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Home from home

Having started in Lurgan before relocating to west Belfast, Cliftonville found home comforts to come by when they eventually returned to Solitude in October 2008.

The construction of what is now known as the McAlery Stand meant the Reds spent the first few months of the season on the road but, after finding their form to lift the County Antrim Shield, there was no fairytale finish when an iconic victory over Linfield earned a place in the Irish Cup Final.

Continuing a retrospective series examining noteworthy seasons in the Club’s history, today reflects on the facts and figures behind a 2008/09 term where consistency proved a problem from the word go.

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Just two of Cliftonville’s seven warm-up fixtures were staged at Solitude, where Ipswich Town cruised to an ominous 7-0 victory just days before the Reds were due to commence their European engagement with FC Copenhagen.

Prior to that mauling by the Tractor Boys, Eddie Patterson’s side had faced three opponents at Mallusk Playing Fields – Lurgan Celtic (4-0), Kilmore Rec (4-1) and Armagh City (3-1) – and would subsequently overcome Ballyclare Comrades 3-2 at Dixon Park before getting the better of Portadown (2-1) on home soil ahead of the pre-season schedule concluding with a 3-1 victory over Banbridge Town in the Bob Larmour Memorial Cup game at Crystal Park.

Post-season, the team visited Moyola Park for an exhibition game to mark the closure of the Club’s eponymous home ground and, having claimed a 3-0 victory in the first ever fixture at the Castledawson venue back in 1880, goals from Chris Scannell, Ciaran Donaghy and Aaron Smyth ensured a repeat scoreline in the last.

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With redevelopment work rendering Solitude unavailable for European duty, Cliftonville hosted Copenhagen at Glenavon’s Mourneview Park home, where the Danes clocked up a comfortable 4-0 victory courtesy of some late goals before underlining their superiority with a further seven unanswered strikes at Parken Stadium a fortnight later.

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After the opening round of the new domestic season was postponed by a referees strike, Cliftonville’s attempts to get started a week later were washed out when torrential rain forced the abandonment of a feisty encounter with Linfield at Windsor Park.

When things did eventually get under way at the third time of asking on August 23, a hat-trick from Scannell contributed to a 5-1 win away to Ballymena United but the Reds were quickly brought back down to earth by successive defeats at Lisburn Distillery, Glentoran and Newry City.

A 2-2 draw with Dungannon Swifts – played at Celtic Park in west Belfast – stopped the rot before a solitary Rory Hamill strike secured a much needed three points away to Institute.

Cliftonville’s final ‘home’ fixture at Celtic Park saw newly-promoted Bangor beaten 3-2, but the team’s big return to Solitude fell flat when, in front of a packed newly-built Cage End Stand, Linfield rattled in four goals without reply in front of the Sky Sports cameras.

A 0-0 draw with Ballymena United (one of eight goalless stalemates the Reds would be involved in during the season) would follow and it took until December 13 until a remodeled Solitude toasted a home win; Francis Murphy claiming the matchball in a 4-0 thumping of Glenavon.

Though Coleraine were defeated 3-0 at the same venue the following week, the team found consistency hard to come by and laboured to a top-half finish in the JJB Sports Premiership; drawing four of their five post-split fixtures before falling to a final day defeat to Glentoran that saw the Oval outfit clinch the title.

County Antrim Shield
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A County Antrim Shield First Round clash provided the backdrop for Cliftonville’s opening ‘home’ fixture at Celtic Park and, ironically, the draw presented a North Belfast Derby clash with Brantwood; Chris Scannell (2) and Hamill on target in a 3-0 win.

Even more curiously, the Quarter-Finals paired the Reds with none other than Donegal Celtic on a night when Scannell’s extra-time winner secured a 2-1 victory to tee up a last-four encounter with Glentoran at Windsor Park, where Barry Johnston and Scannell found the net either side of an own goal in a 3-0 success.

All of which meant Cliftonville would lock horns with Linfield in the Final and, just eight days on from that 4-0 humiliation at Solitude, the Reds exacted revenge as Scannell maintained his record of scoring in every round before Murphy’s penalty made sure of the silverware with a 2-1 win.

Setanta Sports Cup
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Having pocketed a single point from their opening three fixtures in the Club’s first involvement in the All-Ireland competition the previous season, Cliftonville completed their Group 1 commitments with 2-0 losses against both Cork City and Drogheda United in west Belfast either side of a 4-2 win over Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore Park.

The League of Ireland representatives both qualified for the Semi Finals with 14 points apiece, a comfortable 10 ahead of the third-placed Reds.

League Cup
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Cliftonville’s League Cup involvement was short and anything but sweet as Championship side Portadown secured a Third Round victory en route to lifting the trophy.

Following a 0-0 draw in the first leg at Shamrock Park, the Reds were big favourites to make progress having finally returned to Solitude but, despite goals from Ciaran Donaghy, George McMullan and Murphy, the Ports sailed through with a 4-3 win.

Irish Cup
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After a 3-1 win over little-known Warrenpoint Town in the Fourth Round, Cliftonville generated some Irish Cup momentum with a 2-0 home success over Donegal Celtic thanks to an eye-catching Scannell finish and rare strike from full-back Smyth.

Scannell would register the only goal of a Quarter Final showdown with Glentoran at The Oval, where the Reds returned to face Linfield in the Semis.

A goalless draw teed up a never-to-be-forgotten replay which saw Scannell break the deadlock from the penalty spot only for the Blues to pull in front with 14 minutes left on the clock to leave the Reds staring down the barrel of last-four elimination for the third season in succession.

Scannell would, however, pounce for a dramatic injury-time leveller that looked to have sent the tie to extra-time, only for Donaghy to have the final say when he powered home a header to seal the most remarkable of late turnarounds.

Unfortunately, however, the team were unable to build on those heroics come May 9 when Crusaders banked the only goal of the decider to extend Cliftonville’s long wait for Irish Cup glory.

In Review
Cliftonville finished sixth in the new 12-team IFA Premiership, some 31 points behind Champions Glentoran.

Chris Scannell made more appearances than any other player, featuring in 52 of the team’s 55 fixtures across all competitions, with goalkeeper John Connolly (50) and Ciaran Donaghy (49) his nearest challengers.

Scannell, who was the Reds’ top scorer with 36 goals, was named Ulster Footballer of the Year, becoming the Club’s first recipient of the accolade since Marty Tabb in 1998.

Cliftonville were hit with a late-season goalkeeping crisis when, with John Connolly injured and neither David Wells nor Paul McKane available for selection, the Club sought special dispensation for an emergency loan, which was eventually granted to permit the signing of Paul Murphy from Newry City.