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Cliftonville should aim higher than Europa Conference, claims McLaughlin after securing top half finish

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Cliftonville's Ryan Curran holds off Portadown's George Tipton at Shamrock Park

Cliftonville's Ryan Curran holds off Portadown's George Tipton at Shamrock Park

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Cliftonville's Ryan Curran holds off Portadown's George Tipton at Shamrock Park

Paddy McLaughlin has set his sights beyond the Europa Conference League Play-Offs on the back of a result that guaranteed Cliftonville a shot at a place in Europe next season.

The Reds' 2-1 victory over Portadown ensures they will battle it out in the top six after the split and, after an exciting performance that should have delivered more goals, McLaughlin now sees a direct route to European football opening up.

A Ryan Curran brace earned three points for the Solitude side and they are now six points behind second-placed Coleraine with a match in hand and some huge battles to come in the final five games of the season.

"Second place is a realistic target - but it's a realistic target for four or five teams and I am sure everybody has probably got their eyes on it," said McLaughlin.

"The challenge at the start of the season for us was to finish in the top six and get into the European Play-Offs.

"With so many full-time clubs, staying in touch with the leaders and those clubs was always important to us, and we've done that up to now, so we deserve our place in the top six, but it's how high can we go - that's the challenge now for the players.

"If we keep playing the way we can play it's not out of our reach - definitely not - but we are delighted to get a shot at the European games.

"It would be massive for the club. You see the huge financial backing that a lot of the clubs have and it's important that we don't let them get too far away from us.

"European football would be a massive boost. It's definitely within our grasp at the minute because we have a place in the Play-Offs, so it's important that we finish the season as strongly as we can.

"If we can do it without the Play-Offs, brilliant, but if it's a Play-Off place that we get then so be it because in the form we're in at the minute I believe that we could take on and beat anybody."

The breakthrough that Cliftonville's dominance had been threatening finally arrived after 27 minutes. Chris Curran and Daire O'Connor had both had efforts saved by Jacob Carney and they both played big parts in the opening goal. Curran attacked down the left and, after giving a lay-off, he collected the return pass, crossed to the edge of the box from where O'Connor shot and Ryan Curran was on hand to divert an already goal-bound effort into the net from close range.

Cliftonville took the direct route to double their lead just six minutes later. Garry Breen fired a long ball forward to Ryan Curran, who chested on to Michael McCrudden and his back heel set up the striker perfectly to score with a first-time shot via a deflection.

It was with the aid of a deflection that the Ports gave themselves a lifeline just before half time, but that shouldn't be allowed to take away the fantastic technique shown by Tilney.

A corner was sent over from the left and, while Adam McCallum protested at referee Tim Marshall with his shirt half off, Tilney ignored the penalty claims and hit a sweet left-footed volley that clipped Liam Bagnall and flew into the net.

Curran earned praise from his manager for his double strike and how he has delivered throughout the season to ensure that the absence of the club's record goalscorer Joe Gormley hasn't harmed the team.

"Ryan is one of the leading marksmen in the division, I think he's probably having his best season in terms of goals and there are still seven matches to be played - and that's not even including the Cup," said McLaughlin.

"He's been phenomenal for us this year and long may it continue, because when Joe went out injured it's a massive loss to the club and a loss to the team taking away that goal threat that Joe carries, and Ryan has taken on the mantle brilliantly. You have to give him all the credit in the world, and if our strikers keep creating chances and keep taking them and we keep winning matches - the longer it stays like that the better."

Despite the defeat, Ports boss Matthew Tipton saw encouraging signs in his team's performance following back-to-back wins.

"We were in the game right to the end and that has been the case against virtually everybody, and it's a massive positive for us," said Tipton.

"They have a European place to play for. What have we got to play for? Ninth is what we're looking at, but who plays for ninth? The attitude of my players is that they want to win every game and they are knocking their pans in. However, if you have a European place on the line you're going to go a little bit further, you are going to have more energy than somebody who is playing for ninth.

"That's not being stupid, it's fact - human nature."


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