Togetherness is Coleraine's driving force, says Kearney
Oran Kearney believes the close bond between his players has been catalytic in firing Coleraine to the top of the table.
The Bannsiders maintained their five point advantage at the summit thanks to a 2-1 victory over Cliftonville which Kearney admitted wasn't easy on the eye, but which nevertheless gave him great satisfaction as his patched-up side dug deep to end the Reds' recent winning run.
David Ogilby opened the scoring with an early free kick and, after asking for his players to rise to the challenge in the aftermath of Rory Donnelly's equaliser, Kearney was delighted to see his men edge back in front courtesy of a Joe McCready strike that his men defended for their lives.
"It wasn't pretty, but we had to dig in and do the ugly side of things," he said.
"A lot of our players just didn't have the legs and I'm fine with that after what we've been through in the last couple of games.
"Getting a third goal was never in the psyche. I knew it, the players knew it and Cliftonville knew it - we had something to hold on to and we were determined to do that.
"We've ended up with four central defenders on the pitch and it was a day for standing up to challenges, kicking clear and throwing yourself in the road of things. Winning 4-0 by playing free-flowing football is great but there's a sadist in me somewhere that loves days like this just as much, if not more."
The Bannsiders have dropped just two points from 11 Premiership outings this term but Kearney maintains he hasn't had to clamp down on any title talk among his players - because there hasn't been any.
"People can talk about us as title challengers if they want, but I don't talk to those people," he added.
"It's not a conversation that happens in our changing room, we don't prepare for games by going 'right, there's a league to be won here' - we just try and build on our last game.
"There's a good mood within the camp and I find myself really looking forward to matches like never before. This week we've played Linfield, Crusaders and then Cliftonville and it's not often you'd see that on your fixture list and be looking forward to it.
"It's a pleasure managing this squad because they're genuinely such a great bunch of lads. I think your social circle is so influential and who you surround yourself with is so important.
"These guys like meeting up for training on a Tuesday and Thursday - in fact, you're almost having to peel them off the pitch - and then for matches on Saturday.
"There's a sense of togetherness among them and that's undoubtedly a great thing to have in any squad."
Opposite number Barry Gray felt his side deserved more from the game, but promised Reds supporters they need not fear a collapse back to the form that haunted them throughout August and September.
"The Cliftonville of the first six weeks of the season is gone and won't be coming back," he said.
"Even when we were winning games, I always said we were a work in progress. That hasn't changed and we know we'll hit bumps like this along the way but, in general, I think anyone can see we're heading the right way.
"Frustrating is the word for it. We've gifted them their two goals and I think any team would be delighted to be handed chances on a plate like that. Their first one was a silly free kick to give away and the second, we just don't defend it properly at all.
"In general, I think we've been on top and we've created a whole pile of chances to equalise but if you don't put them away, you're going to lose - it's as simple as that.
"The most frustrating thing for me as a manager is we've worked so hard over the last lot of weeks where we've shown the players a picture of how we want things done, they've gone out and done it, got the results and can see that the picture works for us.
"Against Coleraine, we've retreated away from that at times and got drawn into the sort of game we don't want to play."
Cliftonville: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, Breen, Harney, Curran, Bagnall, Winchester, Gormley, J Donnelly, R Donnelly. Subs: Long, Hughes (Gormley, 79 mins), Garrett (McGovern, 65 mins), M Donnelly, Cosgrove (Winchester, 55 mins).
Coleraine: Johns, Mullan, Harkin, Ogilby, McCauley, Carson, O'Donnell, Parkhill, Traynor, McGonigle, McCready. Subs: Douglas (Ogilby, 46 mins), McConaghie (McCauley, 46 mins), Kirk, Doherty, Whiteside (McCready, 79 mins).
Man of the match: Stephen O'Donnell
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor)