LINFIELD 5-1 DUNGANNON SWIFTS 15.8.2015

After the strange feeling of winning their first two games of the season (Linfield were unbeaten after two games for only the second time since 2009), Linfield welcomed Dungannon Swifts to Windsor Park hoping to make it three out of three.

The omens were good. Dungannon have never won a a league game at Windsor Park, they hadn’t scored in their last four games against Linfield, and had lost their last eleven successive visits to Windsor Park in the league. It all pointed to a home win.

Football isn’t played on paper, and Dungannon didn’t play like a team looking for their first win of the season at a ground they have a poor record at. They were more then holding their own.

Linfield were slow to get going. They were able to get the ball behind Dungannon’s defence, but neither Bates or Waterworth could get there before Dungannon’s keeper.

It was Dungannon who had the best moment of the early stages, when Matthew Clarke was forced to clear a goalbound shot off his own line.

Linfield’s best moment came when Andrew Waterworth had an attempt on goal, but dragged his shot wide.

Eventually, Linfield scored, and it came from the man of the moment, Aaron Burns, when he fired home from close range after the ball bounced around the penalty area. The third successive game that Linfield have scored from a Kirk Millar corner.

Having played so well so far, it was interesting to see how Dungannon would react to going 1-0 down. Unfortunately for Linfield, they carried on as they were.

They should have scored when Paul McElroy fired over from close range, and almost scored when David Armstrong had a header cleared off the line.

It was clear Linfield needed a second goal to kill this game off. They almost got it close to half-time when Stephen Lowry was able to get himself into a shooting position, but his shot went just wide.

Within the first 60 seconds of the second-half, it was Dungannon who equalised, as a free-kick was headed home by David Armstrong.

It was a deserved equaliser for Dungannon. The only positive for Linfield was, they had 44 minutes to rectify the situation.

There wasn’t an immediate response from Linfield, some possession but no chances.

Within minutes, the game swung decisively in their favour when David Armstrong got a second yellow card for a foul on Andrew Waterworth on the halfway line.

Before Dungannon were able to reshape their delpeted defence, Kirk Millar broke free out wide to tee up Andrew Waterworth to fire home from close range

Millar was now getting a lot of space. So were Linfield.

2-1 up against ten men, there was only going to be one winner. Linfield kept a lot of the ball but couldn’t make it 3-1 to kill the game off. Kirk Millar had the best moment when he missed from six yards out.

As the final ten moments approach, Dungannon made Linfield nervous for a few minutes when they had a short narrowly wide and a succession of corners.

Soon afterwards, the nerves were gone, as Andrew Waterworth fired him when a stray shot came into his direction. There was no way Dungannon were going to come back from this.

Adam Salley was introduced, and was involved in the 4th goal, setting up the pass that eventually found it’s way to Andrew Waterworth for him to head home from close range for his hat-trick.

It was his 3rd hat-trick for Linfield. The other two (against Ballymena and Warrenpoint) I had missed due to being out of the country. So it was good for me to finally witness one in the flesh.

In the final moments, Adam Salley got on the end of a cross to head home from close range. He’s had very little time in his three appearances, especially coming on when the game was won the the attacking wasn’t as intense.

It’s good for him to be getting minutes and goals, so that he can be even more ready if he is to start, or come off the bench when the game is up for grabs.

It was probably a harsh scorline on Dungannon, but it was a game that Linfield deserved to win.

Three wins from three. Despite them being games you would expect to win, it’s still good to get the points on the board.

Three games in, the league table is already taking shape, with Linfield and Cliftonville pulling away, then Glenavon and Portadown just behind. Two good results or two bad results at this time of year can dramatically change everything.

Up next, is a trip to Coleraine. It’s a game I won’t be at, as i’ll be foresaking Northern Ireland’s leaders for Scotland’s leaders.

I’m on my annual trip to Edinburgh for the Festival, but i’ll be taking in some football, including Hearts v Partick.

Hopefully when I arrive at Windsor Park for my next Linfield match, against Portadown in two weeks, i’ll be watching a team with four wins out or four.

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CARRICK RANGERS 0-3 LINFIELD 12.8.2015

For he first time in 20 years, top flight football returned to Carrickfergus, as Carrick Rangers hosted Linfield at Taylor’s Avenue in their first home match of the season.

