Paddy McLaughlin saluted Cliftonville’s courage in coming back from the brink in last night’s Europa League Play-Off Semi Final.
Trailing 2-0 when Joe Gormley pulled one back, the Reds – who saw a string of chances come and go during a dominant second-half display – looked to be dead and buried when James McLaughlin’s acrobatic second strike of the night restored Coleraine’s two-goal advantage.
Conor McMenamin would narrow the margin, however, before Ryan Curran’s injury-time penalty kick sent the tie into Extra Time, where conversions from Levi Ives and McMenamin sealed a 5-3 success and progress to Saturday’s Play-Off Final with Glentoran.
Boss McLaughlin hailed his players’ resilience and remarked on a special Solitude atmosphere after finally catching his breath following a captivating two-hour duel.
“A lesser team would have given it up and folded – not those boys,” he said.
“That took all the bottle and all the character in the world to do what they did. For Ryan Curran to equalise with a penalty in the 97th minute took nerves of steel and the players showed what they’re about by going on to win it.
“They were brave and passionate and I know it’s a cliche to talk about supporters being the twelfth man, but the way they kept the team’s confidence up and kept driving them on was fantastic.
“What an atmosphere. Our supporters were more than the twelfth man, they gave the players the confidence and belief that they could still turn it around.
“It was a great night and we’ve given ourselves a chance but, believe me, it’s going to be a hell of a game against Glentoran – they will come here and give it a real go and we have to be up for it from the start all over again.”
Indeed, it was Cliftonville’s sluggish start that looked to have cost them as the Bannsiders raced into a two-goal lead with the hosts barely at the races.
Gormley’s goal lifted spirits at just the right time, with McLaughlin thrilled by his side’s performance after the break.
“We’re better when we’re on the front foot and I always tell the players that,” he added.
“We got off to a terrible start and we weren’t ourselves at all. It looked like it was all going to slip away from us but the boys had the bravery to get on the ball, to keep passing, to keep playing and to stay on the front foot. That’s how we’ll have to play against Glentoran because they’re a better team than they get credit for and they’ll work us hard.
“We will need another big performance from the team but also from the fans as well. They know the difference they made against Coleraine – they saw it, they gave the players energy – and we need them in that kind of mood again.”