Belfast Telegraph

McLaughlin is braced for difficult Sky Blues test

Nice start: Paddy McLaughlin has perfect record at the Reds
Nice start: Paddy McLaughlin has perfect record at the Reds

By Steven Beacom

Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin believes tonight's opponents Ballymena United are still in the title race.

Following United’s 1-0 defeat on Saturday to league leaders Linfield, many involved in the game here were quick to write off David Jeffrey’s Sky Blues in terms of the Danske Bank Premiership crown.

Not so McLaughlin. Ballymena may trail David Healy’s men by nine points at the top of the table but they have a game in hand and a host of home matches on the way.

McLaughlin, who took charge of the north Belfast side earlier this month after Barry Gray’s departure, has been mightily impressed by Ballymena this season.

He would love to make it three wins out of three as Reds boss, having already overcome Newry and Warrenpoint, but expects his most difficult challenge yet since leaving the Institute hotseat to move into the Solitude dugout.

“Ballymena will be tough. They are one of the best sides in the division and are running Linfield close for the title,” said McLaughlin.

“David has done a brilliant job and attracted some of the best players in the league and assembled a title-winning side.

“It will be a tough night for us but if we play like we did against Warrenpoint and stay as organised as we did in that 2-0 win on Saturday we have every chance.”

Cliftonville have conceded more goals than any other team in the top six so far this season. No wonder then that McLaughlin has been delighted that the Reds have secured two clean sheets in a row.

“Against Warrenpoint I thought our team stood tall and defended superbly,” he said.

“The weekend was a reminder that our defenders are as good as you will get in the division when they are playing to their max. They have been doing it for the past two games.

“We are going to need that again when we face Ballymena because they are such a dangerous side.”

Cliftonville striker Rory Donnelly missed the Milltown match due to flu. In his absence, Ryan Curran delivered two fabulous strikes, so along with record goalscorer Joe Gormley there is plenty of firepower in the Reds ranks. If McLaughlin continues his perfect start as manager, the Solitude outfit will move into fifth place in the table.

Ballymena could do with Newry taking something against Linfield tonight, but first and foremost Jeffrey will be focusing on events at the Showgrounds and steering his team to success ahead of Saturday’s eagerly awaited Irish Cup quarter-final away to champions Crusaders.

United could consider themselves unlucky to have lost twice in a row to Linfield by a single goal — in the League Cup final and league — and Jeffrey will want a big reaction.

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