BALLYMENA UNITED 2-0 CARRICK RANGERS 18.2.2017

When Cliftonville exited the League Cup at the Quarter-Final stage in November, it was guaranteed that the League Cup would be leaving North Belfast after residing at Solitude since 2013. When it was announced that Seaview would be the venue for this year’s final, the trophy would be metaphorically and literally leaving North Belfast.

It wouldn’t be leaving too far, a short journey up the motorway to Ballymena or Carrickfergus.

Carrick were hoping that my presence would inspire them. I’ve been something of a good luck charm for them in recent years, being there when they won the Steel and Sons Cup Final, at Seaview funnily enough, in 2014, and for their penultimate game of the season in 2015 against the PSNI, a vital win which set them up for promotion if they won their final game, which they did.

The early minutes saw Ballymena pressure but nothing come of it. Despite that, there was still no opportunity for Carrick to relax. They didn’t help themselves, creating pressure for themselves when a clearance hit one of their own defenders and put them back under pressure. Later on, Brian Neeson punched a corner away, hitting one of his defenders. Fortunately for Carrick, the ball bounced out for another corner.

Allan Jenkins had Ballymena’s first attempt at goal when his header went over. It was Carrick who had the first real chance of the game when TJ Murray fired over from inside the penalty area when unmarked. It wasn’t a clear goalscoring opportunity but he should have done so much better, keep it low and at least make the keeper make a save.

Ross Glendenning was eventually forced into a save from a long range shot from Carrick’s other Murray, Martin. It was one of those saves usually referred to as a “Photographer’s save”. He did get lucky that there were no Carrick players close enough to capitalise on his parry, as he picked up the rebound.

Ballymena’s first real attempt on goal came when Johnny McMurray’s long range shot had to be tipped over by Brian Neeson. McMurray’s next attempt at goal was a snapshot that went just wide.

It looked like being a frustrating evening for Ballymena, until Willie Faulkner ran at Carrick’s defence to create space to get a cross in, which was finished by Allan Jenkins to put Ballymena 1-0 up. For the second successive Saturday, Carrick found themselves going in at half-time to a goal in the final minute of the half.

Carrick, who were set up to win 1-0, now had to win this 2-1.

Carrick actually made a good start to the second-hal, knocking Ballymena off their stride. Despite that, it never looked like an equaliser was inevitible.

There was more frustration for Ballymena when McMurray, Kane and Jenkins all missed chances to score. A 2-0 lead, no matter how long was left would have been enough to secure the trophy. Jenkins miss was the worst of the lot, firing over from close range when, like TJ Murray in the first-half, all he had to do was keep it low and get it on target.

It looked like Ballymena were going to be made to pay for it when a header from a free-kick fell to Adam Salley. He got enough to header it over the onrushing Ross Glendenning, but not enough for the ball to loop in. That was Carrick’s big moment. It never looked like Carrick were going to get another chance like that.

It was another set piece which provided Carrick’s next chance, a low shot from a free-kick teed to Nathan McConnell was saved by Ross Glendinning when it looked like it was going to sneak in.

Unsurprisingly, as the team trailing 1-0, Carrick had a lot of the ball in the final minutes of the game, but Ballymena always looked like holding firm, despite their unusually high amount of goals conceded this season for a team in the top half.

The biggest moment of worry for Ballymena came when TJ Murray went down in the box. I was not far from the incident and didn’t think it was a penalty at the time. Looking back at the incident, i’ve seen them given. If you’re Carrick, you’ll scream for it, if you’re Ballymena, you’d be fuming if it was given against you. It’s a decision that would be easier for the referee to give if the ball was in the middle of the park.

The Ballymena defender did just enough to get his body in the road to stop Murray getting through.

As the game approached injury time, Ballymena got a second on the counter attack when Conor McCloskey was played through and smashed it home from a wide position. It was a goal that deserved to have Alan Partridge commentary.

Carrick’s players were fuming as the game wasn’t stopped in the build-up for TJ Murray to get treatment for an injury sustained in the tackle which won the ball for Ballymena to counter.

For the second successive Saturday, Carrick lost 2-0 as a result of goals in the final minute of each half.

