The New Saints’ last friendly before their Champions League Second Qualifying Round first leg against SK Slovan Bratislava saw them make it three wins out of three as they won 1-0 away to Danske Bank Irish League champions Cliftonville in an entertaining game at Solitude on Saturday.
Cliftonville had gone into the game on the back of a 5-0 home win over Ards in their opening friendly in midweek as they began the build-up to their own Champions League tie with Hungarian champions Debrecen.
Indeed, it was the Belfast hosts who dominated much of the game and the first of their many chances came in the 15th minute when Barry Johnston’s pass found Johnny McMurray who forced a great save from Saints keeper Chris Mullock.
A rare foray for Saints came soon after when Cliftonville keeper Conor Devlin raced out of his area to complete a clearance and after the ball had fallen to Alex Darlington, the Saints striker’s effort was dealt with by defender Jaimie McGovern.
Cliftonville went close again in the 33rd minute when Joe Gormley’s volley bounced just wide of the post. Saints’ Mike Wilde was unlucky with a header just before the break, while Chris Curran was similarly off target at the other end with a hooked volley at the far post as the teams went into half time with the score still blank.
Mullock again demonstrated fine reflexes after the break to claw Martin Donnelly’s deflected effort behind for a corner.
The hosts went close again when Mullock failed to deal with a high ball inside the box and the ball fell to sub George McMullan, whose stinging half volley crashed off Saints defender Steve Evans and off the underside of the bar before the ball rebounded away to safety.
The hosts went close to breaking the deadlock again when sub Martin Murray’s arrowed cross found fellow sub Jay Donnelly who was unable to make contact with the ball.
Cliftonville continued to press and they went close when sub Jude Winchester’s through ball had left McMullan in a threatening position but Evans was once again the last line of defence and averted the danger.
The hosts brought on a number of youngsters but still managed to continue to boss the play and they went agonisingly close again when Tomas Cosgrove’s cross found Gormley, whose initial shot was charged down by Evans before the rebound fell to Gormley whose shot was blocked by Connell Rawlinson.
Soon after, another cross from Cosgrove found Jay Donnelly whose header brought a fingertip save by Mullock which went unseen by the match officials, who awarded a goal kick instead of a corner.
Then in the 81st minute in their next attack, Saints almost inevitably took the lead when a corner from sub Chris Marriott found Rawlinson who rose highest to head past sub keeper Ryan Brown.
Cliftonville went close to grabbing an equaliser with seconds remaining when McMullan flashed a half volley just inches over the bar. However, Saints had held out to record their 3rd 1-0 win in 3 visits to Solitude to leave themselves in good heart ahead of next weeks Champions League 1st Leg trip to Bratislava.
Cliftonville: Conor Devlin, Jamie McGovern, Barry Johnston, Johnny Flynn, Tomas Cosgrove, Chris Curran, Joe Gormley, Martin Donnelly, Eamonn Seydak, Ryan Catney, Johnny McMurray. Subs: Ryan Brown (GK) (for Devlin), Ronan Scannell (for Seydak), George McMullan (for Johnston), Jude Winchester (for McMurray), Martin Murray (for Curran), Gerard Reynolds (for Flynn), Conall NcGrandles (for Catney), Jay Donnelly (for Martin Donnelly).
Saints: Chris Mullock, Simon Spender, Phil Baker, Steve Evans, Ryan Fraughan, Chris Seargeant, Connell Rawlinson, Ryan Edwards, Mike Wilde, Alex Darlington, Luke Douglas. Subs listed: Paul Harrison, Chris Marriott, Kai Edwards, Sam Finley, Greg Draper, Matty Williams, Scott Quigley, Aeron Edwards, Ryan Kershaw, Ryan Pryce.
Match report by David Figg.