HAVING pulled clear at the top of the table, the challenge for Cliftonville is to remain there and they have the opportunity to pull further clear when they make the trip to Carrick Rangers on Friday evening (7.45pm, live on BBC iPlayer).
The Reds were 1-0 winners over Linfield during the week to see them pull three clear of Larne and there is the chance to double that advantage before the remainder of the weekend games on Saturday.
Of course, the Solitude outfit will have played more games than their title rivals, but points on the board are always preferable to games in hand and a third league win on the spin under the lights at the Belfast Loughshore Arena would cap a fine run.
Carrick have had a more difficult start to the new year with a league defeat and then last weekend they exited the Irish Cup on penalties against Ballymena United, but Cliftonville manager Paddy McLaughlin insists his team will face a stiff test on Friday.
“Carrick are strong at home,” he acknowledged.
“They play the pitch and the conditions well. Stuart (King) has done a brilliant job this year.
“It’s a place that nobody likes going to, just because of how hard-working they are and how hard it is to get out of there with any kind of result.
“It’s important that the highs of Tuesday night are put to bed and we concentrate on what is going to be another tough game at Carrick. They’re highly motivated, well-organised and they’re dangerous as well.
“It will be a different game and different atmosphere (than Linfield) but it’s important that we get our heads around it and it’s important that we deal with what comes our way and perform and work as well as we did against Linfield and hopefully get the result. It will be a difficult place to go.”
📊 The @DanskeBank_UK Premiership table after tonight's games...#DanskeBankPrem pic.twitter.com/frLsiH69Cz— NI Football League (@OfficialNIFL) January 10, 2023
McLaughlin was keen to play down the significance of Tuesday evening's win in the immediate aftermath and emphasised that the reward for victory remains the same regardless of the opposition.
Points are precious regardless of the opposition and Cliftonville have put themselves front and centre in the title race, so another three on the board will be just as valuable.
“There’s no reason not to be grounded because they won three points and that’s it,” he said.
“Just because it was Linfield you don’t get any more points for it. They’re a top side and the best team in the league over the past couple of years and rightly so. They’ve got an abundance of talent right throughout.
“It’s a great three points, but so was last Monday against Larne and so will Friday against Carrick if we can do that.
“The three points are tucked up, but I don’t think that anybody should be getting too ahead of themselves on league positions and league tables in January. They count for nothing, it’s what happens in May. It’s important that we focus now on Carrick when we wake up in the morning.”
The Reds boss was full of praise for Tuesday evening's match-winner Ronan Doherty. The Donegal native celebrated his 27th birthday with his first goal of the season and McLaughlin praised his many qualities.
Another big night of @DanskeBank_UK Premiership action awaits 🙌@CarrickRangers 🆚 @cliftonvillefc #DanskeBankPrem pic.twitter.com/1Myi4X63IU— NI Football League (@OfficialNIFL) January 13, 2023
“The one thing about Ronan, he’s a real class act and a class footballer,” McLaughlin reflected.
“Even as a person, he carries himself really well and he is one of them classy kind of fellas. He plays like that on the pitch and the only criticism I would have is that he probably doesn’t score enough goals. If that is the start of him chipping in with some goals, I think he has gained another level.
“I’m delighted for him on a personal note it was his birthday, he’d everybody from Carndonagh down here and a couple of bus loads down just to celebrate. I’m sure it will make him happy, but we’re delighted with the three points.”McLaughlin feels that Doherty is undervalued within the league, but not within the Cliftonville squad who are more than aware of his many strengths.
“I think he is one of the biggest undervalued players, not within our group,” McLaughlin continued.
“Our group, if you ask anybody in our changing room who is one of the top players in the bracket, Ronan ‘Olly’ would come out in that with almost every player, but within the league, he definitely doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
“I think he shows on a regular basis, his ability to play under pressure and his ability to take the ball under pressure and his link-up play with players around him. I think everybody sees how much they enjoy playing with him.
“He definitely doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but that is only outside our club. Our club, I think everybody knows how good he really is.”