Belfast Telegraph

Resilient Reds go the extra mile to down Bannsiders

Cliftonville 5 Coleraine 3

Red alert: Conor McMenamin skips past Chris Johns to complete the scoring
Red alert: Conor McMenamin skips past Chris Johns to complete the scoring

By Conor McLaughlin

There are philistines who will assert that Liverpool's sensational comeback over Barcelona was the most engrossing game contested in Europe last night - but it didn't come close to the fare served up by Cliftonville and Coleraine.

The Reds roared back from 2-0 and 3-1 down to book their place in their third Europa League play-off final in four seasons after shocking Coleraine with a dramatic late show in front of a rapturous Solitude crowd.

Ryan Curran's penalty in the seventh minute of injury-time took the contest into an additional 30 minutes where, thanks to Levi Ives' early strike, the Belfast side took full control of a game that they had twice looked dead and buried in.

Bannsiders striker James McLaughlin may have departed with the match ball after appearing to score a match-winning hat-trick but, in truth, the first strike credited to him must go down as an own goal by home keeper Richard Brush.

The Reds' custodian got the unfortunate telling touch that took the ball over the line after McLaughlin's vicious header had rocked the underside of the crossbar with just nine minutes on the clock.

There was no such ambiguity about Coleraine's second just before the half-hour though; McLaughlin executing the header from Adam Mullan's cross.

As is so often the case, the third goal in any game can prove pivotal and to say the one that Cliftonville pulled back came out of nowhere would be quite the understatement.

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Bannsiders keeper Chris Johns raced outside his area to clear the danger from a long ball over the top and, though his miscue fell to Curran some distance from goal, there still seemed little danger when possession was fed forward, only for Joe Gormley to seize the initiative and sneak the ball into the net during an unpredictable scramble.

That gave the hosts the belief they needed and, after the break, they laid siege to Coleraine's goal, and it seemed only a matter of time before they equalised, with Gormley and Curran going close before Jamie Harney saw a header cleared off the line by Ben Doherty. Home fans sensed the ball would be in the net sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately for them, it was at the other end where that gut-instinct was realised - and what a goal from McLaughlin.

The kindest way to describe the striker's physique would be to attest that he does not perhaps look best suited to acrobatics but he defied perceptions to unleash a wild overhead kick. It was a strike worthy of sealing any win and, right around the ground, there was nobody who saw anything other than a Coleraine win from that point.

With 18 minutes to go, they had taken the wind out of Cliftonville's sails. They were on their way to the final.

Shortly afterwards, though, Gormley teed McMenamin up for a finish that inspired the Reds support again. Suddenly, they were within one goal again - and, their season hanging by a thread, had to go for it.

As the clock ticked down, though, Coleraine looked to have done enough. Their defending was superb and their game management perfect - almost.

For, in the seventh minute of injury-time, a scramble between Curran and Josh Carson led to referee Steven Gregg pointing to the penalty spot. It looked like the softest of awards but Curran picked himself up to slot home and bring extra-time.

Within two minutes of the re-start, the Reds took the lead for the first time when a rampaging run from Ives ended with the centre-half touching a low drive beyond Johns.

They sealed their win and a Euro shoot-out against Glentoran - their opponents in the 2016 and 2018 play-off deciders - when star man McMenamin rounded the keeper to net.

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