Cliftonville supporters travelled to The Oval in high spirits yesterday and not even relentless rain was going to dampen the celebratory atmosphere at the end of a rewarding year.
Determined to show their appreciation to Paddy McLaughlin and his players for their efforts over the course of the season, the Red Army – who have been spared the annual ritual of Play-Off anxiety thanks to the team’s automatic qualification for the Europa Conference League – welcomed the team on to the pitch with a colourful cavalcade of beach balls, lilos, palm trees and even a giant inflatable bottle of champagne.
Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sunglasses may have looked somewhat out of place in the east Belfast drizzle, however those fans who came armed with water wings and rubber rings were certainly prepared for all eventualities as the evening progressed.
With beach balls making regular trips across the sold-out away section throughout the game, the final whistle in Cliftonville’s 50th match of the campaign was the signal for one last show of acknowledgment, with players and supporters united in demonstrating their gratitude for each other’s commitment and dedication over the last nine months.
All pre-season expectations and predictions having been surpassed, the Red Army – who last tasted Premiership defeat some three-and-a-half months ago – arose as one to sound their support for the team’s application in not only securing the Club’s first automatic European qualification since 2014 but also in delivering coveted silverware thanks to March’s unforgettable League Cup Final comeback against Coleraine.
The Manager, backroom staff and players likewise expressed their own thanks to the fans, whose buoyant mood continued back out through the exits, into waiting buses and cars, with many jubilantly chanting their way into the city centre on foot, each already beginning the countdown to Europe as the curtain fell on a season that will live long in the memory.