Having taken 12 games to get to the top of the league, Linfield faced an immediate test as Cliftonville came to Windsor Park.
Three points behind Linfield at kick-off, Cliftonville knew a win would take them above Linfield, while Linfield could go six points clear of Cliftonville, a significant lead, even at this stage of the season.
Three times last season Linfield went into games against Cliftonville with decisive leads. Three times Linfield lost and allowed Cliftonvile to close the game or overtake Linfield at the top. It was ultimately what decided the title.
In the opening minutes, both teams, to use a pundits cliche, “felt each other out” before Linfield took control, creating openings, or having openings created for them by Cliftonville, who looked defensive suspect when put under pressure.
Linfield got the lead on 14 minutes when Lowry and Carvill tried to pass through Cliftonville’s defence before the ball bounced to Aaron Burns, whose soft header to Andrew Waterworth, who volleyed home.
It was Waterworth’s third goal in four games. It looks as though his season is finally kickstarting.
In the four league games last season, Linfield didn’t take the lead against Cliftonville.
More chances came for Linfield, Michael Carvill unable to head home from a cross, and Ivan Sproule firing over from close range when he should have scored.
It was Sproule’s only involvement in the first-half, mainly due to most of Linfield’s play coming through Ross Clarke.
Towards the end of the half, Cliftonville came more into the game, but didn’t create much of note.
On 43 minutes, they got an equaliser, when short passing set up Jude Winchester to fire home from close range.
Seconds earlier, a free-kick was cleared out wide. From that position, you shouldn’t really been conceding.
Even more frustrating, when other half-time scores came through (Crusaders and Portadown losing) and were all in Linfield’s favour.
An excellent first-half performance ruined by conceding right at the end. Time to start again.
Except, that Linfield didn’t start at all in the second-half, with Cliftonville going 2-1 up in the opening minutes when David McDaid fired home from close range.
Looking around in the immediate aftermath of the goal, it was disturbing to see the number of players with their heads down, and nobody trying the gee them up or raise spirits.
It’s not as if it was the first time Linfield had gone behind this season, or even, in recent weeks.
Most damming was the lack of options on the bench, showing how much of a miss Peter Thompson is, and how vital it was to get another striker before the transfer deadline.
Kirk Millar, a player I am a big fan of, came on for Ivan Sproule, and was awful.
Sammy Morrow. The polite thing I can say is, he’s not very good. Seeing him coming off the bench is hardly going to install fear in any Irish League team.
It might be time for Warren Feeney to stick on the boots again? It’s noticeable that his only appearances came when he was Linfield’s only fit striker. It’s clear he’s reluctant to play himself.
He has held his own when played, but just can’t sustain 90 minute apparances. A better option than Morrow from the bench until Peter Thompson returns.
From there, Cliftonville strangled Linfield and made it 3-1 with 20 minutes to go.
Like when it went to 2-1, the body language of the players was disturbing. Heads down or head in hands. Nobody taking the lead to lift spirits.
They played like a beaten team for the rest of the game. Glenavon got 2 late goals to get a 3-3 draw with Cliftonville earlier this season. If they got 1, they could get another.
Got to have a sense of perspective, though not top, Linfield are level on points with the team at the top (Portadown) of the league, and there are 25 games to go.
The congestion at the top of the table remains, with five teams separated by two points. A chance to break up some of that congestion was missed. Another chance comes next week, with fifth place Crusaders heading to Windsor Park, in a game that could see Linfield go five points clear of them,
Interesting to note, that Linfield’s 3 defeats have come the against the other teams in the Top 4.
Overall, the breakdown is :
v Top half P 6 W 1 D 2 L 3
v Bottom half P 7 W 6 D 1 L 0
Need to get wins against teams in the top half in order to half a serious title challenge. Linfield had a similar record in the first half of the 2010-2011 season, before turning it around with 7 wins out of 7 against Cliftonville/Glentoran/Crusaders.
That record needs to improve immediately, with games against Crusaders and Glenavon coming up. Linfield could be cut adrift from the top of the league before mid November.
In Redevelopment news, the South Stand is almost gone. There is very little remaining of it. I’m hoping to do a Photo Diary of the Redevelopment, with a Slide Show when it is complete.
I’ve set one up on a website called Slidely for anyone interested. Planning on doing monthly updates. If anyone can suggest other good online slideshows, do get in touch.
Within weeks, the South Stand will be reduced to rubble. Hopefully, Linfield’s season won’t be in the coming weeks.