Title-chasing Cliftonville will go down as a great team: ex-Red Marc Smyth

Danske Bank Irish Premiership: Glentoran v Cliftonville (today, The Oval, 3pm)

REGARDLESS of who wins the Irish Premiership title this afternoon, former Cliftonville defender Marc Smyth believes Paddy McLaughlin’s Reds will go down as a “great team” in Solitude’s history.

Against all odds, the north Belfast club have brought this season’s compelling title race to the final day of the season, with defending champions Linfield strong favourites to retain their crown later today.

Leading at the top by a point, Linfield host an out-of-sorts Coleraine while Cliftonville travel to Glentoran.

Oran Kearney’s Bannsiders have endured a wretched run of form since the league split – losing four of their last five games – and have slumped to sixth place, while the wheels came off Glentoran’s challenge as soon as they suffered a shock 4-0 loss to Crusaders earlier this month.

Smyth, however, doesn’t regard the destination of the Gibson Cup a foregone conclusion and believes Linfield will face the best version of Coleraine at Windsor Park this afternoon.

“Coleraine look like they’ve had a real drop in form but this is their last game before the European play-offs,” said Smyth, who is head of Cliftonville’s youth academy and also reserve team manager.

“They maybe have been resting players but it’s so close to the play-offs for them now. Whatever they do in this game is going to be their game-plan for the play-offs.

“Football is a funny game. Many things can happen. Weirdly, and maybe it’s the ‘Cliftonville’ in me, I just feel Cliftonville deserve it this year…

“What will happen will happen, but Cliftonville will look back on this season and be proud of what they’ve achieved. They are a credit to themselves and everyone involved, and that’s from the chairman [Paul McKeown] to [board member] David Begley to the coaching staff, players, volunteers and supporters.”

Smyth added: “I’m not exactly sure of the budgets in the league but I would say there are a minimum of five or six clubs with bigger budgets than Cliftonville.

“A manager’s job is getting a team to perform and win games on a football pitch. So who is the best manager? Who is the best coach? It’s the ones who create the best teams. The two managers who are the best in the country at the minute are Paddy McLaughlin and David Healy.

“If you’re budget is double or treble of that of a full-time club and you’re part-time, that tells me the coaching, the Cliftonville management team and the players are doing something exceptional. They’re working harder, they’re training better, they’re coached better and are better organised.

“You can dress it up any way you want but the results and performances show that.”

McLaughlin has already delivered the League Cup trophy this season and has earned rave reviews for his player recruitment since assuming the hot-seat just over three years ago.

Naturally, Reds fans will compare Tommy Breslin’s famous back-to-back league winning teams of 2013 and 2014, in which Smyth was the defensive lynchpin, with the current team.

“Our team made history,” Smyth said.

“We won back-to-back titles and we made memories. We go down as a great team but I also feel this Cliftonville team will go down as a great team because of what they’ve done.

“They’ve won a trophy already on a smaller budget. Even if they don’t win the league, they are competing in a different era than we did. They are competing with multi-million pound opponents. You can’t compete financially with Linfield, Glentoran or Larne and yet Paddy has managed to do exactly that.

“This Cliftonville management team has great togetherness and brought the fans back to Solitude. The real pleasing thing is if you look at the early part of the season they were trying to embed their ideas.

“It took time. I don’t think anyone would have said after three or four weeks of the season that Cliftonville were going be where they are now. But, because of the work they do on the training ground, their recruitment and their decision-making, is why they’ve done so well. Ultimately, they have exceeded all expectations by a fair distance.”