NORTHERN IRELAND 3-1 GREECE 8.10.2015

YESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!

Do you really want to read a match report? Oh, alright then.

It had been a month long wait for Northern Ireland fans since Kyle Lafferty’s dramatic late equaliser against Hungary. It wasn’t a goal that gained a point for Northern Ireland, it was much more than that.

Even if Northern Ireland had lost 1-0 to Hungary, they still would have went into this double header with their destiny in their hands, and with a better head to head record on away goals. It would have meant they would have needed to win both of their final games. Now they only needed to win one.

Not only that, there was the issue of momentum, Hungary on an upward spiral, Northern Ireland deflated. The 1-1 draw meant that Northern Ireland were one win away from their first ever European Championship.

There are those who feel that it should be their third at least, or even fourth. You see, messing up European Championship Qualifiers is what Northern Ireland do best.

In 1983, like 2015, France was the destination Northern Ireland were dreaming of, but were derailed by a 1-0 defeat in Turkey, and missed out on goal difference, despite beating reigning champions and World Cup finalists West Germany home and away.

Twelve years later, a home defeat to Latvia cost Northern Ireland dearly, when even a draw would have set up a play-off against Holland at Anfield, despite being unbeaten away from home in the campaign.

It was Latvia again, alongside Iceland, in September 2007, which cost Northern Ireland a trip to Austria and/or Switzerland the following summer, despite beating Spain, Denmark and Sweden at Windsor Park, and coming home from both Scandinavian trips with a draw.

Those that believe in football going full circle will have been positive going into this game. In 1979, England celebrated qualification for a tournament at Windsor Park, before Northern Ireland got to celebrate qualification for a tournament six years later, the 1986 World Cup, the last time Northern Ireland were at a major finals.

In 2003, Northern Ireland travelled to Greece, with the home side needing a win to qualify. They got it. So surely it was now Northern Ireland’s turn?

If only football was that simple. The conundrum was further complicated by four key absences going into this game – Chris Baird, Kyle Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin through suspension, and Jonny Evans through injury. Evans West Brom teammate Gareth McAuley was passed fit to play, the crowd singing his name at every set piece, his two goals against Faroe Islands last month raising expectations every time he goes forward.

The absence of Lafferty created a vacancy up front, with Northern Ireland’s strikers hitting a run of form for their clubs. In reality, it was either Josh Magennis or Liam Boyce. It was Magennis who got the nod.

Magennis was straight into the thick of the action, looking set to score when the ball was flicked on to him, only for a Greek defender to get a block in.

He was later denied again by a Greek block when midway through the half when the ball fell to him. Without the block, it would have been a goal.

A free-kick aimed at McAuley didn’t quite work, but the ball fell to Oliver Norwood, and his shot just went wide.

It’s an age old cliche that when you play away from home, you keep possession early on and quiten the crowd. Greece were keeping possesion, but the crowd was still noisy, even more so when Northern Ireland were putting pressure on the Greek goal.

Within minutes, Northern Ireland fans were celebrating a goal, but it was a goal that was scored 1556 miles away in Ujpest, as Faroe Islands took a shock 1-0 lead away to Hungary.

If that score stood, Northern Ireland would be going to France, regardless of the score at Windsor Park.

While Northern Ireland fans were celebrating, Greece had an attack which caused problems for Northern Ireland’s defence. A reminder, that all concentration should be on events in Belfast rather than Ujpest.

Jamie Ward headed wide from a free-kick, while Greece had a corner that caused concern in Northern Ireland’s defence, before the breakthrough came, when Corry Evans played in Stuart Dallas, whose low cross was finished by Steven Davis from close range.

It was similar, albeit from a different side, to a goal he score for Rangers against Celtic in May 2009. I don’t think anybody really cared if it was similar to another goal in his goals archive.

The final action of the half was a reminder that the game was far from won, as Kostas Mitroglou hit the post. As the ball was in the air, it felt like time stood still. The ball came out, and landed right at the feet of a Northern Ireland defender, who cleared it out of play for a throw-in.

The throw-in was in a dangerous position. Before Greece had a chance to keep the pressure on, the half-time whistle blew. When something like that happens, you get the feeling that it might just be your night.

Within minutes of the second-half starting, Northern Ireland got breathing space when Josh Magennis headed from from a corner. As the ball looped up in the air, like when Mitroglou hit the post, it felt like time stood still. Magennis was the first Northern Ireland player to score at the Railway End, not that he cared about that little statistic.

