NIFL Premiership

Cliftonville v Crusaders (Solitude, Monday, 3pm)

CLIFTONVILLE manager Paddy McLaughlin is looking forward to experiencing his first festive North Belfast derby at Solitude in his tenure given past experiences. 

The Reds host Crusaders in the festive derby at Solitude on Monday afternoon (3pm kick-off) with McLaughlin hoping for a similar atmosphere to his first experience. 

A Covid circuit-breaker saw last season’s derby at home postponed and McLaughlin’s only other experience was his side coming from a goal down to win the 2019 fixture 2-1 at Seaview to go top of the table. 

The Derry native believes the fans have a huge part to play and hoping they will be able to come out in force to cheer them onto victory. 

“We’ve played away so I’ll be delighted to get the first festive North Belfast derby and my first taste of it at home,” admits McLaughlin. 

“We had the win two years ago in front of a big crowd where we won. I think last year was behind closed doors, but the one two years ago in front of a big crowd: what an atmosphere and that was away from home. Our fans that night were unbelievable. 

“If that’s what they’re like away from home, I’m looking forward to this one because they’ve been superb right throughout the season for us. 

“They’ve played a huge part in it and I hope they know that. 

“I’m sure they’ll play a huge part on Monday and Joe Gormley always says it: ‘open the gates up and let them in’ because the more that’s in, the better we play so hopefully that’s the case.”

The Reds will have a nine-day gap between their last outing against Carrick and the Crusaders fixture, much to the relief of McLaughlin who is giving his players a few days off to recover. 

“We haven’t been training in almost a month, it’s been recovery sessions between games and we haven’t done any kind of work,” he revealed. 

“We’re just depending on the players looking after themselves and doing their own thing. 

“Fair play to them because the schedule has been unbelievably tough. It’s been intense right throughout and you see how hard the players work in every game. They’ve maintained that throughout the month and with so many midweek games we can’t give them enough credit. 

“It will be good to have nine days between the next game. We’ll give them a couple of days off to rest and recover after a tough month. 

“It will be good to get working on a couple of things in the next couple of sessions going into a really tough festive game.”

With cases of the Omicron variant spreading worldwide and at home, the Reds’ boss is hopeful that it won’t affect his players and stressed the importance of everybody staying safe. 

“The club is strict on the protocols surrounding Covid,” he insists. 

“You just hope that the players look after themselves and look after their families between the games and training sessions. 

“It’s difficult times that we’re all in, not just us as a club. As long as everyone stays safe and stays well, that’s all we can hope for. 

“Hopefully this thing passes as soon as possible, but it looks like we’re heading into the eye of the storm over the next couple of weeks so it’s important that everybody stays safe.”

On the field, McLaughlin reserved special praise for Ryan Curran who notched up his 29th goal of the calendar year in the weekend win over Carrick Rangers and was also pleased to have Rory Hale back on the pitch for the first time since picking up a hamstring injury at the end of October. 

“I wish he (Ryan) would have scored in the first minute and we could relax and enjoy the game,” he joked. 

“It’s a brilliant stat and not just Currany - for the players as well too - because when Currany scorers we haven’t been beat and hopefully it stays like that all season. 

“It’s a difficult stat to protect but you never know. It was his 15th of this season and the 29th in the calendar year. It’s brilliant for Currany - it’s a serious goal return for any striker in any division. 

“Along with Joe and Paul O’Neill now, they’re chipping in with goals and staying in there along with Currany. It’s brilliant for the team that we’ve got so many options scoring goals and hopefully that continues. 

“I was delighted to see Rory come on. He was itching to get on for the last 10-15 minutes of the game. He’s been back on the training pitch for the last two weeks and he’s had a hard run with injury in the last couple of weeks. 

“We’re delighted to see him back on the training pitch and we’re glad to get him back on pitch for a couple of minutes. 

“That’s him available now and if he looks after himself for the next couple of weeks or the next couple of days, we’re good to go come Monday with almost a full squad of players.”