had a hand in three of the four goals after climbing off the substitutes' bench.
"Stevie is an impact player," he said. "He is unlucky not to start in certain games, but I know when he gets the nod he has the capability of changing games.
"He's the type of player that never lets you down, but he is most influential when he comes off the bench."
Gray will be at full strength, which means Garry Breen will be added to his squad.
He added: "Gary wasn't comfortable in the warm-up for the semi-final.
"He's still feeling the affects of an ankle ligament problem he picked up six or seven weeks ago.
"What he needs is a rest to let it settle down, but with so many big games of late, we couldn't afford to leave him out.
"It's been a long, hard and difficult season. We've had our ups and our downs, but the players now have a chance of gaining a little reward for all the effort they have put in - it would be a massive achievement if we could end the term by claiming our place in European football."
Reds dangerman Gormley feels the game is just as significant as the Irish Cup decider a week ago.
"We had a job to do against Ballymena and thankfully got the job done," said the 28-year-old, who netted twice against the Sky Blues with Jay Donnelly also scoring a brace.
"This is a huge game and probably just as big as the Irish Cup final.
"We need European football and we're looking forward to the game."
Glentoran assistant boss Kieran Harding emphasised that "the job is only half done" after watching the Oval outfit come from 2-0 down to take victory against the Blues.
"We now have a massive game against Cliftonville. The lads were superb in the second half but the job is not done yet," he said.
"The Glentoran supporters have been long-suffering all season so we want to push on now and hopefully the fans will turn out in their numbers again and give us a lift on Saturday.
"There's a lot at stake but I expect it to be a smashing game (today)."
Cliftonville vs Glentoran
Europa League Play-Off Final
Solitude, Today, 3pm