Table-topping Reds just keep defying the odds: McLaughlin
Cliftonville 1-0 Ballymena Utd
Paddy McLaughlin admits that, despite his high opinion of the quality at his disposal, even he has been shocked by Cliftonville's recent form.
The Reds' battling victory over Ballymena United on Saturday made it six clean sheets in seven consecutive Danske Bank Premiership wins as the north Belfast side blasted their way to the top of the table.
While abiding by the traditional managerial mantra of "not getting carried away" with his team's surge, McLaughlin - whose men last tasted league defeat in their previous date with the Sky Blues at the end of September - revealed he couldn't have predicted such an incredible sequence of results.
"I'm always full of praise for those players and they know how highly I rate them and how much I think of them but, no, I didn't see this run of form coming," he said.
"That's nothing to do with having a lack of faith in them, it's more because of how tough this league is. It doesn't matter who you're playing, whether your opponents are top, middle or bottom of the table, it's such a difficult division to win football matches in and to do seven in a row is fantastic - and with six clean sheets as well."
The only goal of a keenly contested encounter came six minutes after the interval when Ruaidhri Donnelly swept a low drive into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.
United came within a whisker of levelling courtesy of an outrageous Jonny Addis strike which whistled just past the post, while former Cliftonville midfielder Jude Winchester made a mess of a presentable opportunity at point-blank range.
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Coleraine's shock slip-up at Warrenpoint meant the final blast of referee Lee Tavinder's whistle confirmed the Reds' elevation to the summit, but McLaughlin warned that it was far too early to engage in title talk.
"We have to be realistic," he added. "There are very strong teams right throughout this division and a number of them are a few years in the works. We're six months into things here.
"There are six or seven teams who I think are capable of winning the league and just to be in that mix is great for us."
Sky Blues chief David Jeffrey - whose side haven't toasted a Premiership win since that September success against the Reds - couldn't fault his injury-ravaged troops.
"I asked the players to give their best and they did just that," he said.
"What I got was a brave, honest performance and that's what you need your players to do when you're going through the kind of spell we're in. You're just hoping that your luck will turn for you."
CLIFTONVILLE: Brush, McDermott, Breen, Harney, C Curran, R Curran, R Donnelly, Bagnall, Doherty, Gormley (McMenamin, 72 mins), A Donnelly. Unused subs: Dunne, McKee, Foster, Wilson, Maguire, Gorman.
BALLYMENA: Ross Glendinning, Addis, Mayse (Lavery, 70 mins), McGinty, McCullough, K Kane (Brown, 70 mins), Andrew Burns, Carville, McGrory, Winchester, Ervin. Unused subs: Williamson, Reece Glendinning, Warnock, Beattie, Annett.
Referee: Lee Tavinder (Dungannon)
Man of the Match: Chris Curran
Match Rating: 7/10