This weekend Sky Sports offered up something a bit different, something it hasn’t seen for a while. Irish League Football. A recently forged deal has seen Sky pick up coverage of five Irish League matches a season and also the League Cup Final – which incidentally is the following day.
The first game on offer was one of many Belfast derby matches, this time it was Cliftonville taking on East Belfast Glentoran. The setting was Solitude, the North Belfast home of Cliftonville. There would be no late pitch inspection as Solitude boasts a Synthetic 3G pitch – the bane of amateur and five a side footballers alike, I have washed those little black rubber pellets out of places I wouldn’t even care to name after a sliding tackle.
Cliftonville, The Reds, are Ireland’s oldest club. After a 14 season spell since their last league title win Cliftonville enjoyed consecutive titles over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Most notably in recent years they’ve brought through a number of quality players, both from their own academy and signed from local amateur sides. Most notably Liam Boyce (brief spell at Werder Bremen before a return and subsequent departure for Ross County), Rory Donnelly (moved on to Swansea before later signing for Gillingham) and Joe Gormley (a move to Peterborough was blighted by a serious knee injury, he will return to Cliftonville at the end of the season).
Glentoran, The Glens, are one of the league’s so called “Big Two” along with Linfield. The good times have since rolled on and the club is facing hard times on and off the pitch. Well publicised financial troubles have led to slashed wage budgets. Two Irish Cup victories in the last four seasons has buoyed supporters but their thirst for a return to the halcyon days gone by cannot be quenched by the odd cup win. This season they made the high profile signing of ex-Rangers player Nacho Novo although he didn’t feature in the squad for this fixture. An interesting note: you may be aware of Glentoran from the famous Matty Burrows goal against Portadown that saw him shortlisted for the 2010 Puskás Award alongside players like Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Before a ball was even kicked there was a disappointment for Glentoran as Marcus Kane picked up an injury in the pre-match warm up.
The match was well contested from the off, Cliftonville were keen to impose their attractive style of football with short passing and a focus on possession. Glentoran seemed more comfortable with the direct approach in moving the ball forward at the quickest opportunity.
The breakthrough arrived on 15 minutes when a well-aimed ball in from the left wing was headed goalward by Glentoran’s Curtis Allen. Reds ‘keeper Burke pulled off a save from close range by was powerless to stop the rebound as Glentoran took the 1-0 lead. In a spell of dominance over the next 15 minutes Glentoran kept up the counter attacks and went close a further three times, the worst offence from Jonathan Smith who should have pulled the ball back for the two Glens players lying in wait but instead opted to shoot from far too tight an angle.
Cliftonville began to pull themselves back into the game only to be denied by Glentoran ‘keeper Elliott Morris. The Reds ended the first half strongly as midfielder Chris Curran began to pull the strings with forward Jay Donnelly looking very lively.
The second half began and Cliftonville came firing out of the blocks, it felt like Glentoran were still jogging out of the tunnel. Cliftonville pressed and pressed but it wasn’t until 60 minutes that they found the key to unlock the door. Ironically the equalising goal came from a piece of play that contrasted their style of play to this point. A long ball from winger Marty Donnelly found the run of Jay Donnelly who slipped in behind the Glentoran defence. Jay Donnelly controlled it well before laying the ball back to the onrushing Daniel Hughes who fired beyond Elliott Morris to bring the score to 1-1.
Cliftonville continued their pursuit of a winner but were thwarted again on several occasions by Morris, the Glentoran stopper. The game finished 1-1 which will have left both sides ruing missed chances but Glentoran will certainly be the happier side with that point after Cliftonville’s strong second half display.
This result provides another dampner for Glentoran’s hopes of reaching the convoluted Europa League Qualification stage in the league. Results elsewhere mean this result isn’t as damaging as it could have been for Cliftonville’s hopes of an automatic Europa League Qualification spot but nevertheless they remain 9 points behind second placed Linfield with nine games to play in the league (4 games pre league split).
The Sky deal provides a nice opportunity for the league to reach a wider audience. Irish League fans often pride themselves on watching a brand of ‘real football’ not spoiled by the megabuck TV and Sponsorship deals that we see across many of Europe’s top leagues. Granted the standard of football somewhat reflects the money involved but it’s heart-warming to see your local side being broadcast throughout the country and across the sea.