It should have been Carrick’s first top flight game at Taylor’s Avenue (Or, if you prefer, Belfast Loughtshore Hotel Arena) since 2012, but Carrick were unable to play their home games there during their last top flight season in 2011-2012, meaning I was making my first visit to the ground four years later than i’d hoped.

When choosing an early season fixture list, an away game against a newly promoted team in the first month isn’t ideal. Linfield found that out last season when they were held to a draw at Institute.

Even in England, Manchester United (v Burnley, 2009) and Manchester City (v Cardiff, 2013) have found a newly promoted away in the second game of the season to be a difficult proposition. This game was going to be a lot tougher for Linfield than some people may think.

It was a rip roaring start to the game with tackles flying in. There were more tackles than chances though, mainly because of the tackles.

Carrick didn’t help themselves, as some careless pass gave Linfield possession in the final third, but Carrick were able to get bodies behind the ball to frustrate Linfield.

There were personal battles all over the pitch, with Guy Bates enjoying taking on each one of Carrick’s defence.

Bates would also be going head to head with Carrick goalkeeper Brian Neeson in the first-half, with Neeson winning both battles, saving a close range shot, and then shot from 12 yards after a pull back.

Carrick had moments going forward, but never looked like scoring. Miguel Chines looked like he was getting in behind Linfield’s defence, but wasn’t able to control the ball and the opportunity was gone.

Anytime Carrick went forward, the attack was stopped by either Mark Haughey or Chris Hegarty. Hegarty struggled for form and fitness last season, but had one of his best performances for the club during the first-half.

As the half ended, it was all Linfield. Linfield got a lot of joy from long throws. It’s not Total Football, but Carrick were struggling to defend them, and Linfield were hoping to ruthlessly take advantage of it. The closest they came was when a flick on hit the woodwork.

Carrick were able to hold out for the first 45 minutes. Most of the crowd in Taylor’s Avenue doubted they would be able to hold out for 90.

The second-half took a while to get going, but once again Linfield took control. Once again, it was Guy Bates being denied by Brian Neeson. It was an instinctive header, but he will still be disappointed with it.

At least he was getting into the box to miss the chances. Far too many times last season, Linfield attacks came to an end simply because of a lack of bodies making a run into the box.

On 66 minutes, Linfield got the breakthrough when a Kirk Millar corner was headed home by Stephen Lowry.

Now in the lead, Linfield were liberated and began to strut their stuff. Within a minute, Guy Bates was able to get in behind Carrick’s defence and play the ball across the six yard box for Aaron Burns to fire home from close range.

The game was won, Carrick didn’t look like getting one that would make the game nervous, never mind the two they needed to get a draw.

Soon after, Kirk Millar rounded off a fine individual performance with a goal to make it 3-0.

Millar has been Linfield’s main attacking performer in the two league games this season. This time last year, I predicted he would be Linfield’s Player Of The Season.

I got that wrong, but hopefully he can kick on from this start better than he did last season.

Let’s hope Warren Feeney finds himself in a situation where he’s having to choose two from Burns, Clarke and Millar, as two of them on form and one on the bench desperate to show what he can do is an exciting prospect.

Once Linfield were 3-0 up, the game naturally fizzled out, though Carrick had a few strikes at goal but never looked like scoring.

Like on Saturday, Linfield took the opportunity to introduced Adam Salley.

With the game won, the attacking wasn’t as intense as it was at 0-0, so he didn’t get the chance to show what he can do. All he had to do was simple stuff, but he did it well.

In the opening two games of the last three season, Linfield only won one of those six games, and had already suffered a defeat within the first two games in each of the last three season, and five of the previous six seasons.

Even though some of David Jeffrey’s title wins came as a result of recovering from a poor start, it’s not ideal to be chasing before August is over, so six points out of six is not to be sniffed at, even if they have come from games Linfield are expected to win.

Biggeer tests will come, so it’s good to get as many points on the board before they come. Hopefully, three more will be added after Saturday’s home match against Dungannon Swifts.

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LINFIELD 4-0 BALLYMENA UNITED 8.8.2015

The 2015-2016 Irish League season began today. For Linfield, it was a game against Ballymena United. It was a double rarity, a home game (last opening day one was 2010) and a win (last opening day win was 2011)

Linfield had a lot of possession early one, but nothing really noteworthy. As the minutes passed, they became more and more in control of the game.

