David O’Leary was treated to a five-star performance from champions Cliftonville on Saturday – with a special cameo from talisman Liam Boyce.
Former Arsenal and Republic of Ireland defender O’Leary (below) – who was special guest at George McMullan’s testimonial dinner later that night – was in the stands to witness a clinical display of finishing from the Reds.
Boyce was the catalyst to the romp, the striker bagging a first half hat-trick which set the tone for the rest of the game.
All three goals came within the space of nine first-half minutes, easing any title nerves for the Reds faithful.
The victory keeps Cliftonville two points behind Linfield with just seven games remaining this season.
Already fans have switched their focus to a potential title decider with Linfield at Windsor Park on March 29.
But for Reds boss Tommy Breslin, there are “seven massive hurdles” to scale before the Gibson Cup is handed out.
“That’s another game ticked off, and now we are down to the ‘magnificent seven’,” Breslin quipped.
“We have a lot of tough games, and it is going to be a massive challenge for us.
“I thought there was some nervousness in our play during the early stages of today’s game. Passes were going astray and our play in the final third wasn’t at its best.
“But the first couple of goals eased the nerves and we started to play a bit.
“We have been here before, but we will just concentrate on winning games.
“Our only focus now is on Warrenpoint Town next Saturday.
“We have been here, but last season we were way out in front and I think it is easier to lead from the front. We have it all to do this season and we are expecting a big battle with Linfield.
“We will just see what the next few weeks brings.”
Breslin is refusing to look too far ahead, despite fans already eyeing up the March 29 showdown with Linfield.
“People are talking about the game at Windsor, but we are not looking that far ahead. We have hurdles needing to be jumped before that, and we have two tough away games now,” he added.
“Invariably this season we have struggled against the so-called ‘lesser teams’. We have struggled against some of the teams at the bottom, so we need to be on our mettle and be prepared for next week.
“We have a tough schedule after the split. We have Portadown, Crusaders and Linfield away, and the other two we play at home.”
Boyce bagged his hat-trick with goals in the 29th, 36th and 38th minutes.
Joe Gormley added a fourth for the Reds with a cool finish in the 57th minute, with former Mallards star Chris Curran wrapping up the 5-0 win with a curling effort into the top corner.
Visiting boss Whitey Anderson heaped praise on the champions following their stellar show at Solitude.
“I have to say in the two years we have played Cliftonville, that is the best I have ever seen them play. They were exceptional and we couldn’t live with them,” he said.
“We did contribute to our own downfall, but they ooze pure quality and they move the ball about so quickly. You have to compliment them.
“I think we started quite well. We restricted Cliftonville and were holding them at bay.
“But then Liam Boyce scores a hat-trick within the space of nine minutes. That’s the quality they have.”