Cliftonville kick-start their Toal’s County Antrim Shield campaign this evening with a trip to Premier Intermediate outfit Bangor at the Bangor Fuel’s Arena (7.45pm kick-off).
The Reds last won the trophy back in 2020 with a last-gasp win over Ballymena United and boss Paddy McLaughlin will be hoping his side can go one further than their semi-final shoot-out defeat to Linfield last season.
Top of his priority list at the minute is ensuring his side keeps a clean sheet, having conceded in each of their five league encounters to date.
The Reds’ boss admits he has been hard on his defensive unit in recent weeks but has backed them to come good in the weeks ahead.
“We’re disappointed with the manner of the goal (against Portadown),” he reflected.
“I have been a bit hard and a bit sore on our defensive unit for not keeping a clean sheet in five games. They’ll hear about it again but it’s important that we keep pushing for clean sheets.
“We were very good at it last year and it’s important we get back to it this season because we can’t be sloppy or vulnerable defensively. We’re still good players but we’re just conceding soft goals at the minute. We will get it right, there is no doubt about that.”
McLaughlin was delighted that Ronan Hale and Ryan Curran continued their positive start to the season and believes if they become more ruthless in their conversion up top they will be a strong force during the season.
“If we would convert our chances, it would be a lot more comfortable,” he maintains.
“We do create so many chances and our forward play has really been super so far this season. We’re creating loads of chances and our front men are lively and they’re chipping in with goals.
“Ronan (Hale) and ‘Currany’ (Ryan Curran) scored at the weekend, that’s three for Ronan and four out of five for Ryan.
“It’s a brilliant start for the two of them and Joe will always be up around the top marksmen by the end of the season.
“It’s important that we always do score goals – we definitely have to be more ruthless defensively - but if we’re more ruthless at the top end with the chances that we’re creating, we’re going to be a strong force this year.”
McLaughlin may consider rotation for the clash but will be without Rory Hale after the midfielder required stitches for a gash he sustained in the weekend win over Portadown as the Reds boss explained.
“He’s taken a bad gash on the ankle,” revealed McLaughlin.
“It will probably need a couple of stitches, but it is nasty enough and a nasty injury. We don’t know if there is any damage done to the bone of the ankle but it’s definitely a bad gash and will need a couple of stitches.
“We’re disappointed with that because he’s been brilliant for us and he was superb again at the weekend. It’s going to be a loss, hopefully not for too long, but it’s a nasty enough injury.”