Interesting day in the Glendenning household, with Ross winners medal being trumped by Reece’s hat-trick for Linfield Swifts earlier in the day.

Ballymena fans celebrated their first major trophy since 1989, and now both teams turn their attentions to the rest of the season. Ballymena fans dreaming of Europe either via winning the UEFA Cup Play-Off Final or the Irish Cup. Carrick aren’t dreaming of Europe, but rather Linfield, Glentoran, Ballymena and all the other top flight clubs they will be hoping to visit for League games next season.

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BE MY VALENTINE

New Street Art in Belfast to report, drawn especially for Valentine’s Day, depicting Jamie Dornan in the 50 Shades Of Grey (I don’t what that means but my female friends are fans of this) and the tagline “Be My Valentine”, done by the artist Visual Waste.

This image is on North Street and replaces the Sons Of Anarchy mural which was there previously, but was sadly defaced.

It isn’t the first time that Visual Waste has painted a mural of a man in a mask in Belfast, having previously painted a mural of Zorro at the other end of North Street as part of Belfast Culture Night in 2012.

The work of Visual Waste has been a regular feature on this blog over the past few years, and now he is on the BBC website, featuring in an article on Street Art in Belfast, alongside Emic, Friz and Glen Molloy, all of whom have also appeared on this blog over the past few years.

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LINFIELD 1-1 PORTADOWN 17.2.2017

In the past two years, Linfield’s title challenge has been derailed by defeats to Portadown on a Friday night in February. They avoided a third successive defeat, but it was still a hat-trick of bad results as Linfield commemorated Random Acts Of Kindness Day by gifting Portadown a point, and potentially a third successive title for Crusaders.

The one positive was, that Portadown’s impending relegation means there won’t be any agony against Portadown in February 2018. That, plus INXS were played on the tannoy before the match.

Amongst the crowd at Windsor Park were some Glasgow Warriors fans sat near me making a weekend of their team’s match against Ulster. This, after a group of Dundee Stars fans attended the last Windsor Park game against Ballymena on the same day their team faced Belfast Giants.

It appears that Windsor Park is the go to venue for Scottish sports fans having a weekend in Belfast to see their team.

Even though both teams started slowly, Linfield had the ball in the net in the early minutes when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick but it was disallowed for offside. An early goal was desired for Linfield as they encountered opponents set up to frustrate.

Callacher was having to deal with problems at the other end from Marcio Soares, having a few nervous moments and stray passes.

It was another stray pass, this time from Stephen Lowry, who gifted Portadown their best chance of the night when Marcio Soares was played through and fired straight at Roy Carroll. He really should have scored.

Linfield’s search for the opening goal continued with both Andrew Waterworth and Niall Quinn having shots saved in the same attack.

Towards the end of the half, Waterworth flicked the ball past his man and got to the ball before the goalkeeper, only to see his effort go wide of the post.

Despite their possession, Linfield weren’t doing much with it. Despite the ball being in Portadown’s half, it didn’t look like going into Portadown’s net. It was poor.

David Healy set about doing something about it, bringing on Paul Smyth for Kirk Millar at half-time. Smyth was surprisingly still on the bench after his cameo and goal at Carrick the previous week. The match would take a recurring theme. Linfield trying to get Paul Smyth on the ball and Portadown players trying to cynically foul him.

It wasn’t quite Claudio Caniggia v Cameroon, but it was close. Portadown players did manage to try to recreate the “third time lucky” foul that Cameroon did on Caniggia. Niall Henderson ending up getting a yellow card.

As at any time over the past fifteen months, Linfield are a better attacking force when Smyth is on the pitch and the ball.

As well as cynical fouling, Portadown players were indulging in timewasting. Again, another referee who gestures to tell players to hurry up but doesn’t add the time on. Another mug.

It might sound like a petty thing to raise, but Linfield don’t really help themselves when opponents try to stop the game. With two empty stands and a slope at the end of the pitch, it’s very easy for opposition goalkeepers to timewaste at Windsor Park. Our ballboys should be making sure a new ball is on the pitch as soon as the matchball leaves the field. There was one incident where the ball went into the Railway Stand and the ballboy behind the goal didn’t have a ball and had to go and get the ball that went out. We should be getting our matchday organisation and infrastructure in place to make sure the game doesn’t stop when we are chasing a goal.

