CLIFTONVILLE manager Paddy McLaughlin insists it is important that they finish as high up the league as they can in the closing weeks of the season.
Successive defeats to Dungannon Swifts in recent weeks have saw the Reds drop out of the Irish Cup and league contention as McLaughlin’s side find themselves nine points behind league leaders Larne.
Automatic European qualification remains a possibility with a second placed finish or a third-place finish, depending upon the outcome of the Irish Cup.
For now, McLaughlin’s focus however is a return to winning ways in the league when they travel to Newry Showgrounds to take on Newry City on Saturday afternoon (3pm kick-off). A game in which the Derry native is expecting to be every bit as tough as their recent encounters with Dungannon.
“It all depends on what happens with the cup and the league winners,” McLaughlin accepts.
“You can’t see anybody past Larne winning the league now. The cup winners will obviously have a huge bearing on the European places.
“It’s important that we finish as high as we can. We’ll keep at it and keep fighting our corner as best we can.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of criticism coming our way over the next couple of days, but we’re used to it now. We’ll take that on the chin and prepare for normal as Newry and get to the split.
“That was the target, always stay as high up at the league for as long as we possibly can and then every game becomes a cup final - that will not change.
“Hopefully we can go and get a result against Newry, which will be difficult. They are fighting for their lives, just as Dungannon are.
“That takes us to the split and then every point after the split is priceless.
“It’s important we finish as strong as we can and as high as we can. Whether it is through via play-off or via automatic qualification for Europe, that will be the target from here on in.”
Just 𝗢𝗡𝗘 game to go before the split 👀— NI Football League (@OfficialNIFL) March 21, 2023
Where will your team finish? 🍿 pic.twitter.com/mrr9c04Zex
McLaughlin rued his side’s inability to kill the game off after going 1-0 up in their defeat to the Swifts and felt that the missed chances spurred on Dean Shiels side.
“We had so many chances to make it 2-0,” he acknowledged.
“There were three or four different opportunities for different players to seal the game. Maybe they got complacent, I don’t know.
“If you’re in the Dungannon half you’re thinking, ‘we only need one chance and maybe we can salvage something’. Every time we passed an opportunity up to put the game to bed, it was probably giving them that bit of encouragement.
“Unfortunately, come the 91st minute the one chance they got in the half and in the 90 minutes they scored. Then a couple of minutes later with us chasing it, they scored with their second chance.
“When you look at the chances created for both, they’ve been ruthless and taken the two they’ve created, and we’ve only taken one from eight or nine.
“It’s disappointing at both ends of the pitch. We can’t concede two goals at such a key stage of the season and obviously we can’t pass up as many opportunities to seal the game.
“It’s a frustrating day and a devastating day for the players and supporters I’m sure because there was so much riding on it, but we’ll take the hit and move on.”
Odhran Casey will return to the side that he spent a year on loan with last season having served a suspension at the weekend, but the Reds will be without Sean Moore after the 17-year-old was called up to the Republic of Ireland U19 squad.
Moore sustained an injury at the weekend and McLaughlin is adamant that he will only join up with Tom Mohan’s side if he is fit to play.
“You saw how good he has been for us this year,” said the Cliftonville boss.
“He picked up a bit of a knock earlier in the game and he struggled with it throughout, so we had to take him off. We need to keep an eye on that over the next couple of days to see if he is going to be fit to go on international duty.
“It will be a big loss for us because he has been so good for us. Like I said earlier, if one player goes out then it is up for somebody else to come in and take the baton and carry it on for us.
“We’ll see what happens during this week because it is important we look after Sean. He is still a young boy, but he went off carrying an injury, so we need to be careful that if he is going to go off on international day he is only going to go if he is fit. If not, he is going to have to wait until the next turnaround.
“We could be doing with him after the weekend defeat because the heads will be down for a couple of days, but it is up to us as staff and up to us a club to gather, rally round and go again.”