Paddy McLaughlin toasted the collective effort of everyone at Solitude after Cliftonville booked their place in the European Play-Off Final by overcoming Crusaders on penalties last night.
With neither side able to find the net during neither a nail-biting 90 minutes nor a similarly tense period of extra-time, the contest was settled from the penalty spot, where Rory Hale, Daire O’Connor, Ryan Curran, Paul O’Neill and Joe Gormley all converted for the Reds.
All of which meant that Michael Ruddy – who had seen team-mates Ben Kennedy, David Cushley, Jarlath O’Rourke and Daniel Larmour find the net – had to score to keep the tie alive, but the officials controversially ruled that his effort had not crossed the line after coming back down off the crossbar.
McLaughlin had sympathy for the Crues over the manner of their defeat but paid tribute to his players’ efforts and the contribution made by a pumped up fanbase.
“In the first-half, Crusaders were probably the better side but we readjusted and reset ourselves and I thought we were excellent in the second-half and we tried to carry that into extra-time,” he reflected.
“Both sets of players were dead on their feet at the end. It’s been an unbelieveable season in terms of the demands put on the players and having a game like this go into extra-time was tough on them. You have to give both sets of players all the credit in the world, it was an entertaining match, end to end and both sides had chances to win it in 90 minutes.
“I’m sure it was a good spectacle for anybody that watched it at home but it’s just disappointing that somebody’s got to lose it after such a good game, but we’re delighted to go through.”
Quizzed on the impact of the supporters, McLaughlin nodded towards the Main Stand Lower and said: “Those boys are unbelieveable, they add an extra 15-20 per cent, especially when you’re tired.
“Our boys were tiring at the end and, even though the crowd’s nowhere near what it should be, the noise that them boys make is phenomenal and it adds so much to the team and to the atmosphere of the game and they definitely played their part.
“It’s been missing for so long and football’s not the same without it. It gives you that adrenaline rush, it adds to the tempo of the game, the intensity of tackles and the determination is so different whenever the fans are in, so the sooner we get them all in, the better.”
On the controversy surrounding the decisive spot-kick, when the officials failed to spot that Ruddy’s shot had crossed the line, McLaughlin added: “For a change, we’ve had a bit of luck go our way so we’ll take it.
“It’s one of them ones where if it goes for you, you’re delighted to get a bit of luck but if it goes against you, I’m sure the Crusaders boys will be fuming.
“Throughout this season, we’ve had a number of decisions go against us that we thought were clear cut in our favour – including penalties being given against us and penalty appeals we’ve had turned down – and people say these things even themselves out so if that’s it evening out for us, fair enough, but that’s no good to Crusaders, it’s disappointing for them.
“I can understand how it happened. Ruddy’s an excellent striker of the ball and he’s hit it in a flash so it’s all happened very quickly but if we were on the receiving end of that, I’d be fuming.”