Have a look at who exactly Celtic will face in their UEFA Champions League Qualifier...
Cliftonville play Celtic in the Champions League on Wednesday at Solitude and the media have been quick to jump on historical links between the clubs. Both clubs share huge popularity around the streets of North Belfast where Cliftonville’s Solitude ground is but rather than concentrate on the history, and both clubs do have histories that they can be extremely proud of, I am going to concentrate on the players who got Cliftonville to this point.
Cliftonville are a club heading in the right direction. They aren’t overpaying players and the majority of the players have been brought in at a young age with a lot of potential and the club have developed them and they are now reaping the rewards of this strategy.
The majority of the squad have experience at professional clubs which will help in their approach to this game. There seems to be a real camaraderie among the squad and they coped well under pressure in the league last season so if they can play their own game rather than the reputation of their opponent they might just spring a surprise in at least one of the games.
Let’s take a look at the squad.
Conor Devlin - The ex-Manchester United goalkeeper joined last summer and played a huge part in Cliftonville’s success. His reactions and shot stopping are good enough to succeed at any level. He will be crucial to Cliftonville’s hopes of progressing and certainly has it within him to produce a display to break Celtic hearts.
George McMullan - McMullan is a true Cliftonville legend. He is now entering his testimonial season at Solitude and although most of his career has been as a midfielder he filled in at right-back last year and made a great success of it. He took over the captaincy when Chris Scannell got injured early in the season and led by example throughout the season but it was on the day the league was won that he truly showed what he was made of. With the Reds needing a win to secure the title Cliftonville were awarded a stoppage time penalty. Geordie made no mistake and sent the keeper the wrong way to spark scenes of bedlam amongst the home support.
Ronan Scannell - Another long term Red who despite being 34 years old is still able to get up and down the left flank as well as younger players. He has never made the headlines as much as his older brother, Chris but he has been a great servant to the club and thankfully preseason talk of his retirement turned out to be premature.
Eamonn Seydak - Whilst Ronan Scannell would have been deemed first choice left back last season, he did miss a few games through injury but luckily they had a first class replacement in Seydak. Seydak is a very capable left back and will no doubt continue to push for a regular starting spot.
Tomas Cosgrove - Cosgrove wouldn’t be considered a first team regular but would usually be in the match day squad. He can play right back or right midfield and if he comes on against Celtic his pace could cause problems. He is only 20 years old and has every chance of enjoying a good career with Cliftonville.
Jaimie McGovern - McGovern joined Cliftonville from Glentoran last year and despite playing on the right flank for most of his time at the Oval, Tommy Breslin moved him to centre back and it has really paid off. McGovern would be quite small for a centre back but he has an excellent football brain and although he is the youngest of Cliftonville’s regular back four he is usually the most vocal and shows excellent organisational skills.
Marc Smyth - Smyth spent over a decade in Scotland playing for Ayr, Partick, Airdrie and Morton before coming back to Northern Ireland last summer to play for Cliftonville. Smyth plays as a centre back for the Reds but he has experience of playing in midfield and it often shows in his play. He is as comfortable on the ground as he is in the air and for a team who like to keep the ball on the deck he is an excellent fit.
Ciaran Caldwell - Caldwell is a true example of a utility man. He has played everywhere for Cliftonville including nets. He picked up an injury last year which ruled him out for a few months but he came back into the team and scored some crucial goals in the run in from right midfield.
Chris Curran - Curran has joined this summer from Ballinamallard and is another ex-Manchester United player. He is a highly rated, pacey winger and scored his first Cliftonville goal in a friendly on Saturday. I’m not sure if he will start against Celtic but I would expect he will see some action at some stage in the tie.
Stephen Garrett - Garrett had an excellent season last year and was particularly strong when playing on the left. He has pace to burn and links up very well with the strikers. Garrett is often the out ball for Cliftonville when they are under pressure and he is the one player who will regularly carry the ball forward to ease the pressure on the defence and allow the rest of the midfield to start the passing game in more advanced areas.
