With just a day until Cliftonville’s second pre-season friendly of the 2021/22 campaign, cliftonvillefc.net continues a new weekly mini-series reflecting on the good, the bad and the in-betweens of last term.
Every Monday between now and the new Danske Bank Premiership programme kicking off, we’re taking a chronological look back on a month from 2020/21 – with an encouraging January in the spotlight today.
Having suffered demoralising defeats in both of their December outings, the Reds sought a new start when they travelled to Stangmore Park for their opening game of the 2021 and they got exactly what they wanted in a tie that kick-started a curious run of eight consecutive matches featuring last-minute goals.
Things started ominously against Dungannon Swifts when Aaron Donnelly’s own goal out the hosts in front but Cliftonville, who had enjoyed the better of the play in the first-half, emerged fired up for the second period and, after Chris Curran’s neat finish had levelled matters, saw their dominance rewarded when Ryan Curran converted a penalty kick with literally the last kick of the game.
A week later, it was the Reds who found themselves on the wrong end of an injury-time strike when Crusaders rescued a point from the delayed St Stephen’s Day North Belfast Derby.
The Crues had taken an early lead through Jamie McGonigle’s penalty but were pegged back when Rory Hale opened his goalscoring account against his former employers before Chris Hegarty’s own goal put Cliftonville 2-1 up. That had looked sufficient to earn three deserved points until a Ben Kennedy cross crept in at the back post with just 30 seconds left to play.
Linfield’s visit to Solitude a few days later would prove no less engaging and, again, the Reds had to hit back from behind.
Trailing to a well-taken Jordan Stewart goal, Cliftonville restored parity courtesy of Michael McCrudden but found themselves trailing again when a Jamie Mulgrew effort took a significant deflection en route past Aaron McCarey.
That looked to have temporarily taken the wind from the sails of a Reds team who had enjoyed long spells on top in the game, but the players stuck to their task and were soon in front thanks to a double from Conor McMenamin.
The significance of Ryan Curran’s injury-time strike to make it 4-2 was underlined when Kirk Millar pulled one back from the Blues in the closing seconds but there was to be no repeat heartache as Paddy McLaughlin’s men held on for the victory.
A lack of consistency had dogged Cliftonville throughout the season, with an inability to string back-to-back wins together a key contributor to their frustrations and so it would prove again as Glenavon left Solitude with a point in the month’s final fixture.
A number of injury-enforced changes – another regular feature of the campaign – saw McLaughlin adopt a raft of formations against the Lurgan Blues, who went 1-0 up through a Danny Purkis penalty.
The Reds were denied a couple of strong spot-kick appeals of their own and were left bemused when no action was taken against Glenavon keeper Craig Hyland when he raced out of his area and bundled Ronan Doherty over.
There was further anger when an offside flag was incorrectly raised to rule out a McMenamin equaliser but the hosts eventually earned their point thanks to a last-minute blast from Ryan Curran.
January ended with supporters voting Rory Hale their Sean Graham Player of the Month as a squad refreshed by the addition of seven new faces made preparations for a gruelling February schedule…
Dungannon Swifts 1-2 Cliftonville
C Curran, R Curran
Crusaders 2-2 Cliftonville
Cliftonville 4-3 Linfield
McCrudden, McMenamin , R Curran
Cliftonville 1-1 Glenavon