With less than three weeks until Cliftonville return to Danske Bank Premiership action, cliftonvillefc.net concludes a weekly mini-series reflecting on the good, the bad and the in-betweens of the 2018/19 season.
Every Monday, we’ve taken a chronological look back on a new month from the campaign – with a decisive May taking centre stage today.
Though the Reds knew their campaign would end in the Europa League Play-Offs, it wasn’t until three days beforehand that they received confirmation of a home Semi Final with Coleraine, which it’s fair to say did not get off to the most promising start.
An unfortunate own goal by Richard Brush and towering header from James McLaughlin put the Bannsiders 2-0 up before the half-hour mark, however a scrambled Joe Gormley strike gave Cliftonville some renewed optimism before the interval.
In the second-half, at times relentless one-way traffic saw the frustrated Reds thwarted time and time again as they bade to battle their way back into European contention and, when McLaughlin lashed home his acrobatic second goal of the evening, with just 18 minutes remaining, Coleraine’s place in the decider looked secure.
Conor McMenamin’s quick response set up a grandstand finale but, again, the hosts’ dominance looked set to amount to nothing until Josh Carson’s trip on Ryan Curran in the depths of injury-time earned a dramatic penalty kick which Curran stepped up to convert and force Extra Time.
The contest had barely restarted by the time Levi Ives’ daisy-cutter put Cliftonville in front for the very first time ahead of McMenamin putting the seal on a memorable 5-3 victory when he raced away to produce an ice-cool finish nine minutes from the end.
And so to the familiar challenge of facing Glentoran in the Play-Off Final. As was the case in 2016 and 2018, huge crowds gathered at Solitude to roar both teams on through a typically cagey showdown in the blistering north Belfast sunshine.
After 90 goalless minutes, it could be argued that playing Extra Time favoured the Glens – who had eased past Glenavon in their own Semi Final – over a Reds side whose previous outing had gone the distance.
Even so, it was indeed Cliftonville who would triumph and, again, it was Gormley who led the way with a finish spookily similar to the one that had broken Coleraine’s resistance a few days earlier.
That conversion would prove the final kick of the first period of Extra Time and, just as he had done against the Bannsiders, McMenamin was the man who wrapped things up at the death with another surging run and composed finish that booked the Reds’ place in the 2019/20 Europa League.
Cliftonville 5-3 Coleraine
Gormley, McMenamin , R Curran, Ives
Cliftonville 2-0 Glentoran