Ballymena were set up to get bodies behind the ball and break quickly, though they never had an opportunity to advance in Linfield’s defensive third.

The developing partnership between Guy Bates and Andrew Waterworth was clear for all to see, holding up the ball and causing panic for Ballymena’s defence.

If they weren’t getting in behind them or being on the end of a chance, they were setting it up for someone else.

Waterworth got through on goal but couldn’t get into a clear position, and dragged his shot wide.

Given Linfield’s pressure, a goal was inevitible. If it didn’t come in the first-half, it would have come at some point in the second-half. Put simply, there was only going to be one winner.

Linfield took the lead on 35 minutes when Aaron Burns headed home from a corner. The bonus for me is, that Aaron Burns is in my Sunday Life Fantasy League team.

As the half neared it’s end, Burns got his second when Stephen Lowry was played through on the byline. He wasn’t going to score, but he manager to put the ball past Alan Blayney into the six yard box for Aaron Burns to run in and fire home.

Inbetween those two Burns goals, Ross Glendenning was forced to make a save from a Neil Gawley header.

That wasn’t the end of the first-half action, as Jim Ervin attempted a Nayim style lob (albeit, from closer in), but thankfully, Glendenning fared a bit better than David Seaman, and tipped it over the bar.

David Cushley had a shot easily saved by Glendenning in the opening moments of the second-half, but that was all Ballymena offered, as the story of the half was Linfield headers going just wide and Ballymena players getting booked for cynical fouls.

There was one worrying moment for Linfield when Glendenning was forced to save from Cushley outside the box. At the time, I thought it was a possible handball, though watching it back on Final Score suggested that it his head, and the referee made the correct decision by waving play on.

Soon after, there was a red card, as Jim Ervin went for a Professional Foul on Guy Bates. Niall Quinn’s shot from the resulting free-kick forced Alan Blayney into a save.

Soon after, it was 3-0, as Andrew Waterworth fired home from close range after Stephen Lowry nodded to ball to him.

With the game, Warren Feeney took the opportunity to introduce youngsters Adam Sally and TJ Murray.

Sally fluffed a shot with his first touch, but the resulting play saw him pluck up the confidence to shoot from outside the box, which went wide but gave Blayney cause for concern.

Salley only had a lot of build-up play to do, but what he did, he did well..

In Injury Time, Reece Glendenning scored from one yard out after a Stephen Lowry free-kick hit the post.

As the final whistle blew, Linfield found themselves top of the league after 1 match, the position they want to be in after 38 games. As a bonus, already three points ahead of Crusaders and Glentoran.

No time to revel in the glory, as an away game to Carrick Rangers awaits, their first top flight game at Taylor’s Avenue (or, Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena, if you prefer) since 1995.

It will also be my first visit there, so i’m looking forward to that.

Later in the month, i’m going to Edinburgh, primarily for the Comedy Festival, but i’m going to take the opportunity to see some football at Hearts, Rangers and Dunfermline.

It’s great that the football season is finally up and running.

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THE FRIDAY FIVE – 7.8.2015

1. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Lock All The Doors
2. OMD – Enola Gay
3. Delta Goodrem – Wings
4. Dennis Waterman – I Could Be So Good For You
5. Florence and the Machine – Queen Of Peace

THE FRIDAY FIVE – 31.7.2015

1. Chemical Brothers – Go
2. Sunset Sons – She Wants
3. Hidden Cities ft Tim Halperin – Hungry Like The Wolf
4. New Order – Restless
5. Andreya Trian – Gold

Tomorrow, is International Yorkshire Day. So, to celebrate, here’s a musical chart from Yorkshire’s musical output.

FIVE SONGS BY ACTS FROM YORKSHIRE

1. Pulp – A Little Soul
2. Kaiser Chiefs – Oh My God
3. Kiki Dee – Star
4. Def Leppard – When Love And Hate Collide
5. Human League – Tell Me When

LINFIELD 1-3 SPARTAK TRNAVA 23.7.2015

Linfield hosted Spartak Trnava at Windsor Park aiming to overcome a 2-1 first leg defecit, and in doing so, reach the 3rd Round of the UEFA Cup, something they had narrowly failed to do in the previous two seasons.

Supporters arriving in the North Stand will have noted new seats, both in design and colour, as the North Stand is now synced to look like the Railway Stand and South Stand, as the redevelopment of Windsor Park gathers pace.

