If today was to be Warren Feeney’s last game as Linfield manager, it was certainly a dramatic one to go out on, as rumours continue to link him with a move to Newport County.
Pointless anecdote time – I once went through Newport on a train, and then two days later I was sat beside Warren Feeney on a plane.
Back to today, Linfield arrived at Solitude looking to get their first win there since 2012, but more importantly, maintain their four point lea over Crusaders while moving eight points clear of 3rd placed Cliftonville.
Linfield began the game with one change from last week, with Stephen Lowry coming in for Kirk Millar. Bit of a surprise for me, I would have played Millar. He could have been not 100% fit though, but if he was, I would have played him.
Cliftonville’s early attacking play came through David McDaid, helped by Linfield’s defenders backing off him. His best moment came when he was able to get a clear shot at goal, but Glendenning saved it, and managed to push it away.
He didn’t see out the game though, being substituted in the first-half through injury.
Linfield then took the lead when they managed to get the ball out the left, and a low cross came to David Kee, who got there before his marker to put Linfield 1-0 up.
The closest Cliftonville came to an equaliser was when a Seydack free-kick went wide.
Linfield went 2-0 up soon after with a Mark Haughey header. Strange, I thought he only scored against Warrenpoint or Glenavon. Three goals in successive games for him. He’s almost turning into a goal machine.
Having just seen a video of the goal, Conor Devlin was blocked off by two of his own defenders. I’m sure they didn’t practice that in training.
Having seen Linfield struggle from defending set pieces in recent weeks, Cliftonville didn’t put any men in front of Glendinning.
Linfield were comfortable defending and didn’t look like conceding. It is noticeable how much Cliftonville’s goal threat from open play is reduced without Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley.
The next time Linfield had a corner, Conor Devlin wasn’t blocked by his own defenders and was able to rush off his line to palm the ball away from Mark Stafford, who was certain to head it home and make it 3-0.
Not only were Linfield comfortable when defending, they also showed fight and smartness, qualities that had been sadly lacking in too many recent trips to Solitude.
By smartness, I mean, winning soft free-kicks to kill attacks or start attacks, and killing the game to stop Cliftonville getting any sort of momentum going.
As the half ended, Linfield fans thought they were going to go in 3-0 up when Andrew Waterworth got in behind Cliftonville’s defence and fired wide. He had to hit a shot first time, but he will still be disappointed not to have hit the target.
2-0 to Linfield at half-time, but that was the score during a league meeting in February this year. Cliftonville pulled a goal back and then got an equaliser when Linfield got nervous. With this in mind, they needed a 3rd goal just to be sure.
They almost got it in the early moments of the second-half, but Andrew Waterworth fired his shot wide.
Before you could say Linfield need to keep Cliftonville out and not do anything stupid in the early minutes of the second-half, Martin Donnelly pulled a goal back to make it 2-1.
It was a poor goal to concede, in terms of it sneaking in the near post, and him being allowed to have a free strike in the final third.
Soon after, Cliftonville were lucky to have their full compliment of eleven on the pitch when George McMullan had his arm around Niall Quinn’s neck. Not even a yellow card. The first of many shocking decisions made in the second-half by referee Arnold Hunter.
Within minutes of their first goal, Cliftonville made it 2-2 after Caoimhin Bonner headed home after Johnny Flynn original header on goal to divert it in. Ross Glendinning was diving to save Flynn’s header and could do nothing about Bonner’s header.
It didn’t look like a rehearsed set piece, but they made their own luck by having a player in the right position to head it home. There were two headers for Linfield to win, and they didn’t win any of them.
It was now a different game, and Cliftonville were in the ascendancy.
Linfield weren’t helping themselves by giving possesion away cheaply. Ross Glendinning is always eager to start an attack when he has the ball in his hands, as demonstrated by the first goal last Saturday, but he was perhaps too eager, as his kickouts were giving the ball back to Cliftonville.
Cliftonville were getting a lot of joy down their left, and were targeting Linfield’s left hand side. They almost exposed this when Stephen Garrett was put through down that side, butthankfully fired over.
George McMullan soon got a yellow card for a foul on Sean Ward. If the referee had done his job earlier in the half, he would have already been sent-off, or was now getting his second yellow card/
It was Sean Ward who was soon to be getting sent-off after bringing down Chris Curran when he was running through on goal. No complaints about the decision, it was a rare case of Arnold Hunter getting one right.
Ward perhaps could have tried to nick the ball with his right foot, but it’s easy for me to say that when i’m watching the game from the other end of the pitch.
Thankfully, for Linfield, the resulting penalty was saved. The reprieve didn’t last for long though, as George McMullan put Cliftonville in front after Niall Quinn backed off him and gave him the opportunity to shoot.
The same George McMullan, who should have been sent-off earlier in the half.
Aaron Burns came on for Jamie Mulgrew as Linfield came into it more. The biggest compliment you could give them was that you didn’t notice they were playing with ten men.
It was Burns who found space in the box to head home from a Niall Quinn cross to make it 3-3.
Ivan Sproule was introduced to the action but didn’t get a chance to make an impact. It was a foul on him in injury time by Eamonn Seydack get a second yellow card. Eventually, one of them was going to get sent-off. Johnny Flynn was also lucky to stay on for a foul on Andrew Waterworth as he chased a through ball. I’d need to see a replay again though.
It looked as though Arnold Hunter was saving his red cards for the final whistle, as BBC were reporting that Caoimhin Bonner was sent-off in the tunnel after the game. There is still no official confirmation of this though.
Both teams will be relieved at getting a point when staring into the abyss, while also frustrated at throwing away two points from strong positions.
It was another away game without a goal from Andrew Waterworth or Guy Bates. Maybe it’s just coincidental, or do we need to adapt or game away from home. Though today it was third away game out of five that we have scored three goals, so perhaps it’s not that big an issue, yet.
Today was the third game in four that Linfield have conceded three goals in, which is a bit worrying. It was also the second successive week in which Linfield had lost a two goal lead, though a positive is that we have might a fightback after doing so.
We couldn’t get a favour today as Ballymena’s run of good form ended today with a defeat against Crusaders. I’ve been watching Linfield long enough to know we don’t get any favours, we have to help ourselves.
Next for me, is the Northern Ireland v Greece match, as Northern Ireland look to get the win that will send them to Euro 2016.
If they do, expect to see peace and love break out amongst Irish League fans as we celebrate the national team’s achivement.
This utopian dream will last for less than 48 hours, as Linfield face Glentoran next Saturday. This will be the landmark 11th game of the season, when everybody will have played each other once. If Linfield can get a win, that would be nine wins out of eleven, top of the league, scoring goals for fun and having played the other teams in the top four away from home.
That would be a very good start to the season, but just a start. We still have to go out there and win the game.
More importantly, hopefully, we will go into that game with a manager.