The 1997/98 season is inked indelibly in the memory of every Cliftonville supporter who was there to witness one of the most unlikely title wins in football history.
A team that had come within touching distance of relegation the previous term somehow turned the formbook upside down to surge to one of the most glorious successes in the history of the Club.
What is perhaps less enthusiastically remembered, however, is how the Reds fared in the various cup competitions throughout the campaign which started with an humiliating League Cup exit and ended in a Coca Cola Cup Final defeat that barely registered on the collective consciousness.
Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy seasons in the Club’s history, cliftonvillefc.net today reflects on the facts and figures behind the year that Marty Quinn’s men achieved the impossible.
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Two months on from their Irish Cup Final defeat to Glenavon, Cliftonville reported for new season duty with a 2-1 friendly win over Crumlin United on July 19.
A 2-1 loss at home to Raith Rovers was followed by a 3-3 draw with Finn Harps and 4-0 defeat of Comber Rec – with Sandy Fraser bagging doubles in both – before Marty Quinn’s men trekked to the west coast of Ireland for the Salthill Tournament that consisted of a 4-3 loss to Galway United, 5-2 win over Salthill Devon and 1-0 reverse at the hands of Sligo Rovers.
A 4-0 win over Kilmore Rec at Solitude on August 5 was the Reds’ last friendly before the competitive season began, although the team did overcome a Fermanagh League XI 4-1 a couple of weeks later.
In early April – just 11 days before clinching the Gibson Cup – goals from James McDonagh and Harry McCourt earned a 2-2 draw with Donegal Celtic while, at the end of the season, Cliftonville contested a Battle of the Champions with First Division winners Newry Town… who romped to a 3-0 win!
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There is a point in every successful season that can be identified as the moment when everyone started to believe in the impossible dream. It’s fair to say that Cliftonville’s League Cup curtain-raiser – a woeful 1-0 loss to Chimney Corner at Allen Park – was not it.
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A week on from that League Cup embarrassment, the Reds commenced the new Premier League campaign with a worrying 2-0 defeat to newly-promoted Ballymena United at Solitude.
Though Damien Davey subsequently registered the only goal of what was billed an early-season relegation scrap with Ards, the team displayed inconsistent form over the next few weeks, the lowlight of which wass a 5-1 drubbing at Coleraine.
The first big victory of the campaign came when a Tim McCann goal was enough to not only see off Linfield at Windsor Park but also kick-start a winning run that coincided with seven consecutive clean sheets.
Omagh Town (4-0), Glentoran (2-0) and Portadown (3-1) were all overcome before the streak was brought to a conclusion by another 2-0 loss to Ballymena.
The team looked set for two consecutive losses when they trailed 2-1 at Ards the following week only for late goals from Paul McAtee and Barry O’Connor to seal a memorable comeback that was the catalyst for yet another run of form.
A young Gary Kennedy – who would return to the Club much later in his career – put the seal on a 3-1 defeat of Coleraine, while two Gary Sliney penalties secured three points in a ‘home’ tie with Linfield at Windsor.
Glentoran, under the guidance of a newly-appointed Roy Coyle, would win 2-0 at Solitude in late November, while a 4-0 loss to Ballymena in mid-December suggested the unlikely title-challengers were wobbling somewhat, only for a New Year’s Day success at Coleraine to steady the ship again.
O’Connor was the only scorer in a third win over the Blues as Cliftonville entered into a period that saw them record a series of crucial 1-0 wins – Omagh Town, Glenavon and Portadown all overcome in such a manner as the Red Army dared to believe that the Gibson Cup might just take residence at Solitude.
After finally getting the better of Ballymena 5-2 in a classic encounter, a huge crowd celebrated goals from Jody Tolan and Marty Tabb in a vital win against Crusaders at Seaview.
A late Tolan goal saw off Coleraine towards the end of March and, though a 3-0 loss to Linfield on Easter Weekend threatened to stall the team’s momentum, a never-to-be-forgotten midweek win at Omagh (1-0) set the stage for the title decider.
The story of how April 18, 1998 unfolded is well documented, with the newly-crowned Champions wrapping up their League campaign with a professional 2-1 victory over Portadown at Shamrock Park the following week.
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The group stage began with a 0-0 draw against Omagh Town at St Julian’s Road ahead of a 2-0 win over Newry Town and goalless stalemate away to Glentoran.
After seeing off Carrick Rangers 3-0, the Reds drew 1-1 at home to Portadown but would exit the competition courtesy of a 1-0 Quarter Final loss to Coleraine.
County Antrim Shield
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A little bit of Club history was made on November 18 when a Golden Goal victory was claimed over Bangor at Clandeboye Park, where Tim McCann’s double secured a 2-1 win to set up a Quarter Final showdown with Linfield, who booked progress thanks to a 6-5 win on penalties.
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The Fifth Round draw set up a repeat of the previous season’s Irish Cup Final, with Glenavon triumphing again, 2-0 on this occasion.
Coca Cola Cup
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Harry McCourt banked the only goal of a Castlereagh Park clash with Ards, while Mickey Donnelly, Stevie Douglas and James McDonagh all netted when Omagh were overcome in the last eight.
The Semi Final saw Ballymena beaten 2-1 thanks to conversions from Donnelly and Tabb, setting up a decider with Linfield that, thanks to a packed fixture list, was repeatedly delayed and rescheduled before eventually being slotted in at the end of April.
And so the Champions descended upon Windsor for a largely forgettable contest that saw the Blues claim a deserved 2-0 win but to say the result was immaterial for a Red Army that partied the night away in the North Stand would be something of an understatement.
Cliftonville finished four points clear of Linfield at the top of the Premier League table.
A Premier League game at home to Glenavon in early January was abandoned at 1-1 when a linesman suffered frostbite.
Gerry Flynn was the only player to feature in all 50 of Cliftonville’s matches across all competitions, with Marty Tabb (48), Gary Sliney and goalkeeper Paul Reece (47) his nearest challengers.
Barry O’Connor’s 17 goals marked him out as the team’s top scorer, with Tim McCann (12) and Jody Tolan (9) rounding out the top three.