Within ten minutes, it was 3-0, when a Greek header clear fell to Steven Davis on the edge of the box, who headed it back into the box, and it went straight in.

Everything was falling into place for Northern Ireland. The fans in Windsor Park believed it was job done, though i’m sure there were seasoned campaigners who still felt Greece would come back and win 4-3.

With five minutes to go, Greece pulled a goal back. Here we go, a dramatic and heartbreaking 3-3 draw awaits. The final minutes weren’t allowed to be relaxing, it’s not the Northern Ireland Way.

Thankfully, they saw the game out and won 3-1, the long 30 year wait was over.

Elsewhere in the group, Hungary were to be denied by a late equaliser for the second matchday running, as Romania secured a late draw against Finland to give them a one point lead over Hungary going into the last matchday.

Romania went on to beat Faroe Islands 3-0 to qualify, rendering Hungary’s 4-3 defeat away to Greece irrelevent.

Hungary are now waiting and hoping that Ukraine fail to beat Spain at home in order to secure qualification as the best 3rd place team.

It would make this achievement greater, to qualify by winning a group, facing off competition from the best 3rd placed team.

Nobody in Windsor Park cared about the race between Romania and Hungary, they were too busy cheering their heroes as they did a lap of honour.

A new generation of fans will no longer have to hear about Israel in 1981. They have their own qualification moment that they witnessed.

The players left the pitch but the fans remained, singing and chanting as the PA System blasted out party songs by the likes of Queen, Tony Christie and Black Eyed Peas, before the players came out to do a second lap of honour.

They deserved it.

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WEIRD AL YANKOVIC – LIVE AT THE LIMELIGHT 7.10.2015

There are some concerts that, as soon as they are announced, you have to just stop everything to make sure you get a ticket. This was one such concert.

For me, like many others in the venue, it was an opportunity to see Weird Al Yankovic live in the flash.

I had been hoping he would be a residency at the Edinburgh Festival one year, I never thought he would venture to Belfast.

There was a Dublin concert announced. I decided to hold out and hope for a Belfast gig. My prayers were answered.

This concert was announced in mid February. It had been a long seven and a half month wait for this night.

As fans waited for him to appear on stage, a fire door was opened in the venue, prompting speculation of a grand entrance. Or maybe people were reading too much into it? Sometimes, a fire door would be opened to let a bit of fresh air in, or to let a member of the road crew in or out.

His band appeared on stage but Al was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, he appeared on the LED screen in the background, standing in a street. On closer inspection, that street looked familiar, it was Linenhall Street, just around the corner from The Limelight.

He then casually walked into the venue from the street nearby singing Tacky, his parody of Happy by Pharrell Williams, embracing all forms of tackiness.

Who is Weird Al Yankovic? You need to be told?

Simple really, he’s a singer, but he does comedy versions of songs that are in the charts. It’s often said that you haven’t made it until Weird Al Yankovic parodies you.

He also does Accordion driven hits medleys, known as Polka …….. with a varying suffix.

He lifted his Accordion in the air, like a weapon, the crowd screamed “POLKA!!! POLKA!!!”, he simply replied by saying “How did you read my mind?” before doing a medley of hits from 2014.

There were quite a lot of costume changes inbetween songs, there had to be, it wouldn’t have worked if he wasn’t in character when doing his parodies. The LED screen on stage filled the time with a compilation of his appearances in TV shows and movies (Guest appearances in The Simpsons and The Naked Gun are on his CV, though is Simpsons appearance wasn’t shown) and sketches.

He didn’t need to win over the crowd, he was preaching to the converted. They knew the words to every song and sketch.

His new hits were prominent, Word Crimes (Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke), Handy (Fancy by Iggy Azaela) and Foil (Royals by Lorde) as were his classics, the biggest cheer came for his food related Michael Jackson parodies, Fat and Eat It.

All his biggies were there, parodying Nirvana, Lady Gaga, Joan Jett, Queen, Backstreet Boys, Devo, Green Day, Madonna, Billy Joel, Coolio and Chamillionaire.

The crowd were loving it as Al shouts “DO YOU WANT SOME MORE?” and is met with a reply of “YES!!!!” before replying that he can’t because of a host of logistical reasons, before leaving the stage.

He was only winding them up, as he came back on for an encore, dressed in Star Wars cosplay and joined on stage by dancers dressed up as Darth Vader and Star Wars, performing The Saga Begins, a synopsis of Star Wars set to the tune of American Pie.

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CLIFTONVILLE 3-3 LINFIELD 3.10.2015

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.

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