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Beck in the saddle

Cliftonville’s 1997/98 Premier League title triumph remains an almost inexplicable anomaly in a period when relegation fears were commonplace.

Having survived via Play-Off successes in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2004, the Club sought a new beginning to mark 125th Anniversary celebrations, with the appointment of Liam Beckett heralding a novel break from managerial tradition that had generally seen former Reds players step into the dugout.

Though the team never really found themselves in any sort of danger at the wrong end of the table, the Ballymoney man’s sole season in charge is a story of what might have been in Cup competitions, with two Semi Final defeats either side of a haunting Irish Cup exit.

Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy campaigns in the Club’s history, today reflects on the facts and figures behind the 2004/05 term.

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With 34 goals scored across 10 straight victories away from home, it was easy to see why Cliftonville approached competitive action brimming with confidence.

After kicking things off with a 4-0 victory over Ballynahinch United, the Reds enjoyed a memorable 4-3 win against St Patrick’s Athletic at Richmond Park before seeing off Armagh City (1-0), Ballycastle United (3-1) and Downpatrick Rec (3-1).

A weekend trip to the Manager’s native North-West may have yielded further triumphs – Glebe Rangers and Coleraine Crusaders both being defeated 2-0 inside 24 hours – but the broken leg suffered by Gerard Crossley in the opening game would cast a shadow over the team’s pre-season programme.

Kilmore Rec were beaten 1-0 ahead of a 3-2 win at Holywood – where the visitors ended the game with John Gregg taking over as emergency goalkeeper and proving that ability between the sticks was not a gene inherited from his father Harry – with Cliftonville concluding their warm-up schedule with an 11-0 victory over Crewe United on a night that saw Chris Scannell net two hat-tricks.

League Cup
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Any lingering doubts about the step-up in quality that the Reds would face when the action started in earnest were dispelled in their opening League Cup fixture, when Sean Adams found the net to earn what was ultimately a disappointing home draw against Limavady United.

Anto Crawford’s strike in a 1-0 win at Portadown a week later would, however, put the Reds in a promising in the group, ahead of four points being pocketed from back-to-back meetings with Dungannon Swifts.

Though the Ports would inflict the first defeat of Beckett’s reign courtesy of a 3-1 win at Solitude on September 18, Cliftonville sealed their place in the knockout stages with a 3-1 triumph of their own on a subsequent midweek jaunt to Limavady.

Scannell – up against brother Ronan for the first time – found the net in a 2-1 Quarter Final success against Ards, only for the holders to exit the competition when Linfield proved too strong in a last-four clash at The Oval.

Gerard Lawlor, Keith Alexander, Freddie Jardine, Bobby Gould (Guest Speaker), Liam Beckett and Marty Quinn at Belfast City Hall for the Club’s 125th Anniversary Dinner

Premier League
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Either side of that League Cup meeting with Ards came Cliftonville’s opening fixtures of the new Premier League season – Scannell netting the only goal of the game against Distillery before Ards exacted revenge with a 3-0 win at Solitude thanks to a hat-trick from former (and future) Reds striker Gary Kennedy.

Omagh Town were beaten 2-1 ahead of a 3-0 reverse against the Ports which signalled the start of a drop in form which delivered losses to Glentoran (0-1), Newry City (2-4), Coleraine (1-4) and Dungannon Swifts (1-3).

A goalless draw at Loughgall and 1-0 win away to Institute steadied the ship somewhat in and around the same time that Belfast City Hall hosted the Club’s 125th Anniversary Dinner, while a 2-0 victory over Larne days after a County Antrim Shield triumph against Glentoran (more of which later) had the Red Army in a more positive mood as Christmas approached.

Paul Straney’s dismissal in a stalemate with Linfield would, however, leave Cliftonville without an experienced goalkeeper for the festive North Belfast Derby at Seaview – with Beckett not inclined to hand the gloves to Declan O’Hara, who had taken over against the Blues.

Youngster Paul McKane was, therefore, handed his debut against Crusaders and kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win that saw Keith Mulvenna and Crawford on the scoresheet.

Though Ards were dispatched in early January and Omagh were beaten 5-0 in what was a then-Club record Premier League success, things would take a turn for the worse in a difficult final few months of the season.

Five straight defeats were met with respite in the form of a home draw with Dungannon and, though Loughgall would claim full points at Solitude on March 19, that would prove the Reds’ last loss until the final day of the campaign.

A 2-1 victory over Institute commenced an encouraging upturn that included three consecutive 0-0 draws – against Larne, Ballymena and Limavady – before Peter Telford struck the only goal of the game against Crusaders ahead of the term being concluded with a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Linfield at Windsor Park.

Nathan McConnell celebrated scoring more goals than any other player

County Antrim Shield
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After almost succumbing to an humiliating first round exit at the hands of Larne Tech Old Boys – when Sean Henaghan struck to earn an unconvincing 2-1 win at Solitude – Cliftonville shocked Glentoran in the Quarter Finals, when Crawford and Nathan McConnell were on target in another 2-1 success.

Alas, however, the team would suffer their second Semi Final setback of the season when Crusaders earned a 1-0 victory at The Oval in early February.

Irish Cup
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That Shield scare would, unfortunately, go unheeded and was nothing in comparison to the farcical scenes that saw the Reds fall at the Irish Cup’s first hurdle when lowly Banbridge Town came to visit.

Seemingly cruising courtesy of two McConnell conversions, Cliftonville were pegged back before Liam Fleming’s own goal saw the minnows complete a turnaround that left Solitude stunned.

In Review
Cliftonville finished 11th in the 16-team Premier League; 10 points above the relegation zone but some 40 behind Champions Glentoran.

Though being spared any relegation worries courtesy of some old-fashioned mid-table mediocrity was a welcome relief, the Reds’ safety wasn’t mathematically confirmed until a 0-0 draw with Limavady United on the third-last day of the season.

Sean Friars and John O’Loughlin both played in 40 of Cliftonville’s 42 fixtures, keeping them both in front of nearest challengers Liam Fleming (39) and George McMullan (37).

Cliftonville made use of five goalkeepers throughout the 2004/05 campaign, with Emmett Mapp, Paul McKane, Alan Young and John Connolly all making their debuts in addition to Paul Straney’s 31 outings (while defender Declan O’Hara also stepped in on one occasion, with John Gregg having done likewise in pre-season).

Nathan McConnell led the Club’s goalcharts with nine strikes, edging ahead of Sean Friars (8) and Chris Scannell, who found the net six times in just 12 appearances.