No away team comes to Windsor Park to play football. We shouldn’t be facilitating them.

David Healy again turned to his bench, bringing on Ross Gaynor for Niall Quinn as Linfield chased the breakthrough. Gaynor was soon having a shot blocked, as was Stephen Lowry, and then Mark Stafford had a header cleared off the line as frustration began to grow.

Linfield had to be wary of keeping Portadown out at the other end. Marcio Soares got in behind the defence from a goalkeeper’s kick but couldn’t get enough space to set himself up for a clear shot at goal.

Earlier in the game, a Portadown goal might have kickstarted Linfield into life. By this stage, it was too late. Linfield simply had to get the first goal if they were to have any ambition of winning this game.

David Healy then (metaphorically) sacrificed a defender by bringing on Josh Carson for Chris Casement. Casement was a surprise choice at right-back ahead of Sean Ward to cover for the injured Mark Haughey.

Then, came disaster for Linfield, when Portadown went 1-0 up when Sean Mackle dispossessed Jimmy Callacher and did just enough to set up Adam Foley to lob Roy Carroll.

That’s two goals in three games that Callacher could have done better in. I can’t help but wonder if he really is fully fit after going off at Institute a fortnight ago.

As Linfield kicked-off to restart the game, a crossfield pass to Paul Smyth went out of play for a throw. It summed up the night.

Andrew Waterworth had a volley go just wide before Robert Garrett had a great chance to secure the win for Portadown but his shot was saved by Roy Carroll.

To sum up the mood, not even a board to indicate four minutes injury time could raise a roar. One minute into that four, Josh Carson forced home a rebound from close range to make it 1-1. Portadown’s goalkeeper was injured in the incident and required lengthy treatment.

The stoppage killed any momentum Linfield might have had, just when they needed it most. When the game restarted, the correct amount of injury time wasn’t played. It didn’t matter, they didn’t look like getting a second.

This was a game Linfield should have been winning, having beaten Portadown 4-1 and 5-0 this season. They haven’t improved since that 5-0 game in November. If anything, they’ve got worse, if it was possible. You can bet that their defending won’t be as heroic when they play Crusaders next weekend.

Despite our possession and chances, Portadown were never hanging on. Linfield should have had enough over one hundred minutes to beat Portadown.

To compound the misery, Linfield Swifts then showed the First Team how it’s done by beating their Portadown counterparts 9-1.

Crusaders win at Dungannon means they are nine points clear. With Linfield playing Crusaders in April, we need two teams to beat Crusaders. It’s hard to see. Despite writing the book on how to beat Crusaders this season, nobody else in the league seems interested in reading it. Too many teams in this league simply do no believe they can beat Crusaders.

Sadly, it looks like Linfield will be gifting the title to a bunch of hoofers and thugs for the third successive season.

However, there’s no point feeling sorry for ourselves. We must dust ourselves down and continue to get the points on the board just in case, starting at The Oval next weekend.

The future is bright at Windsor Park and we’re on the right track, it’s just taking us a bit longer than expected to get where we want to be, but we’ll get there in the end.

Naturally, with each bad result, there will be analysis of Linfield’s home form. The truth is, it’s no worse than in any of the past four seasons, and it has cost us in each of those four seasons. A statistical analysis can be found here.

Getting settled in the redeveloped Windsor Park was always going to be trial and error. It’s a lot more error than hoped at the moment.

It must be worth the club having a consultation from fans as to what they want from their matchday experience. One suggestion i’d have is to trial having Linfield fans in the Railway Stand. It’s very easy to organise logistically, and has already happened, in a County Antrim Shield tie against Cliftonville in October 2015.

I remember joking that the Coleraine game took place on the wrong day of the week. Linfield have won on every Saturday they’ve played since November 19th. The good news is, the game against Glentoran next weekend will be on a Saturday.

That triggered a little thought in my head, so I decided to dig a little further. Linfield have won only two of their last seven home games on a weekday (excluding Bank Holidays) including all three this season. I’m not sure if that stat serves any relevance.

