As the countdown continues to the Danske Bank Premiership’s big kick-off next weekend, cliftonvillefc.net concludes a weekly mini-series reflecting on the good, the bad and the in-betweens of the 2017/18 campaign.
Every Monday throughout the break, we’ve a chronological look back on a new month from Barry Gray’s first year at the helm – with the heartbreak and elation of an emotional May falling under our spotlight today.
Cliftonville had hoped that the Irish Cup Final would be the sole commitment in their month’s diary, with victory over Coleraine not only earning the Club’s first success in the showpiece competition since 1879 but also booking a direct ticket to Europe, sparing the Reds an agonising pathway through the end-of-term Play-Offs.
Despite starting well and bossing the majority of early exchanges at Windsor Park, Cliftonville were unable to make the breakthrough and, as the Bannsiders gradually established a greater foothold on proceedings, Darren McCauley’s superb strike from distance put Oran Kearney’s side in front.
The Reds hit back soon later, however, when Rory Donnelly netted following a surging run from Conor McDonald but, with the tie delicately poised, some horrendous misfortune contributed to Coleraine pulling back in front when a wayward free-kick from goalkeeper Chris Johns somehow weaved a route through to Eoin Bradley, whose touch teed Aaron Burns up to make it 2-1 ahead of Bradley himself wrapping things up in injury-time.
Their stretch without Irish Cup glory now extended to a 40th year, Cliftonville were forced to immediately shift focus to an imminent Europa League Play-Off Semi Final with Ballymena United a few days later.
Having dominated the contest from virtually the first whistle, it was with no little sense of relief that Jay Donnelly broke the deadlock midway through the second-half.
Though the hosts were in control of proceedings, a second goal was always a necessity to calm the nerves and it duly arrived when Donnelly completed is brace nine minutes from time before two late Joe Gormley strikes added a touch of gloss to proceedings in an emphatic 4-0 success.
Having expected to return to Windsor for a final shoot-out with Linfield, the Reds were somewhat shocked to learn that, having battled back from 2-0 down against the Blues, it was Glentoran who lay in wait the following Saturday – with Solitude hosting the winner-takes-all scrap.
Rory Donnelly blasted the hosts in front after 24 minutes and, when his close-range conversion doubled Cliftonville’s lead 40 minutes later, it seemed the passports could be dusted off for a return to Europe, only for the Glens to demonstrate their powers of recovery once again.
From the moment Robbie McDaid pulled one goal back out of nowhere with just 11 minutes left to play, the visitors – no doubt inspired by events just a few days earlier – played with renewed belief and levelled shortly afterwards when Garry Breen’s barge on McDaid earned a penalty which Curtis Allen stepped up to convert, although television replays would later confirm the foul occurred outside the box.
The momentum having swung Glentoran’s way, the Reds would have to dig deep if they were to rescue their European ambitions at the end of what had been a demanding week both psychologically and physically – but they had just enough left in the tank to secure a dramatic late triumph.
Levi Ives’ delivery fell to Rory Donnelly and, when his attempt was charged down, he had the presence of mind to return the ball to the danger area. The in-rushing Chris Curran was unable to make a connection but his sheer presence seemed enough to temporarily distract from he looming figure of Gormley, who took a touch to set himself before rifling in a half-volley that booked Cliftonville’s place in continental action.
This Saturday will mark 12 weeks since that heart-stopping affair and, with the Glens once again providing the opposition, here’s hoping the Reds can kick the new Premiership campaign off on a similarly positive note when we travel to The Oval this weekend.
Cliftonville 1-3 Coleraine
Cliftonville 4-0 Ballymena United
J Donnelly , Gormley 
Cliftonville 3-2 Glentoran
R Donnelly , Gormley