Jamie McDonagh believes Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin pulled off the transfer scoop of the summer by capturing Ronan Hale from Larne.
The 23-year-old bagged 36 goals in all competitions for Tiernan Lynch’s team — including an astonishing four-goal haul in his final game against Glentoran which guaranteed Larne’s participation in this season’s Europa Conference League.
Former Derry City and Glens winger McDonagh reckons Hale — whose older brother Rory is already a fixture at Solitude — will be an instant hit with the Red Army.
“Ronan is a great signing,” he states. “He is one of the best young players in the League, he’s going to add goals to our team.
“I’ve no doubt he’ll be successful for us. Perhaps if we had signed him in January we would have won the League title, who knows?
“He is going to score goals for us.
“We’ve still got Joe Gormley who is not only a club legend, but a legend in the Irish League. We’ve got goals around the team, we want to progress and win trophies — we can’t wait to get started.”
McLaughlin’s team were agonisingly pipped to the Premiership title by Linfield on the final day of the campaign and, even though they won the League Cup and qualified for Europe, McDonagh insists that there is much more to come from them.
“It could have been so much better for us,” adds McDonagh, who had a spell in his teens with Sheffield United. “It was good to win a trophy and good to get into Europe; that was our goal from the outset.
“But there is no doubt that Paddy will have the bar set even higher this season. When we look back, we had a squad that was good enough to win the League.
“We were one point, or one game, away from achieving that, not many teams come that close. We now have that experience in the bank.
“It’s been some time since the title race has been that close. We were near the top throughout the season. Fair play to Linfield, they were battling on as well.
“It was good to see two teams going at it, but we must now take that into next season.
“Our standards will not drop. We expect the same commitment and the same standards for the new campaign. We want to progress even further and win more trophies.
“That’s why we play football — expectations are now high at Cliftonville.”
McDonagh is relishing the prospect of facing Slovakian side DAC in the Europa Conference League at the MOL Arena in Dunajska Streda on July 7.
“We’ve played Derry City and Shamrock Rovers so far in the build-up, it was good preparation,” he continues.
“They are full-time teams in the League of Ireland. I played down south so I know the standard. It’s a bit like European games when you come up against teams like that.
“The gaffer will do his research. Our analysis team will have clips and information on them. We’ll get a good look at them and prepare from there.
“Any European game is difficult; they are all good sides. I know we’ll come up against a side from either the Faroe Islands (Vikingur) or Gibraltar (Europa) if we get through, but we’ll not be looking that far ahead.
“It’s all about focusing on the game in front of us, which is DAC. After that, we’ll take it as it comes. That’s what we do at Cliftonville, we take each game as it comes.
“There are a few lads in our team that haven’t played in Europe before, so it will be good for them to get that experience under their belt.
“Irish League teams are now capable of progressing in Europe. In fact, they are on the verge of going quite far — Linfield came so close to the group stages a few years ago.
“We want to set a good impression, we want teams from different countries to have the impression there are some good sides in the Irish League.
“It would be great if the four sides have a run — ourselves, Linfield Crusaders and Larne. I know they are big rivals on the domestic front and we want to beat them every time, but I would love to see all of them go far in Europe and do well.”