Declan O’Hara admits that Crusaders’ injury-time equaliser was “a kick in the teeth” but commended his players for contributing more positives than negatives to yesterday’s North Belfast Derby.
Following a disastrous start that saw them fall behind to a Paul Heatley header after just 35 seconds, Cliftonville reacted well and enjoyed some tidy play before the contest exploded into life when Hale brothers Rory and Ronan netted to turn the tie around in the opening minutes of the second-half.
A magnificent strike from Jarlath O’Rourke drew the Crues level almost immediately before an eye-catching Joe Gormley effort gave the Reds an advantage they held until the closing minutes, when Heatley made it 3-3.
“The last thing I said was ‘let’s get a clean sheet’ and after 30 seconds, we were getting beat 1-0,” said O’Hara with a rueful grin.
“Credit to our boys, they were excellent. They came out in the second-half and turned it on.
“I said to them all week to just go and play, go and enjoy yourself. I think they did enjoy themselves and, yes, it’s a kick in the teeth to concede with two minutes left but I’m so proud of those boys because it’s been a tough week for us.
“We had to give our fans something to shout about and once we got that first goal, the place erupted and the players feed off that.
“We go 2-1 up and then concede a wonder strike – I don’t think any keeper would have said that – but, again, we go up the pitch and score.
“The one at the end is a poor goal to concede – again – but, overall, in terms of the performance, I’ve asked them to go and put a smile back on the whole club’s face and I truly do believe there was a buzz back today.”
Reflecting on his first game in interim charge, O’Hara added: “I’ll go away from this thinking about what I could have done better for the team, how could I have helped them out in the second-half? Could I have changed something? I’ll go home and look at myself but those boys have been excellent for me all week.
“When the Club asked me to take it over, I was thinking ‘how am I going to get these boys up again?’ but training’s been buzzing on Tuesday and Thursday. Monday was tough because obviously Paddy had just left but, after that, it was lively and you could see the place was buzzing during the game.
“I truly believe that if we perform like that between now and the end of the season, we’ll have European football. But it’s down to the players now. I’ve told them I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for themselves, they can’t because we’ve a big game next week against Linfield and then the play-offs.
“When I get the stats from all the boys’ GPS vests, I already know they’ll be the highest they’ve been all season because you saw that they gave it everything out there and, despite what happened at the end, there were smiles back on faces and that’s what I wanted.”