Meanwhile, this week, saw Northern Ireland announce a friendly against New Zealand at Windsor Park in June. Undecided at the moment, but i’ll probably end up going for the curiousity factor. And yes, i’m aware that they don’t do a haka pre-match. I was hoping for a random friendly at a random EFL ground, like the game against Qatar in Crewe in 2015.

Up next, a trilogy of Belfast derbies. Thankfully, the next two are away from home.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : WORLD SOCCER – NOVEMBER 1998

An expensively assembled team in Sky Blue are featured on the cover of this edition of World Soccer, but it’s not Manchester City, it’s Lazio.

In Jersey, there is an experiment taking place where a referee can move a free-kick forward ten yards if a defending player shows dissent or engages in unsporting behaviour.

In this edition, World Soccer has an article on satellite channels and receivers that can pick up football from around the world. One of those clubs you could watch, is Anderlecht, who get a page feature about their recent downturn in form.

Drugs were a major issue this month, with rumours of failed tests in Serie A being covered up, and one journalist suggesting that referees should be subject to random testing like players.

There is an article based on a quote from Ray Clemence that there are too many foreign goalkeepers in England, looking at the shotstoppers of the twenty Premier League clubs, noting that the two most promising English prospects, Steve Simonsen and Richard Wright, are playing outside the top flight.

Lazio get a four page profile, having spent £70m to try and win the Serie A title. They did manage it in 2000, but not since. One of those player in the expensively assembled sky blue outfit ……. was Roberto Mancini.

Two of those pages are used for an interview with Christian Vieri, who left Lazio the following summer in a big money move, becoming the world’s most expensive player when he signed for Inter Milan.

German football is in crisis with the departure of Berti Vogts as national team manager, and the DFB being rebuffed, for various reasons, in their attempts to appoint Otto Rehhagel, Christoph Daum, Jupp Heynckes, Franz Beckenbauer, Ottmar Hitzfeld, Roy Hodgson and Paul Breitner, before eventually settling on Erich Ribbeck.

Davor Suker, top scorer at the summer’s World Cup gets a double page profile, while Croatia’s Euro 2000 Qualifying opponents, Yugoslavia, get a double page spread.

It’s not just Germany who had a change in manager, the departure of Spain manager Javier Clemente after a 3-2 defeat to Cyprus in their opening Euro 2000 Qualifier got a double page spread. He was immediately replaced by Jose Antonia Camacho.

Across the border in France, Vikash Dhorasoo gets a full page feature, as the most exciting prospect in French football.

Back in Germany, Keir Radnedge reports on the success of the two Munich clubs, currently first and second in the Bundesliga.

In England, Aston Villa are top with an almost all English team (Mark Bosnich from Australia being the only foreigner in their regular starting eleven) and have money to spend following the sale of Dwight Yorke. World Soccer suggest that money could be used to bid on another English player, Andy Cole of Manchester United.

A former manager of Cole, George Graham, has new employment, as manager of Tottenham Hotspur, a move that has divided the club’s fans, given his long association with Arsenal.

In Scotland, Marco Negri is in dispute with Rangers, with manager Dick Advocaat accusing him of lying to the media about his transfer situation.

Northern Ireland’s news is dominated by the resurgence of Linfield and Glentoran, looking to win their first title in 5 and 7 years respectively, but already pulling away from the chasing pack at the top of the table.

Also in dispute with their club like Marco Negri, was future Rangers players Frank and Ronald De Boer, who want to leave for Barcelona.

Bruce Grobbelaar made a comeback of sorts, playing for Zimbabwe at the age of 41, as well as being part of their coaching staff.

Brian Glanville uses his column to question Alex Ferguson’s record in the European Cup and World Cup, in the aftermath of a TV documentary where he referred to Paul Ince as “A big time charlie”

Glanville also uses his column to question the wisdom of those who want Terry Venables to return as England manager following England’s poor start to Euro 2000 qualification.

CARRICK RANGERS 0-2 LINFIELD 11.2.2017

After winning the County Antrim Shield on Tuesday, it was back to the League for Linfield as they travelled to Taylor’s Avenue to take on Carrick Rangers as they aim to keep up the pressure on Crusaders in the title race.

