Just over 48 hours after departing Fermanagh, it was another road trip for Linfield, though not as far, to North Belfast, for a top of the table clash with Crusaders in a rearranged game, postponed a few weeks back due to international call-ups.
A win for either side would have sent out a statement of intent, as we are one matchday away from everybody playing each other. Crusaders could have went three points clear, and four ahead of Linfield and six clear of Cliftonville.
For Linfield, the prize on offer was to go top for the first time this season.
There wasn’t much in the way of early chances. Jonathan Tuffey was forced into a Schmeichel style starfish save, though it wasn’t a clear strike, while Ross Clarke went on a Maradona-esque run before being dispossessed as he entered the Crusaders penalty area.
Midway through the first-half, Crusaders took the lead. It was a poor goal for Linfield to concede. A quick Crusaders free-kick went out left, Linfield players not being quick to react to stop the cross.
Even then, Jordan Owens shouldn’t have been able to win the header to set up Paul Heatley. It was a good finish though.
For the next few minutes, Linfield looked shaky. It looked like being a repeat of other bad performances against Crusaders in recent years.
Bad habits started to creep in. Tackles were lapped, and long passes were played straight to Colin Coates head.
Thankfully, Linfield got a response within minutes, when Andrew Waterworth finished from close range after an Aaron Burns shot fell his way. Crusaders advantage quickly wiped out.
Soon after, Crusaders went back in front, as Sean Ward was beaten to the ball by Gavin Whyte, who ran though and fired past Tuffey.
Though Ward wasn’t entirely blameless in the episode, big questions once again surround Jonathan Tuffey.
I’m not one for scapegoating, but he cost six points last season (v Crusaders, Ards, Portadown at home) and had some ropey moments at Dungannon already this season. It wasn’t just the points cost, it was the momentum lost.
With Crusaders conceding at least 2 in 6 of their 9 games going to this, the game wasn’t over for Linfield, who could easily have been facing 10 men after Declan Caddell was booked for an incident with Aaron Burns, and elbowed the same player in the early moments.
Linfield started the second-half strong and had an Andrew Waterworth goal ruled out for offside. It only galvanised the Linfield support, situated in the Shore Road End the side was attacking.
Soon after, the equaliser came, when a clearance hit Michael Carvill and went in. A lucky goal, but you make your own luck. Carvill went into the penalty area to get on the end of a cross, and got rewarded, albeit in unorthodox fashion.
For a period after that, Linfield got on top and looked like taking the lead for the first time, before the game levelled out.
As the game entered the final stages, Paul “Not that kind of player” Heatley was lucky to avoid a second yellow card for a foul on Sean Ward. If he wasn’t already booked, he would have been booked.
In short, the referee bottled it.
As the game went into injury time, Crusaders had a late flurry, mostly from free-kicks and corners stupidly conceded by Linfield.
As each dead ball was being lined up, I had a horrible vision of a self inflicted 3-2 defeat. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.
Obviously, a win would have been great, but a draw isn’t the worst result, as it seed Linfield one point off the top, having almost played everybody.
Having led twice and missed the chance to go three points clear at the top, and further away from Linfield and Cliftonville, it’s Crusaders who will be ruing the result more.
The only disappointment from last night, was a lack of subs. In my own opinion, Mulgrew for Burns and/or Millar for Clarke could have injected some energy in the final stages that could have seen Linfield just get over the line.
Currently 4th, but level with 2 other teams, Saturday offers a chance for Linfield to blast through some of the early season traffic, as 3rd place Ballymena United come to Windsor Park.
A win is essential, especially with Crusaders playing Cliftonville. Whatever the result, one (hopefully both) of our rivals will be dropping points. Even more important with everybody else playing before Linfield face Institute in a rearranged Monday night game.
Then the fun begins – Cliftonville, Crusaders, Glenavon and Glentoran in the five games after that. Some big games to look forward to. Time to stand up to the challenge.