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Great guns

It’s often said that good teams win League titles but it takes a great one to retain it – and the Cliftonville side of 2013/14 certainly proved worthy of that status.

Having strolled to the Danske Bank Premiership title the previous season, the Reds’ bid to keep hold of the Gibson Cup hit the buffers quite early on in the campaign but some sensational post-Christmas form saw Tommy Breslin’s side roar back to the summit, while securing back-to-back League Cup triumphs along the way.

Concluding a retrospective series examining noteworthy seasons in the Club’s history, today reflects on the facts and figures behind a season that goes down in immortality.

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After a 1-0 defeat against The New Saints at Solitude, Cliftonville were held to a 1-1 draw by Knockbreda before clocking up eight goals without reply at Lurgan Celtic.

A 9-2 win over Crumlin United would follow and, though a 3-1 home reverse at the hands of Carrick Rangers was sandwiched between European battles with Celtic, the Reds warmed up for domestic action with a 3-2 success over Carnlough Swifts and a 3-2 loss to Banbridge Town in the Bob Larmour Memorial Cup ahead of victories against Donegal Celtic (2-0), Crewe United (7-1) and Institute (4-1).

During the season itself, the team also contested friendlies with Larne (2-1), Derry City (0-2) and Shamrock Rovers (1-3) as an early exit from the Irish Cup produced some unexpected free weekends.

Champions League duty at Solitude

Champions League
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Cliftonville’s first involvement in European football’s premier Club competition for 15 years saw Celtic visit for a memorable encounter at Solitude.

First-half goals from Mikael Lustig and Georgios Samaras put the Hoops in control ahead of James Forrest completing the first leg scoring before Efe Ambrose and Samaras found the net at Celtic Park on a night when the Reds excelled both on and off the pitch.

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Cliftonville’s defence of the Irish League titled kicked off with a 4-2 win over Ards on Flag Day at Solitude before Linfield were defeated by the same scoreline at Windsor Park the following week. Curiously, the Reds’ Premiership campaign delivered a third straight 4-2 victory when a hat-trick from Joe Gormley – who had plundered doubles in the previous two games – contributed to maximum points being banked against Warrenpoint Town.

August would end with a disastrous weekend that saw both Portadown and Coleraine emerge victorious from Solitude ahead of wins against Ballymena United (1-0) and Glentoran (4-1) appearing to get Breslin’s boys back on track.

Reverses at the hands of Glenavon and Crusaders either side of a fortunate draw against Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore Park pointed to a derailment of the team’s title challenge, which was further underlined when only a last-gasp Martin Murray strike rescued a home draw against Warrenpoint ahead of another stalemate with the Swifts.

A 4-3 win at Coleraine provided telling evidence of the fighting spirit that still existed within the ranks and, though the concession of two late goals saw Portadown snatch a darw at Shamrock Park, a 3-0 triumph over Linfield ensured the Reds stayed in touch at the top as Christmas approached.

Another late leveller – from Crusaders this time – denied Cliftonville St Stephen’s Day joy at Seaview and patchy form throughout January was a cause for concern until a week that yielded both Irish Cup elimination and League Cup celebrations (more of which later) proved the catalyst for a surge to the title.

Marc Smyth’s strike in a 1-0 defeat of Linfield on February 1 (above) kicked off a run of 11 wins from the side’s 12 remaining Premiership fixtures, which included a 4-0 thumping of the Crues and 5-0 success over Ballinamallard United before finishes from Boyce (2) and Gormley earned a 3-1 success against the Blues that finally saw Cliftonville overtake David Jeffrey’s men at the top of the table.

From there on, home wins against Glentoran (2-0) and Glenavon (5-0) set up an Easter Tuesday trip to Portadown, where goals from Chris Curran and Stephen Garrett made sure the Gibson Cup would be staying put with a game to spare – a 3-2 win against the Crues where a Curran hat-trick got the celebratory party started early.

League Cup
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After seeing off Harland & Wolff Welders 2-0, Cliftonville put five without reply past Dundela before a 4-0 quarter-final victory over Bangor ensured progress to a last-four encounter with Ards.

Martin Donnelly and Joe Gormley found the net at the Bangor Fuels Arena as the holders marched into a second consecutive League Cup Final against Crusaders which – courtesy of a 3-2 penalty shoot-out success following a 0-0 draw – saw the trophy retained without a single goal conceded.

County Antrim Shield
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Stephen Garrett’s double and a header from Paddy McNally sealed a 3-0 win over Glentoran at The Oval, but Cliftonville’s interest in the County Antrim Shield was ended at the semi-final stage, where Linfield inflicted a 4-1 defeat.

Irish Cup
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A 2-2 draw at home to Coleraine sent the Reds to The Showgrounds for a late January fifth round replay which delivered the sides’ second 4-3 scoreline of the season. Unfortunately for the visitors, it was the Bannsiders who won through on this occasion with what would prove Cliftonville’s final loss of the campaign.

In Review
Having trailed in the title race for so long, Cliftonville eventually finished the season six points clear of Linfield – and 19 ahead of third-placed Crusaders – at the top of the table.

The League Cup Final victory over Crusaders saw the Reds retain a senior trophy for the first time since the Belfast Charity Cup successes of 1908 and 1909.

Cliftonville scored a total of 111 goals during the season, 37 of which came from Joe Gormley, with Liam Boyce next in line on 24.

Gormley made more appearances than any other Reds player, featuring in 45 of the team’s 49 fixtures across all competitions.