Paddy McLaughlin's side assured of home semi-final against Crusaders in European playoffs
CLIFTONVILLE boss Paddy McLaughlin is confident that he has a strong enough squad at his disposal to rotate for Saturday’s dead rubber game against champions Linfield.

The Blues make the trip to Solitude on Saturday evening (5.30pm kick-off) fresh from securing their 55th league title with a draw at Coleraine on Tuesday evening and they will be presented with the Gibson Cup after the game. 

David Cushley’s late equaliser in Tuesday’s North Belfast derby guaranteed that Cliftonville will remain in fifth and renders the weekend game as a ‘dead rubber’ three days before a rematch with Crusaders in the play-off semi-final.

McLaughlin admits that he will probably rotate for Saturday’s game, but is confident it won’t weaken the talent available.

“We’ve got a good squad of players and a strong bench,” he feels.

“You’ve seen the players that have come off the bench tonight: Ryan Curran and Paul O’Neill would start for any team in the division. We’ve Daniel Kearns and Barry Coffey and top talent sitting on the bench and looking for a game.

“Maybe it is time to rotate a couple of players and give them some much needed game time because we’ll need them in the next couple of games. Jamie Harney went off injured with what looks like his season is over.

“We’ll need every player up to match pace and ready to go as they are. We’ll assess the damage over the next couple of days. A few boys were sore and went off with icepacks. We’ll assess what we’ve got going into Saturday’s game.

“We want to finish the season on a high. We want to finish it strong and we want to finish it going into good form going into the semi-final on Tuesday. We’ll not run the risk of losing any more players because we are down so many bodies as it is.”

McLaughlin was happy with his side’s performance despite being pegged back in the third minute of injury time for the third time against their North Belfast rivals this season and the only criticism he had was switching off in the final moments.

“I thought we were very dominant for a North Belfast derby,” McLaughlin reflected.

“It was good to see the fans back. The place should have been packed and it would have added a lot more adrenaline and a lot more spice to the game, but for those who were here, I’m fairly confident that they would have went home delighted with the performance, the work-rate and the intensity of our play.

“I thought we were superb throughout the match. The only thing that was missing was that second goal to kill it off. The only criticism and disappointment - and it is only a very slight criticism at that - is that we didn’t deal with that final long ball into the box, and we know what we are going to face when we play Crusaders.

“I just feel as if we were probably a wee bit naïve to not defend that last cross; if we clear that then game is over.

“We’ve made that mistake a few times before and it’s something we’ve got to improve on going into next year.

“Over the course of the 93 minutes, I thought our boys were excellent. We were always going to finish fifth and it was important that we finished above Crusaders for home advantage in the play-off and that’s what we did.”

The Reds’ boss felt that his side were able to cope with David Cushley replacing Jordan Owens early on and thought they defended well throughout.

Cliftonville and Crusaders will meet once again on Tuesday in the European playoff semi-final

Cliftonville and Crusaders will meet once again on Tuesday in the European playoff semi-final

“You prepare for different scenarios, but you don’t expect things to change so quickly in the game,” he said.

“I’m sure it is a big blow with Owens going off because he’s a key player for them, but our players adapted really well. I think they defended really well and big McCarey hasn’t had much to do right throughout the game.

“I thought the only thing he had to do was come and collect a cross coming over three or four bodies late on. We thought that was the only trouble he would have to deal with all night, but these things happen in games.”

The draw secures a home semi-final against their North Belfast rivals next Tuesday evening (7.45pm kick-off) and McLaughlin thinks that they can use the home form to their advantage.

“It was important to finish above Crusaders, which we did,” he acknowledges. 

“Home advantage is going to be massive next week, and I think the only team above us that have more points at home is the champions, Linfield.

“You talk about psychological advantages – our home form this year is only second to the best team in the league. We should have all the confidence in the world going into next week’s game.”