Barry Gray said the groundwork for Cliftonville’s hammering of Ballymena United was laid in a devastated changing room after Saturday’s Irish Cup final defeat.
Four days after losing to Coleraine in the Windsor Park showpiece, the Reds booked their place in the Europa League play-off decider courtesy of doubles from Jay Donnelly and Joe Gormley in a dominant performance.
United had Kevin Braniff sent off on 32 minutes and the hosts made their numerical advantage count, peppering Ross Glendinning’s goal until the all-important breakthrough strike arrived on 67 minutes.
“I’m so proud of the players for what they’ve just done,” said Gray.
“The physical and mental exertions of the weekend, when every player emptied the tank, were huge and to follow that up with a performance like this is excellent, absolutely brilliant.
“I learned an awful lot about us on Saturday – not in football terms, but in terms of the togetherness in that changing room. We lost the game but everyone was together, it was collective pain and they were determined to get back on it and win this match.”
United’s hopes were dealt a blow when Braniff picked up two bookings inside 10 minutes.
In the second-half the Reds were rewarded when Donnelly powered home on 67 minutes.
A lung-busting run from Stephen Garrett provided Donnelly with his second nine minutes from time before Gormley capped a sensational individual display with two strikes in as many minutes; the first after yet more fine work from Garrett and the second a peach of a shot.
Cliftonville will now host Glentoran in Saturday’s decider, with Gray adding: “We now have to recharge the batteries and go at it all over again to get ourselves over the line against Glentoran. I’m delighted we have home advantage for the game and I believe our fans can have a massive influence, but you can’t dismiss Glentoran one bit.
“They’ve just gone to Windsor and stuck four past Linfield when nobody gave them a chance – so they’re going to be up for it just as much as we will be.”
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, Ives, Harney, Curran, Bagnall, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, Grimes, McDonald, R Donnelly. Subs: McGovern, Garrett (McDonald, 56 mins), Dunne, Lavery (R Donnelly, 86 mins), A Donnelly.
BALLYMENA: Glendinning, Kane, McAlorum, Friel, Braniff, Burns, Balmer, Ervin, Millar, McCaffrey, Qyuigley. Subs: Owens (Burns, 65 mins), McCloskey, Faulkner, Shevlin (Quigley, 78 mins), McKinney (McCaffrey, 68 mins).
REFEREE: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)