It wasn’t just Carrick that Linfield were up against, it was also the elements, as a constant wind caused problems for Linfield when they attacked into it, causing passes to be either overhit or underhit. Linfield’s players weren’t quite mastering conditions. Niall Quinn was denied an opportunity to set himself up for a shot when the ball held up in the air just as he was setting himself up.

The early minutes was all Linfield pressure. At the same time, it felt like it was a matter of time before Linfield scored, and it felt like a goal would never come, as both Jimmy Callacher and Niall Quinn had close range efforts saved. Quinn’s effort came after a Cameron Stewart shot was saved.

Carrick also had a couple of breaks which caused Linfield’s defence and keeper to have to be on alert.

Already a difficult afternoon because of the weather, it was important for Linfield not to concede during Carrick’s rare attacks. It was already a difficult afternoon, giving Carrick something to hold on to would have made it even more difficult.

Brian Neeson’s save filled afternoon was about to come to a premature end due to injury. With no goalkeeper on the bench, Mark Surgenor went into goals.

Linfield fans knew better than most that an outfield player having to go into goals doesn’t always result in a heavy defeat. Linfield still had to create the chances to score past him.

Those chances didn’t come as Carrick’s defence held firm, as the first-half looked set to end goalless, a first-half which mirrored my only previous visit to Carrick, in August 2015, where Linfield won 3-0 but took a long time to get the breakthrough.

As first-half injury time approached, Linfield got their best opportunity when a penalty was awarded after a Niall Quinn shot was blocked by a Carrick defender’s hand.

Penalties against Carrick have proved problematic in the past two seasons with Aaron Burns (October 2015), Andrew Waterworth (December 2015) and Ross Gaynor (September 2016) all having penalties saved by Brian Neeson.

Neeson wasn’t on the pitch to try and get a quadruple. This penalty incident was to be dominated by men who weren’t on the pitch. As on Tuesday night, with Ross Gaynor and Aaron Burns not on the pitch, it was left to Stephen Lowry to take the kick for Linfield.

Quite how it will be decided who takes the penalty if Linfield are awarded one when all three are on the pitch is anyone’s guess.

Like on Tuesday, Lowry sent the keeper the wrong way, but going to the keeper’s left this time.

It wouldn’t have been a disaster for Linfield to go in 0-0 at half-time, but going in 1-0 was a lot better. It could even have been 2-0, but Cameron Stewart’s headed chance went just wide.

The second-half got off to a slow start. Stephen Lowry had a long range shot go over, while a volley from the edge of the box went just wide.

Mark Stafford had a flick which hit the post while Niall Quinn also hit the post. Even when Mark Surgenor flapped at a cross from Matthew Clarke, he managed to get away with it.

If you were doing text commentary of this match, you could have just cut and pasted the phrase “Linfield should be 2-0 up, ……”

As each minute passed with the score at 1-0, you began to get that horrible feeling that Linfield would be made to pay for their missed chances. Even though Carrick didn’t look like scoring, when there’s only one goal in it, you always have a chance.

You could just see it, a cross that would normally have gone over gets held up in the wind and falls straight to a Carrick player to score.

David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Paul Smyth as he continues his recovery from injury.

Linfield fans horrible premonition almost came through when Roy Carroll had to save a long range shot after a Carrick break.

Linfield tried for the second goal that would make the final minutes more relaxing. Andrew Waterworth thought he was going to get it as he lined up a shot, only for a Carrick defender to get in and block.

Eventually, Linfield got the second goal. Appropriately, it came after two glorious missed chances, Mark Stafford having a header saved and then Cameron Stewart hitting the woodwork from that rebound before Paul Smyth eventually finished.

That was the game won, and some supporters headed for the exits just as injury time started, content that Linfield had the job done.

Without playing fantastic, Linfield were deserved winners. The elements could have been a leveller. Linfield made sure that it wasn’t.

A curious fact was that this was Linfield’s ninth successive away win. Ten if you change the stat to “Games away from Windsor Park” to include neutral matches. The good news is, there are two successive away games coming up after next weekend. The even better news for those who want to save on petrol, is that they are both in Belfast.

