Battle lines are drawn at Solitude for League Cup showdown

Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin, left, and Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter
Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin, left, and Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

Cliftonville boss Tommy Breslin has predicted an “intense” League Cup final with derby enemy Crusaders.

The North Belfast rivals will be on collision course at Solitude on Saturday evening (5.30pm kick-off).

A toss of a coin decided the venue for this year’s showpiece – with the Reds set to boast home advantage.

Solitude’s two modern stands will be supplemented by temporary seating, while the showpiece event will be played on a pristine artificial surface. While fans of both clubs enjoy a healthy rivalry, the two clubs have worked together to make sure the dream of a North Belfast cup final could become a reality.

It’s all a far cry from just 10 years ago, when both North Belfast outfits two were underachieving sides struggling to attract big crowds.

Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin, a veteran of the club, can’t believe how things have changed in recent years.

“The progression at this club over the last decade has been unbelievable. This cup final is a testament to all the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes by the board and the supporters,” he said.

“This is history in the making and it’s great day for both clubs. Solitude is a compact ground and with a full house, there should be a fantastic atmosphere inside the ground. It augers well for a good game.

“It will be very intense and expect both sets of players to rise to the occasion. It should be a fantastic occasion for both sets of fans.”

On the field, Cliftonville have gone from fighting relegation to lifting the Gibson Cup in the space of a decade.

Their North Belfast rivals Crusaders, have never been far behind them. Since Stephen Baxter’s men won promotion to the Premiership in 2006, they’ve lifted the Irish Cup, Setanta Cup, League Cup and the County Antrim Shield.

Manager Baxter believes both North Belfast clubs deserve tremendous credit for the recent transformation.

“I think what’s happening in North Belfast is great. Solitude is fantastic now, and our ground has drastically improved in recent years.

“The two clubs have come on leaps and bounds over the last decade. As a player, I remember watching a game from the old Whitehouse at Solitude, freezing with the cold. So much has changed since then,” added Baxter.

“Both clubs are to be commended on their hard work. That’s part of the reason why there will be a full house on Saturday. The two clubs get on very well off the field. Tommy Breslin and myself have a great mutual respect for each other, while the two boards worked together to make this happen.

“Saturday will be a remarkable occasion for both clubs.”

While Cliftonville and Crusaders have threatened the Linfield and Glentoran Irish League duopoly, Baxter does not believe the two North Belfast clubs will ever supersede the traditional Belfast Big Two.

“Our clubs are a credit to themselves and to their history and identity, but we will never be Belfast’s Big Two.

“It has been a remarkable journey for both clubs, but we will never be the Big Two and we’re not trying to be the Big Two.

“I prefer to think of Crusaders as a wee club with a big heart.”