Martin Donnelly - Donnelly is a dimunitive winger with a sweet left foot. Technically, he is very good and if he gets the opportunity he could hurt Celtic with his passing and set piece delivery but I would expect he is more likely to start from the bench.
Ryan Catney - Catney had a great season last year in central midfield alongside Barry Johnston. I’m not a big fan of the 4-4-2 formation in modern football but these pair really make it work. When they are not in possession they work extremely hard to put pressure on their opponents, working together to close down the player and reduce his options. It’s not all defensive work though as they can both play football too. Catney would be the more defensive of the two but he still pops up with the odd goal, most notably a fine finish in the League Cup Final at Windsor Park.
Barry Johnston - Johnston is the other half of a Cliftonville centre midfield that steam rolled the Irish League last year. Johnston is tough in the tackle but he is a lot more than just a midfield hard man. He has a good range of passes and is particularly good at moving the ball on quickly which keeps opponents on their toes. Johnston is a massive Celtic fan and will no doubt relish the opportunity to go head to head with his heroes.
Joe McNeill - McNeill is another new signing this summer. He is a local boy who was released by Portadown at the end of last season. He plays in centre midfield and will hopefully fill the void left by James Knowles who moved to Linfield in search of first team football.
Liam Boyce - Boyce is without a doubt the man Celtic need to be wary of as he is an outstanding talent who I believe could play at a much higher level. He had a trial at Celtic a few years ago before signing for Werder Bremen. His time in Germany was short lived but the professional training has helped him develop. Boyce finished last year as top scorer but I would say he is more of a number 10 than a traditional number 9. He can do either job but he is at his best when he is facing the goal and going at defenders. He is a unique talent and one that takes Cliftonville to the next level. From a selfish perspective I hope he stays at Solitude but if anyone deserves another go at the full time game it’s Boyce.
Joe Gormley - Gormley is Boyce’s strike partner and in my opinion he is the best finisher at the club. Boyce is without doubt the best all round player but in terms of finishing Joe Gormley is the man. He seems to carry a natural ability to find the corner of the net from unlikely places and angles which has led to some superb goals. If the game is hard fought with little chances, Cliftonville should hope that when a chance does arrive it falls to Gormley.
Diarmuid O’Carroll - O’Carroll is an ex-Celtic player although he never featured for the first team. He is primarily a striker but in my opinion his best performances have been on the right side of midfield. He has become a bit of a cult hero at Cliftonville and the Reds fans will be hoping he can help them past his former club.
I’ve no doubt Tommy Breslin will have his own ideas on team selection but if I was picking the team I would go with a 4-4-1-1. The back five of Devlin in goal, McMullan at right back, Scannell at left back, McGovern and Smyth at centre back picks itself. In centre midfield Catney and Johnston are both obvious starters. On the wings I would go with pure pace in Curran and Garrett. I would play Boyce in a role between midfield and attack where he drops into midfield when Celtic have possession but he has a free role when Cliftonville have the ball. Up front I would play Gormley as he is the man who will take advantage of any scraps that fall his way.
If the team line up that way I believe it gives Cliftonville their best chance of progressing. Celtic struggle against pace and with Boyce in a free role he could find the wingers in good positions and also arrive late in the box to support Gormley.
It will be a big ask for Cliftonville to beat Celtic over the two legs but they definitely have it within them to get a result in at least one of the ties. I’ve saw Celtic struggle against lower league teams in cup competitions and I genuinely believe Cliftonville could survive in the lower leagues in Scotland.
Cliftonville at their best are a better team than Celtic at their worst but it’s unlikely that Celtic will underestimate them twice. Celtic have some injury problems and Neil Lennon has been talking about the team being a few weeks from their best. Wanyama is a huge loss for Celtic and with Hooper set to leave the last thing Celtic need is to disrespect a team who are playing the biggest game in their history.
Cliftonville are no mugs and will be right up for this one. Celtic won’t have faced a team more motivated to get a result in recent seasons and Neil Lennon and his men would be wise to recognise that fact.