Next Friday is a home match against Portadown. Even though Linfield have lost Friday night games to Portadown in the last two years, a third is unthinkable. It’s a game we should be winning and winning comfortably. Wed need to finish a bit better than we did today though.

Between now and the split, Linfield will only face one team in the top half of the table. This represents an excellent opportunity to get points and momentum ahead of the split.

Unfortunately, the gap at the top remains seven points. That might seem like a lot but Crusaders can still be overtaken. They’re more disappointed when we win than we are when they do.

Cliftonville lost today, meaning that Linfield now have a nine point lead from 3rd place, now freeing them to concentrate on overtaking Crusaders, and not have to worry about dropping into 3rd.

While at Taylor’s Avenue, I got a ticket for next weekend’s League Cup Final, meaning I have football matches on Friday and Saturday. It could have been some fun if I had decided to head over for Man United’s UEFA Cup tie against St Etienne on Thursday as well.

Carrick will have a break from League duty next weekend as both clubs try to amass as many points between now and the end of the season for differing reasons. Carrick for the right to be hosting Linfield in the League next season, and Linfield to be able to travel to various grounds as champions.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 8.9.1984

Glenn Hoddle is the main cover star of Match, alongside a British player abroad, Graeme Souness, and a British player with aspirations of playing abroad, Luther Blissett.

As you open the magazine, there is a double page feature on Gordon Cowans, who has ambitions of going to Mexico. Not to play in the Mexican League, but the 1986 World Cup. His feature had the headline “Memo to Bobby Robson, save a World Cup place for Gordon Cowans”

He didn’t go to Mexico.

Having just rejoined Watford for AC Milan, Luther Blissett has stated that he wants to play abroad again. Before Watford fans paniced, he clarified that it was European competition for the Vicarage Road side that he was wanting to play abroad.

Staying with Watford, manager Graham Taylor had put a £2m fee on Maurice Johnston, who has handed in a transfer request.

In Scotland, Hibs and George Best were in trouble with the SFA after Best played for Hibs in Jackie McNamara’s Testimonial, but was unregistered.

Craig Johnston had missed the start of the season for Liverpool in order to be with his wife and soon to born child, his wife having insisted that the child be born in Australia.

Manchester United’s three new signings Jesper Olsen, Gordon Strachan and Alan Brazil are part of a centre page poster, as United look to win the league for the first time since 1967.

As you turn the page, there is a double page feature on Strachan, where he reveals he supports Hibs, and turned down the chance to sign for United in 1971, having already given his word to Dundee.

Staying in Scotland, new Rangers signing Cammy Fraser was introduced to life at Ibrox by manager Jock Wallace ordering to shave off his moustache.

Peter Shreeves, new manager of Tottenham Hotspur, gets a double page spread, insisting he isn’t afraid of the challenge of succeeding Keith Burkinshaw.

Shoot uses star signs to try and predict the future for footballers such as Neville Southall, Kenny Sansom, Glenn Hoddle and Andy Gray.

QPR get a full page feature, with Ian Stewart giving the lowdown on the club.

In news, Mark McGhee begins his career at Hamburg with a suspension, having been sent-off in a pre-season friendly.

Jimmy Greaves received a letter in support of a Great Britain football team. Greaves replies that he agrees with the idea, but that football shouldn’t be in the Olympics.

The highlight of this edition comes in the form of a double page photo of Trevor Francis and Graeme Souness enjoying their new life in Italy, at Sampdoria, out on a boat trip together, all oiled up and dressed in nothing but Speedos. It is an image that cannot be unseen.

Wilf Rostron of Watford tells Shoot who his favourite wingers are : Pat Nevin, John Barnes and Mark Chamberlain.

Ian Rush uses his column to declare that England can be successful by learning from Liverpool, and that Graeme Souness is better than Michel Platini, and will show it in Serie A.

Beside Rush’s column, is a full page report on the recent Charity Shield, where Everton beat Liverpool 2-0, with the headline “Revenge!”, after Liverpool had beaten Everton in the previous season’s League Cup Final.

Bryan Robson uses his column to praise attackers that have recently been on the move – Joe Jordan of Southampton and the Spurs duo of Clive Allen and John Chiedozie.

