The cliche about waiting ages for a bus then two come along at once could be applied to Linfield wins at Solitude. Quite apt, seeing as Linfield fans spend most of their pre-match waiting for a bus.
Suspended last week, Jimmy Callacher and Paul Smyth returned to the Linfield team. By full-time, Linfield fans were thankful they did.
Like in the Irish Cup tie two weeks ago, the opening minute saw Linfield having a shaky moment in defence, conceding a soft corner due to a defensive mix-up. Thankfully, the corner didn’t come to much.
Both teams were getting in a lot of crosses in the early moments, Linfield’s causing more concern that Cliftonvilles, which were usually missing everyone and going to the far post.
The first real attacking moment came when Sean Ward had a shot cleared off the line.
Cliftonville’s first attempt on goal saw Jude Winchester hit the net. The side of it rather than the back of it thankfully.
There wasn’t a lot happening in the first-half, until Linfield came into it in the later stages. Mark Haughey looked like he was going to score when he reached for a header, only for the ball to go across goal.
Paul Smyth ran at Cliftonville’s defence, creating enough space to get a shot at goal, forcing Cliftonville’s goalkeeper Peter Burke into a save.
Like in the second-half two weeks ago, you could see the fear in Cliftonville’s defenders every time he got the ball.
Even when he didn’t have the ball, and was running onto a pass, you could see the fear they had.
Cliftonville’s defenders tried to kick him, he defiantly stood his ground. They couldn’t kick him out of the game, they would need to find another way to stop him. They couldn’t think of another way to stop him.
Soon afterwards, it looked like Haughey was going to score this time but his goalbound header was tipped onto the post, only to fall to Jimmy Callacher to finish from a few yards out.
Soon after, Ross Gaynor had a shot saved from a wide position after nice link-up play from Jamie Mulgrew.
At the start of the second-half, the much anticipated Cliftonville onslaught didn’t metrialise. It was all relatively comfortable for Linfield. It would have been more comfortable if they could get a second goal.
That almost came when a defence splitting pass from Sean Ward set up Reece Glendinning to cross for Paul Smyth, who hit the side netting.
Chris Curran had a half chance for Cliftonville, a reminded for Linfield that they needed a second goal to be sure of the points.
Linfield had more attacking purpose than their hosts, and almost doubled their lead when Paul Smyth ran at Cliftonville’s defence, got enough space for a shot, only to hit the post.
Agonisingly, the rebound hit Andrew Waterworth straight in the face and went over.
The reprieve for Cliftonville was brief, as Paul Smyth went on another run and made it 2-0 with a shot before making use of a sterile area at the side of the pitch to do a somersault after asking his team-mates to give him space to do so. Linfield’s players were as accommodating as Cliftonville’s defence.
Linfield were able to see the game out, with Cliftonville never looking like scoring. Even if they did pull a goal back, it would have been an inconvenience for Linfield rather than a cause to panic.
Cliftonville are finding out the hard way, like Linfield did when Peter Thompson began to suffer injury problems, that goalscorers are hard to replace.
That result saw Linfield go eight points clear of Cliftonville. Realistically, that should rule Cliftonville out of the race for automatic European football. Glenavon got a late winner to jump over them, six points behind Linfield.
It’s a good lead over them, but it would be nice to get further ahead of them to be sure.
Linfield remain five points behind Crusaders, who play their game in hand against Carrick on Tuesday night, a game they should win, meaning Linfield need to recover eight points in seven games.
With the two sides playing each other, Linfield need to win all their games and hope Crusaders draw one and lose one. Not inconceivable.
Glenavon and Cliftonville’s position swap will be of interest in the context of post split fixture order. Crusaders need one win from their next three games to be Team 1, with Linfield being Team 2.
According to my basic maths, here’s the provisional schedule :
Apr 9 : Crusaders (1) v Linfield (2)
Apr 16 : Glenavon (3) v Crusaders, Linfield v Coleraine (5)
Apr 19 : Cliftonville (4) v Crusaders, Glentoran (6) v Linfield
Apr 23 : Linfield v Cliftonville, Crusaders v Coleraine
Apr 30 : Glentoran v Crusaders, Glenavon v Linfield
Of course, those provisional positions can change between now and game 33 on 29th March.
Up next for Linfield, is Ballinamallard on Thursday night, a game brought forward to keep the Windsor Park pitch in shape for Northern Ireland v Slovenia on March 28th
If the game is to be brought forward, surely it should have been to Wednesday night, as a lot of people, myself included, will be in Cardiff for Wales v Northern Ireland.
The rearrangement could work in Linfield’s favour, giving them an extra two days rest ahead of the Easter Tuesday trip to Warrenpoint, and two days extra rest for Ballinamallard, who face Crusaders that same night.
Talking of rearrangements, Linfield’s Irish Cup Semi-Final against Lurgan Celtic had been changed from Friday 1st April to Saturday 2nd April. Sadly, the ridiculous ticket prices and ticket purchasing arrangements are still in place, meaning i’ll be giving this game a miss.
Not complaining about the new date, as it means more rest time between games, playing Tuesday-Saturday instead of Tuesday-Friday.
I do feel sorry for supporters of the four Semi-Finalists who’ve had to change plans they’ve put in place to attend based on the original dates.
There’s no reason why both games couldn’t be played on Saturday 2nd April at other grounds.
Windsor Park should only be used in an Irish Cup Semi-final if Glentoran are involved. And even then, that would be dependent on who their opponents are.
Next for me, is Wales v Northern Ireland. I’m basing myself in South-West England and taking in Bristol Rovers v Cambridge as well while i’m over.
Bristol Rovers are currently 3rd in League Two, aiming for successive promotions. They had a good win today, 4-1 away to Newport County, avenging their 4-1 home defeat to Newport earlier in the season.
As you can imagine, not a good day for Warren Feeney. Thankfully, his former club had a good day.