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Cliftonville demonstrated quality when it really mattered

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Tommy Breslin and backroom team Peter Murray and Gerard Lyttle get a soaking from goalkeeper Conor Devlin

Tommy Breslin and backroom team Peter Murray and Gerard Lyttle get a soaking from goalkeeper Conor Devlin

Tommy Breslin and backroom team Peter Murray and Gerard Lyttle get a soaking from goalkeeper Conor Devlin

Cliftonville boss Tommy Breslin always maintained he had the best squad in the Irish League, even when performances and results weren't backing that claim up.

At one stage, the Reds found themselves languising a whopping eight points behind Linfield and, far from being in the title race, had dropped to as low as sixth in the Premiership table during an autumn best forgotten at Solitude.

Home draws against both Warrenpoint Town and Dungannon Swifts felt like defeats – even though it was the Reds who banked last-gasp equalisers each time – but, through it all, Breslin insisted there was no need to panic and that his players would come good.

What kept them in the hunt was that, to quote influential defender Marc Smyth, they won the big games and, as they edged nearer and nearer the summit, the expression "Imagine where we'd be if we'd kicked a ball this season" became a mainstay of Breslin's post-match summaries.

The final week in January provided three pivotal fixtures – even if only one of them actually saw Cliftonville pocket any points.

On the Friday night, Linfield blew a 3-1 lead to draw at home to Ards and, less than 24 hours later, the Reds lifted the WASP Solutions League Cup following a penalty shoot-out victory over Crusaders.

The confidence boost those two results gave Breslin's side cannot be under-stated and they certainly made the most of their rediscovered belief by beating the Blues seven days later.

Despite that, and indeed the other three Premiership victories over Linfield, there is one match in particular which stands out above all others as the one which demonstrated Cliftonville's absolute determination to keep hold of their crown.

On February 22, they travelled to Stangmore Park for a match they knew they simply had to win.

Linfield – who had returned to the top of the table with a 1-0 victory over Glentoran the night before – had a game in hand against Glenavon two days later and, when Chris Lavery put Dungannon Swifts ahead early in the second-half, the writing looked to be on the wall for the Reds.

However, despite being minus the services of suspended trio Smyth, Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley, the north Belfast side rallied to level through Diarmuid O'Carroll before substitute Stephen Garrett sparked manic celebrations with a last-gasp winner.

That moment was re-lived and recalled as George McMullan raised the Gibson Cup at the bottom of Cliftonville Street on Saturday.

Breslin said his players had earned the supporters' adulation through sheer hard work but this second consecutive dream season didn't quite deliver the fairytale finish that many had been praying for.

Though Chris Curran's impact on the Reds' title charge was hailed from the rafters, namesake Scannell was unable to register a goal on his final outing before retirement.

His big sign-off may not live particularly long in the memory and he may only have made a handful of appearances over the course of the campaign... but who knows how the 2013/14 story would have unfolded had the legendary striker not provided the cross for that golden Garrett goal at Stangmore.

Belfast Telegraph