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Second things first

Did you know that Cliftonville once secured first and second place in the League in the same season?

What’s more, the team that won the title in 1910 performed the very same turnaround achieved by the Club’s next Champions some 88 years later – namely coming out on top just 12 months after finishing second-bottom.

Similar to Marty Quinn’s 1998 heroes, who clinched the Gibson Cup less than a year after being involved in a Relegation Play-Off, Hugh McAteer’s kingpins took the crown having previously come seventh in the eight-team Irish League; level with fellow strugglers Belfast Celtic and just two points ahead of Derry City.

More remarkable, however, was that the Reds’ 1909/10 schedule started with a Play-Off to determine the runners-up from 1907/08 – victory in which thus saw Cliftonville formally seal second spot in one season before going on to win the Championship in another.

Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy campaigns in the Club’s history, today reflects on the facts and figures behind a term that saw the Reds land their first ever outright title, having shared the honour with Distillery four years prior.

Test Match
On August 20, 1909, Cliftonville faced Glentoran at Solitude in a Test Match – effectively a Play-Off – to decide which of the teams would officially be declared runners-up for the 1907/08 season.

Note the year. The game had no bearing on the previous campaign (in which the Reds finished second-from-bottom) but had instead been carried over from a further season earlier, when Hugh McAteer’s side were level on 17 points with the Glens, five behind Champions Linfield.

Goals from Tweedie, Thompson and Robertson earned a 3-2 win for Cliftonville, settling an unresolved issue from two seasons earlier.

The day after that defeat of the Glens, Cliftonville’s warm-up schedule for the 1909/10 campaign commenced with a 5-0 victory over Glenbank Corinthians ahead a 1-1 draw with Linfield – the first of three friendlies against the Blues over the course of the season.

Another 1-1 stalemate would take place after a month of League action before the Reds recorded a 7-0 win two days after Christmas.

Irish League
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The competitive programme began with a 1-1 draw at Shelbourne on September 4 and, after overcoming Belfast Celtic and Linfield (both 2-1), a draw with Derry Celtic and 4-1 victory over Bohemians maintained a solid start.

Indeed, Cliftonville would not lose until their ninth League outing – a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Belfast Celtic on December 11.

Their only other defeat came against Bohs (3-4) a month later but, within a fortnight of that setback at Dalymount Park, the Reds would be crowned Champions.

A 1-0 win over Distillery at Solitude left Cliftonville needing just a point from a trip to face Glentoran at The Oval on January 22, but Fred Neville’s hat-trick contributed to a 4-1 success that ensured top spot, two points ahead of Belfast Celtic.

City Cup
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The City Cup began with wins over Glentoran (2-1) and Belfast Celtic (2-0), only for 2-0 defeats to both Linfield and Distillery to follow in a November that was set aside for the competition’s opening contests.

Cliftonville’s first draw in the Cup came against Shelbourne (2-2) before a three-month hiatus ended with a 1-1 draw away to the Glens, Neville again on target.

After losing 2-0 to Linfield, the Reds recorded three 1-0 victories in a week over Shelbourne, Belfast Celtic and Distillery to secure joint-second spot with the Glens, who were officially installed as runners-up courtesy of a 3-1 win in an end-of-term Play-Off on May 14.

County Antrim Shield
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After a 1-1 draw with Distillery on Valentine’s Day, Cliftonville booked progress to the County Antrim Shield Semi Finals by winning the replay 2-1, only for their interest in the competition to be ended by a 3-1 loss at Glentoran on February 26.

Irish Cup
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Just four days before that Shield defeat of Distillery, Cliftonville had enjoyed a 2-0 win over Shelbourne in the Quarter Finals of the Irish Cup.

The Dubliners, however, successfully protested against that result and a replay was ordered for the following week, with the Reds this time securing a 1-0 success.

That set up a Semi Final battle with Bohemians, which was comfortably won 3-0, but a dour decider on March 26 saw Distillery claim the silverware with a 1-0 triumph at The Oval.

Charity Cup
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Distillery would also prove to be Cliftonville’s conquerors in the Charity Cup, which commenced as late as April 30.

Another 1-0 win for the Whites – a week after the Reds had succeeded by the same scoreline in the City Cup – meant that Hugh McAteer’s side would not be adding any honours to the League title that had been toasted more than three months earlier.

In Review
The 1909/10 season was in many ways defined by clashes with Glentoran. After that initial Test game, the sides’ first League fixture in October saw Cliftonville record a 1-0 win that stood in spite of the game’s abandonment due to torrential rain and gales after just 55 minutes, while a 4-1 victory at The Oval saw the Reds crowned Champions later in the campaign. In the weeks that followed, however, the Glens would eliminate Cliftonville from the County Antrim Shield and win the Play-Off match (yes, another one) for the runners-up position in the City Cup.

Frank Thompson and goalkeeper Fred McKee played in 31 of the Club’s 32 fixtures, with Sam McComb their nearest challenger with 30 appearances.

Unsurprisingly, the man whose hat-trick clinched the title, Fred Neville, was the Reds’ top scorer in the campaign, having found the net 12 times in 23 outings, including an impressive nine goals in 11 League games.