Conor McMenamin's Boxing Day double makes him one of Irish League's top two strikers: McLaughlin
Paddy McLaughlin hailed Conor McMenamin’s “touch of genius” after his brace blasted Cliftonville top of the Danske Bank Premiership.
McMenamin’s two sublime finishes, coming after his winner against Coleraine on Saturday, reinforced his manager’s view of the striker emerging as one of the best players in the top flight.
David Cushley fired the Crues ahead in the second minute but 24-year-old McMenamin, who agreed a two-year contract extension in October, delivered a swift response and then hammered in the winner in the 79th minute.
It was Cliftonville’s first Boxing Day triumph over their neighbours since 2012 and the supporters are drinking in the good times as McLaughlin’s festive alcohol ban on his players takes effect.
The Reds are one point ahead of Linfield and Coleraine in an intriguing title race, though the second-placed Blues have a game in hand.
McLaughlin had McMenamin in his top three Premiership players but has now changed his opinion.
“I would have had Conor McMenamin in the top three in the league but now I’ll put him in the top two,” said the Reds chief, who will have fond memories of his first north Belfast Boxing Day derby as manager.
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“He’s shown again he’s a class act and among the league’s top performers. He wins games for you and we are lucky to have him.
“Not too many players possess the talent that Conor McMenamin has. He is a different class and even has that touch of genius which you need. We are blessed to have him on a long-term deal and he has deserved it.
“He’s got that bit of class to get you over the line and be the difference in big games.”
Nothing issues a big title statement like going top of the table and with McMenamin on fire, anything is possible — though McLaughlin will demand more from his men.
“I think anyone in the top six will have the belief they can win this league,” he added.
“We don’t have the biggest squad but we have desire and the heart of a lion, which not every team might have.
“You never know how things will pan out and we have never considered ourselves title contenders but we have set the boys a target and if we had any chance of winning the league we needed to be within touching distance going into the New Year and we are doing that.
“We have tough games but it remains to be seen whether we can stay in the title race.
“The top six sides are all strong and while we are lacking in numbers we can stay in the hunt.
“I’ve learned the days of people saying we are soft and nice to watch are long over. That claim has been put to bed over the last two games.”
On his players’ festive drinks ban, McLaughlin joked: “I’ve been thinking of investing in a breathalyser for Saturday morning.
“The boys know they have to be professional and have the right mentality if they want to stay in touch with the leaders. They have to make sacrifices over the festive season and they rightly sit at the top of the table because they are talented and work hard.”
The Crues got off to a dream start in the second minute when Ross Clarke rolled the ball to Cushley and his low drive found the bottom corner of the net.
The Reds were rocked, but not for long. Five minutes later, McMenamin was given time and space to turn sharply and hammer past keeper Ger Doherty.
Crusaders did most of the attacking in the second half but they had their pockets picked on 79 minutes.
The home side were unable to clear the ball and McMenamin exploded into life again, firing a powerful strike beyond Doherty.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter felt his side were unfortunate to lose the game.
“It’s extremely disappointing given how well we have played,” he said.
“I felt we were the dominant team for much of the game and were brilliant in piling the pressure on them in the second half but they got in there once and scored a goal.
“That can happen in a derby and that’s football.
“We applied a lot of pressure on them and that’s something that has been missing from our game, that intensity of pressure, but not to get the result is disappointing.
“We’ll take it on the chin as we didn’t take our chances at the right time.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital