Barry Gray accepts his players aren’t making a concious decision to start games slowly, but wants performances such as yesterday’s to act as a reminder of what might be possible if Cliftonville turned in a consistent 90 minute display.
The Reds fell behind at the end of a sloppy first-half – during which they nevertheless struck the bar and forced Linfield’s keeper into a fine last-ditch save – but reacted with a much improved display after the interval, seeing a host of penalty claims dismissed by referee Andrew Davey and only earning a consolation goal reward after the visitors had doubled their advantage.
Gray acknowledged there were positives to take from the afternoon but was once again disappointed that it took a setback to spark his side into action.
“It’s not as if the players are sitting in there before a game going ‘we’ll wait for 45 minutes before we start to play today’, but it’s deeply frustrating for everyone at this Club that it keeps happening,” he said.
“Our problem’s not in the feet, it’s in our heads. We have players with so much talent and ability but it seems to be a psychological thing.
“We generally get a reaction, be it after going behind in a game or after losing the previous week. Look at Tuesday night, we came racing out of the blocks against Warrenpoint, probably quicker than we have in any game this season.
“Against Linfield, we were looking for more of the same but we gave them far too much room to play in the first half. After half-time, we came out and we were well on top. The thing is, it was the same 11 players, playing the same formation and the same tactics – but the performance was so much better and that’s a real bugbear, one that we’ve had so many times.”
Gray was likewise disappointed with the manner of the goals conceded – “When you’re playing Linfield, it’s not exactly a shock that they’re a threat from set plays” – but was pleased with the contribution of midfielder Ruairi Harkin, making his Solitude return after 15 months sidelined by injury.
“You can see the difference he makes, even though he still has work to do on his match sharpness,” adds the boss.
“He’s very comfortable on the ball and gives us real quality in the middle of the park. That’s another 70 or 75 minutes he’s got under him and we’ll have to see how he reacts to that in the next couple of days, but there’s no doubt he makes a big difference to our play.”
Cliftonville supporters bemoaned the referee’s refusal to award any of three penalty appeals as well as overlooking an obvious handball in the build-up to Linfield’s second goal – frustrations that were shared by the Manager.
“We can’t blame the referee for us losing the game, but he’s had a major influence in not getting key decisions right,” says Gray.
“Things like that change games and if we get a penalty at 1-0 down, it could have changed things completely. It’s blatant, so blatant.
“It’s just so obvious that I don’t know what more I can say, except that we’ve had another penalty appeal turned down outside of that and then you have a player on the ground who puts out an arm to grab hold of the ball and none of the referee, linesman or fourth official sees it – that’s incredible. They then score from a free-kick a few seconds later.
“Those are key moments in the game and when big decisions like that are wrong, they have an impact.”