Cliftonville’s exploits across the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons will long remain the stuff of legend in Club folklore – but it’s arguable that the stage for those back-to-back Premiership successes was set the year before.
Following a brief spell as Caretaker Manager, Tommy Breslin was officially appointed boss on the eve of the 2011/12 campaign, during which foundations were laid for the never-to-be-forgotten glories of subsequent terms.
Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy seasons in the Club’s history, cliftonvillefc.net today reflects on the facts and figures behind a year that set the wheels in motion.
Friendlies Part 1
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Cliftonville’s first outing in preparation for the season ahead came in what would prove to be a familiar setting when The New Saints were beaten 2-1 at Park Hall, where an outrageous long-distance injury-time strike from a newcomer by the name of Joe Gormley settled the issue.
After home wins against Finn Harps (4-2), Knockbreda (2-1) and Bangor (7-0), attentions turned to competitive action on the European stage.
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Just 48 hours after defeating TNS on friendly duty, the Reds were paired with the Welsh Premier League side in the First Qualifying Round of the Europa League, which meant a quick return to the market town of Oswestry.
After another encouraging performance at Park Hall – where a Barry Johnston screamer earned a 1-1 draw – Cliftonville were undone by a goal in the opening minutes of the second leg at Solitude and, try as they might, the team simply could not fashion an equaliser to take the tie to extra-time.
Friendlies Part 2
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An early Euro exit heralded a run of further friendlies in advance of the Premiership campaign commencing – with two trophies added to the cabinet during the seven-game schedule.
Following a 7-0 win at Moyola Park, the Reds successfully defended the Supporters’ Cup thanks to a 3-2 victory away to Stirling Albion before a split squad enjoyed triumphs over Glebe Rangers (2-0) and Warrenpoint Town (5-1) on the same day.
An Irish League Legends XI then contested a 4-4 draw in Liam Fleming’s Testimonial ahead of a 3-0 win over All Saints and 11-1 success against Banbridge Town that secured the Bob Larmour Memorial Cup.
In mid-October, meanwhile, a goalless draw marked the official opening of Carndonagh’s new facilities at St Patrick’s Park, while the final friendlies of 2011/12 came midway through the campaign when a squad travelled to the Netherlands for a 2-2 draw with RKSV Leonidas – Diarmuid O’Carroll marking his Transfer Window arrival with a goal alongside a strike from Stephen Garrett in Rotterdam – before Monaghan United were overcome 4-2 at Solitude in February.
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Cliftonville’s League campaign began with a narrow 1-0 win against Carrick Rangers thanks to a strike from Martin Donnelly, with a 1-1 draw away to Coleraine and 2-0 home loss at the hands of Portadown adding to an inconsistent start.
The team’s unpredictability was perhaps underlined by a combination of the 5-3 win against Glenavon and 4-3 loss to Ballymena United, which came just a week before the Reds hit back from 2-0 down to land a North Belfast Derby point against Crusaders at Seaview.
It wasn’t until October that Cliftonville really began to settle into any kind of winning routine, with Gormley’s last-gasp winner against the Crues helping kick off a run that included a 7-3 triumph over Ballymena, injury-time defeat of Glentoran and a 4-1 thumping of Dungannon Swifts.
Late December and early January proved something of a sticky patch that was perhaps best summed up by an at-times ludicrous 3-3 draw with Carrick and a similar outcome against Portadown seven days in advance of a 4-3 victory at Glenavon’s expense.
With a title challenge having hit the buffers, Cliftonville’s push to qualify for Europe went down to the final day, when just a point against Portadown would secure continental football.
The visitors needed victory to earn their own place in Europe and they got the result they needed, leaving the Reds to sweat on a favour from Crusaders, who duly delivered the necessary defeat of Coleraine which stopped the Bannsiders from leapfrogging Cliftonville in the table.
County Antrim Shield
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Cliftonville’s propensity for high-scoring action carried into the County Antrim Shield, where goals from Darren Stuart, Dermot McVeigh and John Convery earned a Quarter-Final comeback win over a Donegal Celtic side that had been 2-0 up and cruising.
A barely believeable 6-2 hammering of Linfield booked the Reds’ place in the Final against Glentoran, whose home advantage counted for little as strikes from Donnelly and Gormley earned the first senior honour of the Tommy Breslin era.
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The team’s League Cup programme began with a straightforward 3-1 home win over Ards ahead of Dungannon Swifts being dispatched 5-0 in the Third Round.
A battling 2-1 defeat of Glenavon at Mourneview Park saw Cliftonville secure their spot in the last four, where their interest in the competition was ended courtesy of a heartbreaking extra-time loss to Coleraine on an emotionally-charged night at Solitude.
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Another Cup joust with Ards was negotiated thanks to Irish Cup Fifth Round goals from Mark Clarke and Stephen Garrett, but the Reds were shocked next time out when Donegal Celtic exacted revenge for their County Antrim Shield defeat by claiming a 1-0 win at Celtic Park in February.
Setanta Sports Cup
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Just three days after that Irish Cup exit, Cliftonville returned to winning ways by seeing off St Patrick’s Athletic at Solitude thanks to a strike from Liam Boyce, whose comeback following a spell at Werder Bremen had recently been announced,
Another 1-0 win over the Inchicore outfit at Richmond Park – where Gormley found the net – teed up a Quarter-Final battle with Shamrock Rovers.
All seemed lost following a 2-0 reverse in Tallaght, but goals from Johnston and Gormley saw Cliftonville force their way back into the contest on home soil, only for the Hoops to progress with a 3-1 success on penalties.
Cliftonville finished third in the 12-team Premiership, 16 points behind Champions Linfield, to secure automatic qualification for the Europa League.
There were a total of 188 goals in the Reds’ 53 fixtures over the course of the campaign, with Tommy Breslin’s entertainers registering 112 of those strikes.
Stephen Garrett (49) made more appearances than any other player, with Martin Donnelly and Chris Scannell (47) rounding out the top three.
Chris Scannell was the team’s top scorer with 18 goals, one ahead of Rory Donnelly, with the next nearest challenger being Joe Gormley on 14.