Barry Gray believes defeat in the Tennent’s Irish Cup Final has strengthened the bond between his players and inspired their defiant response in last night’s Europa League Play-Off Semi Final victory over Ballymena United.
Second-half doubles from Jay Donnelly and Joe Gormley saw the Reds progress to Saturday’s Solitude decider with Glentoran and the Manager has outlined his delight with how his troops hit back from their weekend disappointment.
“The physical and mental exertions of the weekend, when every player emptied the tank, were huge and to follow that up with a performance like this is excellent, absolutely brilliant,” says Gray.
“I learned an awful lot about us on Saturday – not in football terms, but in terms of the togetherness in that changing room. We lost the game but everyone was together, it was collective pain and they were determined to get back on it and win this match.
“Everybody is in everything together and they’re all eager to play their part. Even Garry Breen, who would play on one leg if he could, was busting to be involved against Ballymena and was determined to play through his pain, but he had the honesty to admit during the warm-up that he wasn’t feeling right and wasn’t in the best shape to play the game. Having to change the line-up at that stage isn’t a hassle or a headache, in those circumstances it shows that someone is putting the team first and that’s another example of the togetherness we have in there.
“It could have been a really difficult night in terms of the disappointment from the Cup Final but the players didn’t show it and the fans were brilliant too. They were there for our players and we needed them to be there.
“There was a patch during the second-half when it was still 0-0 and we’d missed so many chances and it was noticeable that the Red Army stepped up for us. There was singing in the ‘Understand’ and across in the main (McAlery) stand and I honestly don’t think our fans realise how much of a difference that makes when you’re looking for a lift. Everybody played their part and it was a real collective effort across everybody to win the game.”
All of which means that Cliftonville have one final fixture to negotiate as they bid to end their season on a positive note and Gray – who was appointed a year ago today – expects a huge test on Saturday.
“We now have to recharge the batteries and go at it all over again to get ourselves over the line against Glentoran.
“I’m delighted we have home advantage for the game and I believe our fans can have a massive influence, but you can’t dismiss Glentoran one bit. They’ve just gone to Windsor and stuck four past Linfield when nobody gave them a chance – so they’re going to be up for it just as much as we will be.”