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.