The players from Cliftonville’s centenary season remain revered as legends for the never-to-be-forgotten roles they played in both ending and, indeed, starting an Irish Cup famine at the Club.
Their against-the-odds triumph in 1979 concluded a wait that had stretched all the way back to 1909 – which makes the current 41-year interlude appear somewhat trifling by comparison.
Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy campaigns in the Club’s history, cliftonvillefc.net today reflects on the facts and figures behind a term that has gone down in folklore and continues to be celebrated to this day.
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After warming up with friendlies against Blackpool Reserves, Southport and Sligo Rovers, Cliftonville’s domestic campaign began with a 3-0 Ulster Cup defeat at Larne on August 19, 1978.
Just three days later, however, John Platt would net the team’s first goal of the campaign in a 3-2 victory over eventual trophy-winners Linfield in a ‘home’ game played at Windsor Park.
Clashes with Coleraine (1-1), Bangor (1-0) and Portadown (1-1) followed ahead of back-to-back successes against Distillery (3-0) and Glentoran (1-0).
The Reds’ encouraging form continued in a 1-1 draw with Crusaders at Seaview, while a Platt treble helped sink Ballymena United 3-1 at Solitude before a goalless encounter with Ards preceded Cliftonville’s final Ulster Cup outing ended just as the first had done – in defeat; Glenavon (1-2) doing the damage on this occasion.
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While Cliftonville’s heroes of the 1978/79 season are remembered for their Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield successes, what is perhaps less well known is that they came within a whisker of a trophy treble, only to suffer defeat to – of all teams – Portadown in the Gold Cup Final.
After beating Glentoran 4-1 at Solitude ahead of another 1-1 North Belfast Derby draw on the Shore Road, the Reds saw off Larne (2-0) and Coleraine (2-1) at home, with a 3-1 defeat to Ballymena United on November 18 not enough to stop them booking their place in the Windsor Park decider.
Alas, a 2-1 loss to the Ports stopped Jackie Hutton’s men from getting to grips with silverware on this occasion – but they would, of course, atone in spectacular style five months later.
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It was not until as late as November 25 that the Irish League programme kicked off, with Platt and Peter McCusker on the scoresheet in yet another away draw with the Crues.
The same two players would net in a 2-0 defeat of Coleraine the following week and, though Glenavon would inflict a 2-0 reverse on December 9, the Reds bounced back with a 5-0 win over Ballymena United on a day that saw Platt strike four times alongside a Mick Adair effort.
Results in and around Christmas were a bit of a mixed bag with successive 3-0 home wins against Distillery and Bangor sandwiched between losses at the hands of Ards (2-3) and Larne (0-2) – the latter of which was, admittedly, some three weeks after the New Year joust with the Seasiders.
Platt registered the only goal of the game when, at last, the North Belfast Derby yielded a winner on February 10, however the Reds endured a Valentine’s Day to forget when the Linfield side they had eliminated from the Irish Cup just a week-and-a-half earlier won 3-0 in another Cliftonville ‘home’ tie at Windsor.
After away draws with Coleraine and Glentoran, Hutton’s men suffered back-to-back defeats against the Glens and Glenavon as the team struggled for form once March came around.
A draw at Ballymena and 3-1 friendly win over Northern Ireland Universities picked Cliftonville up in time for a strong finish to the season’s remaining Cup competitions, however their League scheduled petered out in inconsistent style, with just two wins – against Ards and Distillery – to report from their final seven outings contributing to a seventh-placed finish in the 12-team table, 13 points behind Champions Linfield.
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Cliftonville’s run to one of the most iconic days in the Club’s history began on February 3, 1979, when two finishes from Platt, another from Adair and a Linfield own goal secured a 4-3 win at Windsor Park.
Walter Mills, John O’Connor and Tony Bell were on target in a Quarter Final triumph at Coleraine three weeks later, while McCusker netted twice on St Patrick’s Day in a 2-2 Semi Final daw with Larne at The Oval.
The teams reconvened at the same venue for a replay just two days later, when a Platt penalty was enough to send Cliftonville through to the Final.
April 28, 1979 is a date seared even in the minds of Reds fans who were not born at the time – while anyone lucky enough to have been at Windsor that day will never forget the celebrations that accompanied Bell’s last-gasp winner.
Goals from Adair and Platt had contributed to what looked like being a 2-2 draw, with the words of BBC commentator George Hamilton perfectly describing the moment that saw Bell produce one of the most memorable strikes in Cliftonville history as the Club’s 70-year wait for Irish Cup glory was ended with one fateful swipe of his boot:
“Inside the final minute of normal time, it’s four years since the Irish Cup Final had to go to a replay; then Coleraine and Linfield needed two matches after the Final to sort it out. Will Tony Bell fix it… Yes!”
County Antrim Shield
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Bizarre as it might seem in comparison with the modern trend of the Cup Final representing a curtain-closer on the football season, the 1978/79 County Antrim Shield was actually played out in a 10-day period in May, with the Reds’ opening tie – a 6-1 thumping of Bangor – coming just a week after that win against Portadown.
Ards were dispatched in the Semi Finals ahead of Seaview staging the latest in a long line of draws with Crusaders, only for penalties to eventually separate the sides as the Reds wrapped up their centenary campaign by adding some further silverware to the Boardroom cabinet.
May 5: Quarter Final: Bangor 1-6 Cliftonville
May 8: Semi Final: Cliftonville 3-2 Ards
May 14: Final: Crusaders 0-0 Cliftonville [Reds win 3-1 on penalties]
Manager Jackie Hutton made use of just 20 players throughout the entire campaign – Mike Adair, Tony Bell, Barney Bowers, John Flanagan, John Hewitt, Albert Holden, Brian Johnston, Terry Kingon, Eamonn Largey, Ciaran McCurry, Peter McCusker, Brendan McGuckin, Paul McVeigh, Walter Mills, John O’Connor, John Platt, Marty Quinn, Billy Smyth, Geoff Smyth and John Steele.
Six of those players (Holden, Kingon, McVeigh, both Smyths and Steele) played in fewer than 10 games, meaning that the majority of the season saw a mere 14 players stripped out.
Only goalkeeper Brian Johnston played in all 47 matches, although John Flanagan and Brendan McGuckin each missed just one game.
Johnston’s penalty heroics in the County Antrim Shield Final victory over Crusaders came one year and 12 days after he endured mixed emotions in a Tyler Cup battle with Drogheda United that saw him save a spot-kick in normal time and another in the shoot-out only to send his own effort wide as the Drogs sealed a 6-5 success.
Cliftonville’s overall Goal Difference for the entire season was +19; the first time the Club had recorded a positive outcome since the title-winning term of 1909/10.
Top scorer John Platt scored 29 goals this season, which was eight better than he had managed in the previous year – which had in itself been the first time a Cliftonville player netted 20 times in a single campaign since 1960/61.