Cliftonville exited the Setanta Sports Cup with defeat to Sligo Rovers on Saturday evening but boss Eddie Patterson will not have far to search for positives from his team’s display.
Though well beaten, it was very much a skeleton Reds outfit who turned out at The Showgrounds with no fewer than four players handed debuts in addition to a sprinkling of reserve players still testing the water as far as first-team football is concerned.
Indeed, only captain Liam Fleming has featured with any kind of regularity for Cliftonville this term and, though Patterson will no doubt take heart from how his youthful troops acquitted themselves against their slick opponents, he will also have been encouraged to see Mark Holland and Francis Murphy continue their recuperations from injury, while Conor Downey emerged from the bench to produce a performance which the player admits even caught himself by surprise.
“I didn’t expect to feel so good,” said Downey.
“I was just looking forward to being involved and it was a great feeling to get back onto the pitch. I felt sharper than I thought I would and it was just a case of getting my head right, taking my touches and trying to keep things as simple as possible.
“It went better than I thought it would and hopefully I’ll be able to kick on over the next few weeks and get myself in good enough shape to contribute something to the team,” he added.
Sligo were deserving victors and, outside of three disallowed goals, saw Mauro Almeida hit the post before Eoin Doyle had an effort scrambled off the line by Conal Burns.
They took the lead on 39 minutes when Danny Ventre beat debut goalkeeper Jack Duffin to Alan Keane’s delivery and it was |2-0 on the stroke of half-time when Matthew Blinkhorn crossed for Doyle to put the seal on a wonderful team move.
Conal Burns went close to reducing the arrears after the interval only to strike the post with a powerful effort and Rovers wrapped things up late on when Padraig Almond converted from Blinkhorn’s cross.
Downey said: “With the Setanta Cup over with and our exit from the Irish Cup, we have nothing other than league games to concentrate on from here on in.
“Hopefully we’ll benefit from the schedule being less hectic.”