Cliftonville got back to winning ways as Warrenpoint Town’s miserable run continued in a tense encounter at Solitude last night.
A dominant Reds pulled ahead thanks to Jude Winchester’s double but, just as the hosts were preparing to toast three hard-earned points, Daniel Hughes pounced to pull one back and set up a nerve-jangling finale.
Entering the contest on the back of eight successive Premiership defeats and without a goal to their name since the September 26 loss at Ballymena, Town manager Barry Gray made three changes to the side which suffered a 3-0 reverse at the hands of Ballinamallard United last time out - Mark McCabe, Liam Bagnall and Stephen Moan all making way to accommodate returns for Mark Clarke, Dermot McVeigh and Mark Hughes
Having locked his players in the Ferney Park dressing room for an hour in the aftermath of that result, Gray will have been looking for a positive response and will have no doubt taken encouragement from Warrenpoint’s record against the Reds.
For history has shown that, since their promotion to the top flight in 2013, the county Down side have developed the happy habit of bringing negative sequences to an end at Cliftonville’s expense, with August’s 2-2 draw at Milltown the most example.
Not only did that afternoon yield Town’s first point of the season at the fifth attempt, it also delivered the first goals conceded by the Reds who had won their previous four encounters without conceding a single strike – ensuring that home fans, well aware of their opponents’ capabilities, were not sitting quite so comfortably as they otherwise might against a basement-battling side as kick-off approached.
Cliftonville went into the game on the back of frustrating form of their own, with successive draws against Coleraine and Glenavon slowing momentum a little in the wake of Gerard Lyttle’s appointment but, knowing that victory would allow his men to take advantage of any points dropped when Linfield host Crusaders this afternoon, the Solitude boss made four amendments to the XI which had tackled the Lurgan Blues last week.
Goalkeeper Conor Devlin and midfielder Martin Donnelly made their comebacks from injury, while there were also returns for Jaimie McGovern and Jude Winchester but it was Chris Curran who had the first three opportunities of the night.
John Boyle prevented the same player from making the breakthrough early in the second period but the ball was finally put into the net when Winchester converted the rebound after Jay Donnelly’s strike had been saved.
Not so. Town – whose first shot on target came from sub Sean Donnelly on 81 minutes – ended their goal drought when Hughes hooked home as the clock ticked towards injury-time and, having spent virtually all of the contest on the back-foot, Gray’s battlers almost plundered a dramatic last-gasp draw only for Donnelly’s volley to smash against Devlin’s chest.
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Ives, Flynn, Curran, McDaid, M Donnelly, Catney, Winchester, J Donnelly, Cosgrove. Subs: Bonner, Knowles (Curran, 87 mins), Garrett, George (Winchester, 66 mins), Mooney (J Donnelly, 79 mins).
WARRENPOINT: Shanahan, Murphy, Clarke, McVeigh, McDonald, D Hughes, S Hughes, Murray, Dane, M Hughes, Boyle. Subs: McCabe (Murray, 65 mins), Moan (Murphy, 46 mins), Donnelly (Clarke, 77 mins), Breathnach, Flanagan.
REFEREE: Evan Boyce (Ballygowan)