Charlie Nicholas is prominent towards the end of this issue, telling Shoot he is happy at Arsenal, then appearing in an advert for Nike alongside Glenn Hoddle and Ian Rush.

CRUSADERS 1-3 LINFIELD 7.2.2017

It was the same competition, same venue and the same opponents as the last time Linfield won a trophy in 2014, David Jeffrey’s last as Linfield manager. If you believe in things going full circle, you could say that the Post Jeffrey Era ended, and the David Healy Era truly began. That will be for future historians to decide.

It could be Linfield’s only trophy this season, it could be the first of two. It could even be the first of three. That outcome will decided over the next three months.

The final of the County Antrim Shield isn’t a new experience for Linfield fans, it was the seventh time in nine years they had reached the final of the competition. Mostly, they hadn’t been positive experiences though, only celebrating a win in 2013-2014, their first since 2005-2006, and having to watch opponents lift the trophy in 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2012-2013 and 2015-2016.

There were two names that stood out in the pre-match teamsheets. Colin Coates back for Crusaders after injury and Gareth Deane in goals for Linfield, taking some pundits in the media by surprise (though, there were people sitting behind me in the first-half who were shocked to see Roy Carroll not playing).

It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to see Deane on the pitch, as he had played in every round of the competition so far.

The occasion wouldn’t have overawed him, having played in last season’s Irish Cup Final, and been thrown in against Cliftonville at The Oval, and played at The Oval during the run-in at the end of last season. Despite his lack of games of Linfield, he doesn’t lack big match experience.

Crusaders had the first attack of the game, snuffed out by Matthew Clarke in the full-back position.

Linfield then took control of the game, as Crusaders couldn’t defend a free-kick and had to concede a corner. They couldn’t defend that corner and had to concede another corner.

It was third time lucky for Linfield as Cameron Stewart headed home from the corner. Three was very much the magic number, as the player wearing 3 scored for the third successive match.

Before anyone complains about a Forward wearing 3, we had a Defender wearing 11 for years. Linfield don’t do numerical convention.

It was a unique achievement for Stewart, having scored in the Steel and Sons Cup Final on Christmas Eve, meaning he had scored in both of the County Antrim FA’s showpiece finals in the same season.

I have a lot of useless football stats in my head, but I don’t know if he is the first player to achieve this in the same season or even in a career. Feel free to leave a comment if you know.

Stewart almost had a second soon after but he couldn’t get his head onto a cross. Paul Heatly hit a shot wide at the near post but it was a rare Crusaders attack in the opening minutes.

Kirk Millar had a goalward shot blocked after a corner was cleared before Mark Stafford soon afterwards bundled the ball into the net from close range after a corner to make it 2-0.

It was a pefect start for Linfield. Jamie Mulgrew was running the show. Crusaders players couldn’t even get close to him to cyncially foul him and get a final final final final warning from the referee.

Andrew Waterworth was played through but couldn’t get a clear strike at goal, eventually firing over.

2-0 down, Crusaders responded in the way they know best, with thuggery. Paul “not that kind of player” Heatley got sent-off for elbowing Mark Stafford.

It was his second red card against Linfield, having been sent-off when the sides met at Seaview in April 2014. It would have been his third red card against Linfield if the referee had done his job properly in the final minutes of the League match at Windsor Park in October after his excuse of a tackle on Andrew Waterworth. I’m sure there’s more lucky escapes that i’ve missed.

Things were going perfectly for Linfield. Almost too perfectly.

It looked like Crusaders would be going down to nine men when Howard Beverland grabbed Cameron Stewart after an aerial tussle. The referee booked both players under the “I haven’t a clue so i’ll just book both of them rule”.

Beverland chanced his arm by dragging down Cameron Stewart as he looked to head goalwards. No free-kick was awarded, and within seconds, a long hoof upfield saw Jordan Owens head home.

As good a header as it was, it was unstoppable – going in from the moment it left his left, Jimmy Callacher shouldn’t have been beaten to the ball so easily.

Instead of having a free-kick in an attacking position and facing nine men, Linfield were now pulled back to 2-1.

