It was all about the Irish Cup today as Linfield arrived at Solitude looking to get their first win at the North Belfast venue since 2012, the last time they won the Irish Cup.
The tie of the round, we almost got a dramatic early goal in the first minute when Davy McDaid flicked the ball over Mark Haughey to get himself into a shooting position, but Gareth Deane was quick off his line to save the shot.
Deane was in the team due to Ross Glendinning being suspended following his red card last week. It’s a lazy cliche that pundits use that a goalkeeper coming into a team needs a good touch. This was a good touch for him, but one Linfield would rather he not be having.
Linfield were nervous in defence, conceding cheap possession in their own defensive third. Thankfully, Cliftonville weren’t able to capitalise on it.
Gradually, Linfield got more into it. Their first shot at goal came when Matthew Clarke fired a free kick over the bar.
A corner kick then evaded everybody and fell to Andrew Waterworth. That wasn’t the plan, but it almost worked, but unfortunately, his shot was tipped over the bar by Conor Devlin.
Linfield then had a flurry of corner kicks, with Jimmy Callacher being a menace in the Cliftonville box, having a header which needed headed behind (it was goalwards but probably would have hit the post) and then heading just over.
Jay Donnelly, who scored the winner when the sides last met in November, forced Deane into a save. It was the sort of save that you would expect a competent goalkeeper to make.
Despite the fact that Cliftonville’s attacking players were more involved in the game than Linfield’s, there didn’t appear to any immediate threat of a goal from Cliftonville.
Gareth Deane didn’t have a lot to do, but what he did have to do, he did well.
It wasn’t the best game of football, and Linfield hadn’t played well, but they were more than in game, and would have 45 minutes attacking their own fans.
Without having a shot on goal, Linfield made a better start to the second-half, having more possession in Cliftonville’s half and looking more cohesive going forward.
On 55 minutes, they got the breakthrough, when the ball was flicked through to Ross Gaynor, who had enough space on the edge of the box to toepoke it past Conor Devlin.
This was the sort of game where getting the first goal would be so important. Linfield had it, and were now ready to make the most of it.
Cliftonville had their chances at 1-0, Johnny Flynn heading at Deane while McDaid dragged a shot wide of the post. Linfield supporters at the other end thought the ball was going in for 1-1.
Despite that, there was never a time when I thought Cliftonville would score, even allowing for a combination of my natural pessimism and Linfield’s awful run of form in this fixture of the last couple of years.
However, 1-0 is a dangerous lead, and Linfield needed a 2nd just to be sure.
On 75 minutes, they got it when Kirk Millar, on as a substitute for Aaron Burns, played a ball to Andrew Waterworth who got just enough space behind his man to fire home.
Being 2-0 up against Cliftonville has been problematic for Linfield in recent years, blowing that lead twice in 2015 to draw league matches. That was never going to happen today.
In those two previously mentioned games, Linfield had their 2-0 lead at half-time. It might sound stupid, but it’s easier to make a comeback at half-time rather than after 75 minutes. You have 15 minutes to plan how to do it nad get your point across. It’s not so easy to do the same ingame.
There’s another factor to take in, Linfield are now a better team than they were in February 2015 and October 2015.
Cliftonville didn’t appear to have anybody who knew how to get them out of this mess. Their fans knew it, and they began to head for the exits before the game had restarted.
In both of those games, Cliftonville had made their comeback by goals in quick succession, so the game wasn’t won for Linfield yet. Cliftonville looked devoid of attacking ideas. As each minute passed, Linfield fans knew the job was done.
In fact, it was Linfield who looked most likely to score, with Mark Stafford heading against the bar from a corner.
After a quiet first-half, Paul Smyth was more involved as an attacking force in the second-half. His presence alone put fear in Cliftonville’s players, with them chasing the game playing right into his hands.
In injury time, he got an opportunity to run at Cliftonville’s defence, getting past his man before being fouled by Conor Devlin for a penalty.
Linfield fans wanted a red card, that was never going to happen, as just a yellow card given.
With Aaron Burns substituted, there was going to be no repeat of last week’s battle for the ball, as Ross Gaynor fired home to make it 3-0.
The red card for Conor Devlin that Linfield fans had wanted for the penalty came after the penalty, when he got a second yellow card for kicking the ball at Gaynor during his celebration.
It was the second successive Linfield match that had a red card for a goalkeeper. Like last week, the team who had the goalkeeper sent-off didn’t have a replacement on the bench, so an outfield player had to go into goal – in this case Johnny Flynn.
There was still time for another red card, with Caoimhin Bonner getting a second yellow for a foul on Guy Bates.
The only downpoint of the afternoon for Linfield fans was that Cliftonville’s implosion didn’t come 10 minutes earlier.
The draw for the Semi-Finals saw Linfield paired with Lurgan Celtic, who beat Portadown 3-2, a result that saw Ronnie McFall resign after the game after 29 (TWENTY-NINE) years in charge.
It’s hard to imagine an Irish League without Ronnie McFall, Roy Coyle and David Jeffrey on the touchline, but that’s where we are. Football waits for nobody and the game continues regardless.
That game will be played on Friday 1st April at Windsor Park. Can’t say i’m particularly keen on both date and venue. It should be a Saturday 3pm game at Mourneview Park with Crusaders v Glenavon being at The Oval on the same day.
Without sounding arrogant, but it’s a game that Linfield should win. There’s still a lot to play for in the season. The title might be ultimately too much to ask for this season, but it’s important to finish the season strongly and set down a marker for next season.
At some point during the split, Linfield fans will be able to use the South Stand for the first time. Hopefully, they’ll be getting to use it on May 7th.