THE festive period may be coming to an end, but there is still time for one more sporting tradition as the rearranged North Belfast derby takes place at Solitude this evening (7.45pm kick-off).
Cliftonville host Crusaders knowing that a win could see them go back to the league summit, but Reds’ manager Paddy McLaughlin insists league points and not league position is the motivation heading into the game.
McLaughlin says he is happy to have the underdog tag and feels it has stood by his team so far this campaign.
“It would nice (to go top), and it sounds great and all, but I don’t think too many of our boys are looking at league tables and talking about anything like that,” he insists.
“We just want to keep doing what we’re doing for as long as we can and like I say, you never know where it could take you come the end of the season.
“A lot of people are saying that we’re punching above our weight, so if that’s the case fair enough, we don’t mind that. We’ll take the underdog tag on all year long as it’s done us no harm so far.
“It will be another tough game against Crusaders: a North Belfast derby, a big crowd, but our form at home has been superb and the boys are going into it in good form.”
Crusaders come into this evening’s game off the back of a frustrating 0-0 draw with Carrick Rangers at Seaview but McLaughlin isn’t reading too much into that result.
“We don’t really read too much into other teams results, we concentrate one number one” he said.
“I know it is very cliched and the Crues have a big game on Friday night in the Cup, but we’ll look after our own job and do the best that we can. The way we’re playing and the way we’re working, we’re ready for anybody at the minute, especially at Solitude.
“We’ve got the give the fans a mention. They were there in their numbers on Saturday and we can’t praise them enough. I think they know the role they’re playing and I think they know how important they are to us and no doubt they will be there in their numbers on Tuesday night.”
Whilst McLaughlin is delighted with his side’s unblemished home record, he does acknowledge that they must chalk up more victories on the road off the back of their third away win of the season at the weekend.
“Our home form has been unblemished all year, unbelievable home form,” reflects McLaughlin.
“It’s important that we do pick up points away from home. If you want to stay within the leading pack then we’ve got to improve our away record - we know that. It’s only a couple of wins and we’ve to improve that and it’s important that we do that.
“We’ve picked up valuable draws in games and people don’t give us credit for that, but its valuable points away to top sides. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing, keep our head down, keep working hard and you never know where it can take us.”
Goals from Levi Ives and Ryan Curran were enough secure victory at Mourneview Park and whilst McLaughlin was keen to praise his whole squad, he reserved a special mention for Paul O’Neill.
“It’s the second time that Levi’s done that this year, it was a brilliant technique, and the execution of the free-kick was superb - it was class,” recalled McLaughlin.
“Currany does what he has been doing all season for us. He scored 30 goals in the calendar year and the first day of the New Year he’s got himself up and running again. It’s good to see that he keeps doing that.
“I thought every player on the pitch was excellent. I need to mention Paul O’Neill playing at centre-forward and through the middle. I thought he led the line brilliantly well for us. Fair play to them all but I have to give him special credit because he took a lot of big hits for us, and he got us up the pitch and what he did throughout the match - I thought he was excellent.”
Rory Hale almost made his first start since the corresponding fixture at Solitude at the end of October after a long injury lay-off and his manager believes having the midfielder back is like a new January signing.
“He’s missed a lot of football and there’s nobody more frustrated than myself than Rory,” he added.
“He loves playing football and you see the energy he brings to team and it’s great to have him back.
“It’s almost like a new signing and he’s started up today where he left off: full of driving runs, leading by example, and driving his team forward at every opportunity so it was great to have him back on the pitch and he backed it up with a good performance.”