There was a slow start to the game, with not a lot happening in the early moments. As the half went on, Spartak Trnava were nervous in defence. So nervouse, that their defenders were Linfield’s best attacking outlet at times.

Aaron Burns intercepted a loose pass, running down the wing, but Trnava were able to clear the cross. It was a sign of encouragement for Linfield.

Frequently during the half, Trnava gave the ball away and lost soft tackles. They were giving Linfield a lot of the ball, but not a lot of clear scoring opportunities.

Guy Bates was causing problems for an already nervous Trnava defence, forcing them into mistakes and conceding cheap throws and possession.

There was a penalty shout when Bates went down in a tussle with a defender. I didn’t get a clear view of it. The referee said no.

Stephen Lowry had a shot at goal, created by Bates, which hit the post, a Trnava player, and landed straight in the goalkeeper’s arms.

Lowry had better luck later on when he fired home in the penalty area after a scramble. Linfield now had the lead on away goals.

Linfield were the better team in the first-half without dominating. All they had to do now was hold out for 45 minutes.

Trnava didn’t offer much in the first-half. Most of their attacks came down their right, which Linfield managed to deal with. Their best chance came when a header was well saved by Ross Glendinning.

Trnava were on the attack immediately in the second-half, it was a sign of intent, that this would be a different team Linfield would be facing.

Linfield needed to keep it 1-0 for as long as possible and frustrate Trnava. They weren’t able to, as a strike from outside the box made it 1-1 on 53 minutes.

It didn’t change a lot in the tie, if Linfield made it 2-1 the tie would have gone to extra-time, but it swung the momentum in Trnava’s favour.

Linfield were shellshocked, but managed to recover to have some attacks, one of which brought a goal. Unfortunately, it came for Trnava.

A defensive header denied a certain Linfield goal, Trnava counter-attacked and scored within seconds.

It’s easy to say that Stephen Lowry should have fouled his opponent with hindsight. If he did, people would have complained about him picking up a soft foul on the by-line of the halfway-line.

In truth, it wasn’t Lowry not fouling that was the cause of Trnava’s second goal, it was the pace and power of the run. When he was one on one with only Glendinning to beat.

From being hopeless in defence to ruthless in attack in the space of 15 minutes. Trnava dealt Linfield a harsh lesson.

Trnava hit the post a couple of times soon afterwards and showed their class in attack. The tie was over, Linfield were now crying to hang in there and avoid a thrashing.

Linfield had a chance to equalise when a Trnava offside trap from a free-kick failed, allowing Chris Hegarty to be through on goal. He didn’t realise it, and his cross was behind the two strikers running in.

Soon after, there was a Trnava red card for a second yellow. Nobody in Windsor Park believed that Linfield could use the one man advantage to get the 3 goals that would send them through.

Trnava made sure of the tie with 10 minutes remaining, when they passed Linfeld to death, breaking through Linfield’s defence, before an attacking player rolled the ball into an empty net.

For all their good attacking play, Trnava were suspect in defence. Their goalkeeper flapped a high ball to present Aaron Burns with a half-chance, but they managed to get bodies in the way.

Ross Clarke got in behind their defence but fired over when clean through.

After that, the game fizzled out and reached it’s inevitible conclusion.

Linfield didn’t push Trnava as far as they pushed Xanthi and AIK, but it’s still frustrating having been 45 minutes away from glory.

Trnava gave Linfield a lesson on why you need to be ruthless in front of goal.

Now Linfield’s attention turns to domestic matters, and the visit of Ballymena United to Windsor Park on 8th August.

The day before the match, I received some good news in the form of an e-mail informing my that my application for Euro 2016 tickets was partially successful, getting a ticket for a Group E match in Stade De France on 13th June from the 3 matches I applied for.

To say i’m delighted is an understatement.

This weekend sees the draw for the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers. Of the top seeds, i’m hoping for an away match against England on a Sunday night in March 2017. A weekend in London, see a League One or League Two match before going to Wembley.

If not England, then Wales. Same again, away match on a Sunday night in March 2017. Assuming it’s in Cardiff, go to see Newport County, Bristol Rovers or Bristol City (if they get relegated) on the Saturday.

So Linfield’s European bid ends with yet another heroic defeat. Here’s hoping that next season’s heroic exit is in the European Cup rather than the UEFA Cup.

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