Linfield had a few wobbly moments after that goal, but there was never a moment when Crusaders looked like equalising.

Defenders didn’t help themselves by passing it back to Gareth Deane’s weaker left foot (after passing it back to Ross Glendenning’s weaker right foot when he was playing for the club – they’ll get it right some day) which resulted in cheap throw-ins being conceded. It was especially dangerous on a pitch as bumpy as the Ballymena Showgrounds was.

Michael Carvill almost made history by being sent-off in two County Antrim Shield Finals, but the referee bottled it after his late challenge on Matthew Clarke when he was already on a yellow card.

Jordan Owens hitting the side-netting was the best moment Crusaders had in the final moments of the first-half. Linfield were more than happy to go in at half-time 2-1 up and have a chance to clear their heads. If they kept their heads in the second-half, they secure the win.

Naturally, Crusaders went out at the start of the second-half in search of an equaliser. They had a lot of the ball, but the best they could offer was a speculative long range shot from David Cushley. This was one of the ninety-nine out of a hundred that fly over the bar.

Jamie Mulgrew also fired over as he ran goalwards, continuing where he left off in the first-half. Andrew Waterworth and Cameron Stewart both had chances to kill off the game as Linfield searched for that third goal that would clinch the game.

They had a glorious chance when Sean O’Neill misjudged the ball as he tried to shepherd it out for a goal kick, pulling back Andrew Waterworth as he tried to put the ball in the net, before Howard Beverland lunged in an fouled him. Take your pick as to which foul the penalty was awarded for.

And yet, there was still no second yellow card for Beverland. If you’re partial to a bet, stick some money on Michael Carvill or Howard Beverland to score the winner for Crusaders on Saturday. Free money.

With Ross Gaynor and Aaron Burns not on the pitch, all eyes were on who would take the penalty for Linfield. It was Stephen Lowry, who made no mistake, to make it 3-1.

That was it, game won for Linfield. Crusaders barely looked like scoring at 2-1, they were never going to come back at 3-1.

Things got even better for Linfield, with Paul Smyth now being introduced from the bench after missing two months through injury, and he picked up where he left off, running at Crusaders defence, causing them panic. Just like Jamie Mulgrew, they couldn’t get close enough to kick him.

Before the final whistle, there was still time for one more act of thuggery, as Jordan Owens barged Jimmy Callacher from the touchline onto the tarmac at the side of the pitch. There’s nothing Crusaders players specialise in more than a barge on the touchline designed to cause injury.

During the final minutes, Linfield continued to attack as they sought a 4-1 lead that would not have flattered them.

Linfield sent out a message to the rest of the league. Not about their own capabilities, but that Crusaders can be beaten if you stand up to them. Crusaders seven point lead has been partly due to too many teams not believing that they can beat them.

That attempt to overtake them will continue at Carrick on Saturday. Hopefully, another road trip as productive as the ones to Dungannon, Drumahoe and Ballymena over the past ten days.

Photo Album

 

SAY CHEESE!!

I was going to call this “Northern Ireland Election Trends Volume 1”, but then I realised that would put me under pressure to do a Volume 2.

You’ve got Social Media to thank for this bizarre trend, as it now seems to be a constitutional rule that you must post a picture of yourself outside an Electoral Office just after handing in your Nomination Forms.

If you don’t, you’re automatically disqualified.

Don’t forget, there are bonus points on offer if you #use a #slogan in a #hashtag when #posting your #tweet

You may noticed a lack of selfies. That is because Selfie Sticks were decommissioned as part of the Fresh Start agreement in 2015.

Pat Catney of SDLP didn’t get the memo and decided to post his election poster instead.

Independent candidate Corey French went against the trend by having a video of him outside his local Electoral Office.

You may notice that Clare Bailey is the only Belfast candidate to actually stand in front of the door of the Belfast office. Minus points for DUP and Sinn Fein for using St Anne’s Cathedra as a background.

I’ve tried to be fair and include all parties, but I couldn’t find anything for People Before Profit. They’re obviously too Socialist for any such nonsense.

So, what’s next for Northern Ireland Election Trends? I’m guessing it will be the “Canvass Selfies” where they smile after getting a “Positive response on the doorsteps”.