After getting a first win at Solitude in four years, followed by a first league win over Cliftonville in three years, there was one little monkey Linfield needed to get off their backs before the season ended, a first home league win over Cliftonville since January 2013, a run that had seen four defeats and a draw in this fixture.
It’s a Sign Of The Times that supporters entering Windsor Park to the sound of Prince on the tannoy expected that run to end today.
Linfield had only one change from Tuesday night’s win at The Oval, an enforced one, with Aaron Burns coming in for the injured Matthew Clarke. Burns played a lot of his early career at left-back, but his goals over the last couple of seasons meant that Ross Gaynor was the one moving back.
It was Cliftonville who had the first chance of the game when sloppy play by Linfield allowed Davy McDaid to get space to shoot but he fired it over. He really should have scored.
On ten minutes, Aaron Burns was lucky to avoid a red card for a high studs up challenge, but it was only a yellow. If it was the other way around, we’d be screaming for a red.
Screaming for a red seemed to be what Cliftonville were doing most in the first-half, trying to goad Linfield players into a reaction that never came. Not this time, Linfield won’t be playing their game any more.
Martin Donnelly then hit the bar for Cliftonville. The top of the bar. A nervous moment, but not a worrying one for Linfield.
Donnelly hit the crossbar again from a free-kick, via Gareth Deane, starting his third successive game for Linfield, but a goal kick was awarded.
Cliftonville were having the better of the early moments without dominating. They were first to the second ball on too many occasions, perhaps unsurprising for a team with more to play for in terms of the league.
Thankfully for Linfield, Cliftonville were toothless up front. A better team would have punished Linfield for their first-half performance.
On 35 minutes, Linfield took the lead with their first moment of attacking quality, after working space for a cross out the left, Conor Devlin surprisingly dropped the ball, landing at Aaron Burns. Burns was able to control the ball and create enough space for him to fire into the empty net.
It wasn’t The Most Beautiful Goal In The World, but they all count.
An undeserved lead via a player lucky to be on the pitch, and nobody was really surprised such is the contrasting fortunes of both clubs at the moment.
Having gotten away with it in the first-half, Linfield made Cliftonville pay for it in the second-half, going 2-0 up in the early minutes when Paul Smyth worked enough room for a cross which was blocked, but fell invitingly for Kirk Millar to cross for Aaron Burns to score unmarked from a few yards.
That was the game won for Linfield, Cliftonville never looked like offering a fightback after that.
Kirk Millar had a chance to score, before later setting up Andrew Waterworth, but the joy was short lived as the goal was disallowed.
The third goal came when Paul Smyth broke free and ran towards goal. He had the option of setting up Aaron Burns for a hat-trick, but decided he fancied a goal himself, his low shot squeezing.
Again, most of Linfield’s attacks came through Smyth. Cliftonville’s main plan for trying to stop was was to get as many men as possible on him whenever he got the ball.
It didn’t matter how many were trying to stop them, he would find a way past them.
Smyth was involved in Linfield’s net goal, being fouled in the box for a penalty.
Aaron Burns was by now on the bench as Linfield made some substitutions to give other players some action.
If he was on the pitch, it would have been interesting to see who would have taken it, with Burns on a hat-trick. Gaynor was unchallenged when it came to taking it, and made it 4-0.
Glenavon’s 1-0 win at The Oval secured a UEFA Cup place for the Lurgan side, which denied Linfield fans the opportunity to laugh at Cliftonville fans cheering them on for two successive Saturdays.
At the final whistle, Linfield players gathered on the halfway line to do a lap of honour, as supporters applauded a team who offered them 90 goals so far in the league, a high for Linfield in a 38 game season.
Hopefully, there’ll be another lap of honour in two weeks time.
In terms of league action, that’s me for the season. I’ll be giving next week’s trip to Glenavon a miss.
It’ll be interesting to see what Linfield’s line-up will be for that game, wether a Swifts team will be selected, or if it will be used to pick the team that will play on May 7th, using the game as a dress rehearsal.
My guess is that it will be Swifts team, considering that Linfield’s starting eleven for the games against Glentoran and Cliftonville has given the biggest hint as to what that team will be on May 7th.
Mark Stafford might play at Mourneview Park but the cup final might be too soon for him. A place on the bench is the best he can hope for.
Ross Clarke’s absence from the last two games after his cameo against Coleraine suggest the cup final has come too soon for him.
Gareth Deane’s appearances in the last three games suggest that he will be in goals for the Irish Cup Final.
If everybody is fit, the defence should be Clarke, Haughey, Callacher, Ward. If Clarke isn’t fit, expect Ross Gaynor to fill in.
If Matthew Clarke isn’t fit, it will save David Healy having to make a difficult decision further up the pitch. The midfield should be Gaynor (if not left-back), Lowry, Mulgrew plus either Aaron Burns or Kirk Millar.
Ross Gaynor playing at left-back would mean Linfield could accommodate both Burns and Millar. If one of them was to miss out, they would be very unlucky considering both players current form.
Up front picks itself, with Waterworth and Smyth starting.
Subs will be interesting. Reece Glendinning should get the nod if Mark Stafford is unable to make the bench alongside whichever of Burns or Millar misses out. The other places should be a battle between David Kee, Niall Quinn, Guy Bates, Stephen Fallon, Ross Clarke and Ross Glendinning battling it out for the other three places
The excitement in the Irish League on the final day is at the bottom, with Carrick, Warrenpoint and Ballinamallard are battling to avoid the automatic spot, and hoping to drag Portadown in the Play-Offs.
Ards look the most likely to go up. I would be hoping our away game there is in the early months (sunny day on the seaside) but not the weekend in September when i’m in Liverpool.
Linfield haven’t played a competitive game in Bangor since 2009.
Possible Play-Off teams are Larne (I haven’t been there since 2005), Armagh City (I haven’t been there since 2006) or Institute (Nice ground to visit, easy to get to by public transport)
No offence to whoever in the Premiership gets the Play-Off place, but I wouldn’t be too unhappy if they lost.
And now, this is the time of year whenever I do my pre-season wishlist. So, here we go. All away games of course, at grounds I haven’t been to or haven’t been to for a while. Any of – Harland and Wolff Welders, Dundela, Moyola Park, PSNI, Larne (if not promoted)
Looking further afield, Ayr United are always inviting Irish League teams over for a friendly, it must be our turn. Maybe we could use our County Louth connections to get an away friednly against Drogheda? Would be nice.
The season isn’t over yet, there’s still the Irish Cup Final.
For me, after that, a trip to Old Trafford to see United take on Bournemouth. I’ve been twice to Old Trafford this season and have yet to see a United goal, so i’m hoping for a change in fortune.
Then, Northern Ireland v Belarus, before a planned day trip to Dublin over the May Bank Holiday, to hopefully catch some League Of Ireland action while i’m there.
An eventful season for Linfield is almost over, with a lot of optimism for the future. Hopefully, the wait for David Healy’s first trophy as Linfield manager has only two weeks left.