As we count down to the new Danske Bank Premiership season kicking off, cliftonvillefc.net concludes a weekly mini-series reflecting on the good, the bad and the in-betweens of last term.
For the last number of Mondays, we’ve been taking a chronological look back on a month from 2020/21 – and we’re doubling up with May and a brief step into June today.
Things started rather curiously with Cliftonville slipping to successive Premiership defeats courtesy of conceding four penalties in two games.
The first came at The Showgrounds where, after benefiting from a frankly ludicrous decision to penalise goalkeeper Aaron McCarey for a foul he knew nothing about, Coleraine netted a second spot kick following a somewhat less controversial call – and one that earned McCarey a red card.
Three days later, Declan Dunne was powerless to prevent Larne dispatching two penalties on a night that had seen Barry Coffey drag the Reds temporarily level with a sensational free-kick.
If they could count themselves unfortunate in those outings, there was no doubting Cliftonville deserved the third consecutive loss that came their way when Glentoran claimed a 1-0 victory in a Sadler’s Peaky Blinder Irish Cup second round clash.
Paddy McLaughlin’s men would, however, atone for that below-par display with a wonderful performance when they returned to The Oval on Premiership duty the following week; Rory Hale and Michael McCrudden on target in a well-earned victory.
That would prove to be the Reds’ final fixture of the season without supporters present and it was with no shortage of delight that the Club welcomed fans – albeit in heavily restricted numbers – to Solitude for a North Belfast Derby date with Crusaders.
Though the night got off to a great start when Daire O’Connor opened the scoring, Cliftonville would concede a last-gasp leveller to the Crues for the third time in a row; David Cushley the latest to deny McLaughlin and co a deserved triumph.
That result meant that, regardless of the Reds’ 2-0 reverse at the hands of Linfield on the final day of the League season, Crusaders would return to BT14 the following week for an eagerly-anticipated European Play-Off semi-final showdown.
Despite controlling large spells of the match, Cliftonville were simply unable to get the breakthrough goal their performance deserved and the contest eventually progressed to a penalty shoot-out which would end in controversy when, with both sides having converted nine previously-taken spot kicks, the officials failed to spot Michael Ruddy’s effort crossing the line after crashing down off the underside of the crossbar – something of a notorious final act for the soon-to-be-replaced Solitude pitch.
All of which meant that the Reds’ season would stretch into June and a Euro Play-Off decider against Larne.
The challenge that awaited Cliftonville was heightened by the exclusion of visiting fans from Inver Park, where the hosts claimed a 1-0 half-time advantage.
A stunning O’Connor drive was, however, just reward for the Reds’ dominance of the second period only for Larne to respond instantly before going on to seal a 3-1 success.
The campaign ended with O’Connor being voted May’s Sean Graham Player of the Month as McLaughlin and his squad looked forward to a well-earned break following a punishing schedule brought about by a condensed fixture programme in the second half of a gruelling campaign.
Coleraine 2-0 Cliftonville
Cliftonville 1-2 Larne
Glentoran 1-0 Cliftonville
Cliftonville 2-0 Glentoran
Cliftonville 1-1 Crusaders
Cliftonville 0-2 Linfield
Cliftonville 0-0 Crusaders [5-4 on penalties]
Larne 3-1 Cliftonville