While Cliftonville’s lowly League positions for the majority of the 20th century are often exaggerated to the point of sheer myth, it would not be unfair to say the team regularly dabbled with the lower reaches of the table.
It was common for the Reds to finish bottom of the standings now and again – although the oft-repeated rhetoric about this occurring for 30 consecutive seasons is to twist the truth into the realms of fabrication – and little was expected of the team as the 1948/49 season dawned.
The acquisition of a new striker by the name of Kevin McGarry would, however, elevate Cliftonville to unfamiliarly high status in the table as Manager Tommy Edwards’ team recovered from a poor start to deliver an encouraging run of League results.
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 saw former Belfast Celtic star McGarry begin to make his mark in north Belfast.
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Cliftonville’s season began with a 1-1 draw at home to Ballymena United and further City Cup points were obtained courtesy of a 2-0 win over Ards and 3-1 defeat of Portadown.
The team’s first loss – a 1-0 reverse at the hands of Coleraine on September 11 – commenced a spiral of poor results that saw Belfast Celtic (0-6) and Linfield (0-4) clock of high-scoring triumphs, with the Reds going on to suffer defeats to Bangor (2-4), Derry City (2-3), Distillery (0-2), Glentoran (1-3) and Glenavon (0-4) as a once-bright City Cup campaign descended into familiar disappointment.
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After a 5-5 draw with Portadown at Shamrock Park – a game that saw Kevin McGarry (below) register his first two goals as a Cliftonville player – the Reds claimed a 2-1 win in the replay, only to suffer a second round exit when Belfast Celtic won 1-0 at Solitude.
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A pre-cursor to what would eventually become the Pioneer Cup, Cliftonville suffered a 2-1 loss away to Bohemians on November 6.
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Having posted unremarkable results in the opening months of the season, particularly in the City Cup, there was little indication that Cliftonville would enjoy a rewarding League campaign.
However, after drawing 2-2 at Glenavon before putting six unanswered goals past Coleraine, the team produced a consistent run of form that saw them occupy a surprisingly healthy position in the table.
Though they suffered a 2-1 loss to Portadown on December 4, they would not taste defeat for the rest of the month; four goals from G Bell helping the Reds claimed successive wins over Ards, Derry City and Distillery.
After a wobble in the opening weeks of 1949 – including a 5-2 home loss to Belfast Celtic on January 15; the night the old Grandstand burned down – Cliftonville clicked back into gear when both Glenavon and Portadown were hit for five within days of eachother in late February.
Unable to string any lengthy winning runs together, Cliftonville likewise staved off their old habit of getting bogged down in losing streaks and it was their ability to eek out narrow triumphs – such as 2-1 victories over Ards and Distillery, as well as a 4-3 win at Ballymena United – that ensured they steered clear of the lower reaches of the table.
Their final defeat of the campaign coincided when Belfast Celtic’s last ever fixture; the Hoops claiming a 4-3 success on a day that saw McGarry (2) and William Magill on target for the visitors.
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After a single McGarry goal proved sufficient to see off Ballyclare Comrades in the first round, Cliftonville’s interest in the Irish Cup was ended by a 3-1 home defeat to Glentoran on February 12.
Inter City Cup
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A 3-0 loss to Drumcondra at Dalymount Park told the full story of the Reds’ All-Ireland exploits.
County Antrim Shield
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The final knockout competition of the season saw Cliftonville suffer another early exit; Linfield Swifts this time inflicting the damage with a 4-2 win.
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A fortnight after bringing the curtain down on their Irish League programme in a 2-2 draw with Bangor at Solitude, the Reds travelled to County Down for a mid-May friendly with local side Newcastle United; McGarry (2), Magill (2) and Ernie McCleary on target in a 5-0 win.
Cliftonville’s perennial strugglers finished fourth in the 12-team Irish League table, 13 points behind Champions Linfield but an almost inexplicably impressive 14 ahead of bottom side Coleraine.
The campaign was tinged with tragedy following the death of former Head Trainer Hugh McAteer, who guided the Club to two League titles, five Irish Cups, five Charity Cups and two County Antrim Shields as well as Alhambra Cup and Gold Cup successes in the 33 years in charge from 1897-1930.
Davy Williamson was the only player to feature in all 41 of Cliftonville’s fixtures across all competitions, two more than his closest challengers Kevin McGarry, Ernie McLeary and John Wilson.
Kevin McGarry’s 21 goals marked him out as the team’s leading scorer, with G Bell (6) and Davy Williamson, William Drake and Tommy Black all netting five times each.