Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin sent out a defiant message as his team prepare to begin the defence of the Irish Premiership title by stating: “We don’t do pressure”.
The Reds had the honour of hoisting the first trophy ahead of the new campaign by beating Ballymena United in the NI Hospice Charity Shield at Solitude on Saturday – albeit on a penalty shoot-out.
But with the league programme on the starting blocks, if anyone thinks the North Belfast side may not be as potent without the departed Liam Boyce – now with Scottish club Ross County – Breslin insists that winning the Gibson Cup for the third year in succession is top of their agenda.
“The Charity Shield game was semi-competitive and hopefully the Hospice made a bit of money out of it – sadly the horrible weather affected the crowd, but the important stuff starts next week,” he stated.
“People keep talking about us being under even more pressure as we are making a second defence of the title, but when you start that, you invite trouble and players start doing things that are foreign to them.
“To me, it’s a game of football. It’s a privilege to be involved at a club that has done fantastically well in terms of winning trophies over the past few years.
“So the day we start doing pressure, I’ll not be here.”
Breslin also shrugs off the notion that the his team may well struggle without the influence of Boyce.
“The expectations are high, which comes with being league champions,” he added.
“We did really well in in both games against Debrecen in the Champions League. If we an build on that, we’ll be ok.
“Usually the league doesn’t pan out until after the first series of games, around the end of October or November. We’ll focus on our opener against Glentoran. The early matches are usually very tight and I’m sure it’ll be the same.”
Breslin his hoping to have Chris Curran and Stephen Garrett in his squad. Both players missed the Charity Shield match due to injury.
He added: “Curran didn’t train on Thursday night. He felt a little niggle in his knee, which was a bit swollen. He’s been on anti-inflammatory medication and he’s improving. We didn’t want to risk him. We’ll monitor him over the coming days.
“Garrett had an operation on his ankle at the end of last season. I think it was aggravated by the travelling to our game in Hungary. But he has improved. I’m hoping to have both of them available for next week.”
United boss Glenn Ferguson was delighted with his team’s performance, which fills him full off optimism ahead of Saturday’s league start.
“It was a good workout in terms of fitness levels and it gave us a chance to see where we are against a team that will undoubtedly be challenge for honours this season,” he said.
“I was happy with the clean sheet – I thought we defended quite well. And, we attacked with pace near the finish. There were not too many off our guys looking leggy. We also had a few wee chances that could have won it for us.”
Ferguson added he was delighted with the contribution of his new signings, both from Linfeld – Matthew Tipton and Kyle McVey.
“We know what Tippy can bring to the team,” he added.
“He has experience; he talks; he holds the ball up well and his touch is good. He’s a good organiser and he brings people into play.
“If he gets the ball in the box, he’ knows what to do with it. Hopefully, we’ll get a few goals from him this season.
“Kyle came on after about 20 minutes. Aaron Stewart felt a little twinge in his hamstring, so we took him off right away.
“Probably Kyle wasn’t 100 per cent ready because his transfer happened that quickly at the end of the week. But he went on and won headers and defended well. We were happy with him.”
George McMullan, James Knowles, new boy Johnny Flynn, and Marc Smyth were all successful for the Reds from the spot with the usually lethal Joe Gormley fluffing his lines.
Tipton and Michael Ruddy converted for United, but Reds goalkeeper Conor Devlin saved from David Cushley and Toney Kane.
Cliftonville: Devlin, McGovern (Smyth 74), Johnston (Knowles 74), Flynn, McMullan, M Donnelly (Caldwell 74), Catney, Winchester (McGrandles 86), Gormley, Murray (J Donnelly 58), Cosgrove.
Ballymena United: Nelson, McCullagh, Taylor, Stewart (McVey 28), McBride (Ruddy 73), Gawley (Kane 68), Davidson (Taggart 66), Jenkins, Teggart (Thompson 66), Cushley, Tipton.
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor)