Today was a milestone day in the Irish League season. It was the 22nd game of the season, the point when every team has played each other home and away. For Linfield, it was the team they faced on Matchday 1, Portadown. The team that beat them 3-0 on Matchday 1. The idea of Linfield having the chance to secure top spot at Christmas by the time the two sides met again was a long way off then.
In fact, the idea of Linfield being top at 3pm today was a long way off as recently as last Friday teatime, as a shock defeat for Portadown at Warrenpoint allowed Linfield the chance to go top of the league last Saturday, which they took.
The last time Linfield went top of the league, in October, they hit a run of games against teams near them, and lost, and fell down the table. Once again, Linfield hit a run of games against teams around them. My own opinion is that Linfield are better equipped for such a challenge that they were in October. There would be only one way to prove that.
A charge against this Linfield team is that they don’t win big games against title rivals. With two draws and three defeats against Cliftonville, Crusaders and Portadown in the league this season, it was hard to argue against that.
With Crusaders cutting the gap to one point last night, level with Cliftonville and Portadown, Linfield had a chance to go four points clear of at least two title rivals. With Cliftonville being at The Oval, a ground they’ve failed to win in their last five league visits, this was going to be a big day in the title race, whatever the outcome.
The game got off to a dramatic start, with Linfield 1-0 up from a corner, eventually headed in by Jimmy Callacher. Portadown protested for offside. In truth, they were spooked by how much space Callacher had in a crowded penalty area.
In recent weeks, Linfield have had early goals against Glentoran and Ballymena, and not killed the game off. Nothing would have been taken for granted by this start.
After that, Portadown lost their discipline for a bit, racking up yellow cards, conceding soft free-kicks and arguing with the ref. They were inviting trouble onto themselves.
If Linfield could’ve got a second goal then, they would have went on to win the game comfortable. There was good build-up play, but no clear chances.
The half swung on two incidents a matter of seconds apart. A poor header back to Miskelly allowed Sammy Morrow a chance to lob him and make it 2-0, but he put it wide. Within seconds, a shot was parried by Glendinning straight to Sean Mackle, who made it 1-1.
Linfield responded by trying to back in front, but it was Portadown who made it 2-1 soon after when Mark McAllister headed home. The fear was, this could turn out to be a repeat of the Cliftonville game in October.
Linfield tried to get back into the game, the best chance game when Andrew Waterworth burst through, but fired wide under a challenge. He could have went down and got a penalty perhaps.
Portadown had another chance when they hit the bar from a header, but weren’t dominant despite being the better team. They gave Linfield that little bit of hope, that they hadn’t killed the game off when they were on top.
Having gone in at half-time the previous week to grumbles at 0-0, Linfield players were given shouts of encouragement as they left the pitch 2-1 down. Football fans are a strange bunch.
Linfield needed a big start to the second-half. They got one. On 50 minutes, they got a penalty when Ivan Sproule was fouled. It was Linfield’s first penalty of the season, what a time to get it.
Aaron Burns hit it, off the bar, and it went behind the line and bounced out. It was clear for all to see, but the game continued for a few seconds later, before eventually the goal was given. Portadown players protested, but the decision was right. The only thing wrong was how long it took to make the decision.
Linfield now had the momentum, but it was Portadown who had the next big moment in the match, when Darren Murray dispossessed Mark Haughey to run through on goal from a centre-wide postion.
He had two options – to run through and score, or to play the ball to Mark McAllister for him to score.
He chose a third option, to pass to a teammate on the edge of the box. It was the wrong option, as Linfield managed to stop a shot and cleared the danger.
Soon after, Linfield went 3-2 up. In football, you make your own luck. A Linfield attack was continually snuffed out by Portadown, but every time Portadown made a tackle, the ball fell to a Linfield player. Eventually, it fell to Ivan Sproule, who set up Sammy Morrow to fire home. Windsor Park went wild.
As when they went 1-0 down, Portadown began to lose their discipline again, with Darren Murray and Garry Breen squaring up to each other in the aftermath of Morrow’s goal.
Linfield search for a 4th goal but couldn’t get it. They needed it. Even though Portadown were restricted when attacking, all they needed was one chance to make Linfield pay.
In truth, Portadown never looked like scoring in open play, with Linfield managing to keep them out, until the clock approached 90 minutes, when a foul by Jimmy Callacher resulted in a penalty.
It came down to two Rosses – Glendinning for Linfield and Redman for Portadown. It was Linfield’s Ross that won the day, with his second penalty save in a fortnight. Unlike at Ballymena, there was to be no retake.
90 minutes and 55 seconds into the game, Linfield’s fans roared into a chant of “WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE!!!” for the first time all afternoon. They knew Portadown’s chance had gone.
Linfield still had to see the game out, with Millar, Clucas and Carvill keeping the ball away from Portadown in the final stages, much to Andrew Waterworth’s annoyance as he waited for a cross, as he hadn’t had his goal for the day.
As the game at Windsor Park entered it’s final stages, news emerged from The Oval that Glentoran had went 2-1 up against Cliftonville.
Every league season has it’s defining moment. It’s not the moment the title was won, it’s the moment when you know it’s swung in someone’s favour. Last season, it was the moment Linfield failed to beat Ards and move clear of Cliftonville, instead giving Cliftonville a limeline that they would win the league if they won all their games.
There’s a long way to go before we know if the final minutes at Windsor Park and The Oval were the defining moments of this season.
From looking like being frustrated and being thankful Cliftonville could only draw, Linfield were now four points clear. The first time this season, that anybody had taken a decisive lead in the league table.
It’s worth pointing out, that Linfield had a 6 point lead after 22 games last season. Over the next 16 games, there was a 12 point swing in Cliftonville’s favour in the final league table.
April is a long time away. In fact, Boxing Day is a long time away. It can’t come soon enough.
Up next, is Glentoran at home. Glentoran might be high on confidence after recent results, but let them worry about us, we’re top of the league, unbeaten in 8, scoring 2+ in each of those games.
Crusaders face Cliftonville that day. Whatever happens, a result will go in Linfield’s favour. It will only be a bonus if Linfield help themselves out against Glentoran. If I had the choice, i’d prefer Crusaders to win, as Linfield face Crusaders on New Year’s Day, and can have two title rivals suffer massive blows over two games, instead of one rival suffering two blows.
The main thing is, that Linfield get the result they need on Boxing Day.
If the game against Glentoran is short-term thinking, Linfield also made some long-term progress as well today, by securing Andrew Waterworth, Mark Haughey, Niall Quinn, Ross Glendenning and Ross Clarke all signing two year deals.
So, Merry Christmas to you all, hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings on football this year.
There was an early Christmas present this week in the form of the Irish Cup draw, away to Tobermore. An away game against a lower league team at a ground i’ve never visited. Can’t complain about that.
A nice cup draw, a win, extending the lead at the top, five key players on two year deals. It’s been a good ole week.