After an absence of 725 days, Linfield fans returned to the South Stand. Unfortunately, they entered it in the same mood they last left it, deflated after a 2-0 defeat that saw their team miss out on the title.
It was still mathematically possible for Linfield to win the league at kick-off, but realistically, it wasn’t going to happen.
The team line-up was about suspensions and fear of suspensions, with Aaron Burns finishing a two game ban, David Healy starting one, as well as players being rested in order to avoid getting a ban for the Irish Cup Final.
Gareth Deane came in for Ross Glendinning in goal. The defence was unchanged, but it was futher up the pitch were the changes were obvious,a first start for Stephen Fallon, rare starts for Niall Quinn and David Kee, and Kirk Millar in the unfamiliar role of playing up front.
There was also the welcome sight of Ross Clarke being on the bench, having missed all of the season so far through injury.
Linfield supporters in the South Stand trying to work out what their new seat will be, though they would soon be working out which seats offer the best protection from the rain.
South Standers, notorious for their moaning, would have to wait for something to moan about in football terms.
Having survived shaky opening moments, Linfield scored with their first attack on 3 minutes, when Paul Smyth got space out the right to cross in for Kirk Millar to head home. Millar and Smyth, as well as Stephen Fallon were the focal point of all Linfield’s attacking play. Everytime they got the ball in Coleraine’s half, it felt like a goal would be seconds away.
Millar had Linfield’s next chance when he managed to get some space in the penalty area, but his shot hit the post and was smothered by Coleraine’s keeper just as Stephen Fallon was going to finish the rebound.
Matthew Clarke had to kick a header from a Coleraine corner off the line, it was the only attacking moments Coleraine offered in the first-half.
After not being able to react after Coleraine’s keeper dropped a cross, Jimmy Callacher headed home on 15 minutes to make it 2-0, meaning he had scored in both home games against Coleraine this season.
Linfield’s 3rd goal came from another header when a Coleraine player headed against his own post, and Kirk Millar fired home from close range.
At 2-0, there was always the chance that Coleraine could come out for the second-half sensing an early goal could spark a fightback, that was never going to happen at 3-0. The game was won.
In terms of the title race, it was win and hope for Linfield. They were winning, and had a glimmer of hope, as Crusaders were being held 0-0 at Glenavon.
Linfield looked like they were going to make it 4-0 when Niall Quinn set up Paul Smyth in the box but his shot was fired straight at the keeper.
The second-half was a non event. Linfield didn’t need to score and Coleraine didn’t look like scoring.
The next moment of note came when Ross Clarke came off the bench for his first appearance of the season, a season disrupted by injury.
He didn’t do a lot, but what he did he did well. When a team is 3-0 up and seeing out the game, there isn’t as much intensity in attack, and it can be hard to get involved in the game.
He almost set up a goal for Kirk Millar when he got past his man (after a bit of confusion when the referee waved play on after the linesman flagged for a foul by Clarke) and put in an inviting cross, only for Millar to head over, denying him a hat-trick.
Another sub of note was Gary Lavery making a first team debut.
Jimmy Callacher hit the crossbar as Linfield were unable to get a 4th goal.
The result at Mourneview didn’t go Linfield’s way as Crusaders got a 1-0 win which makes them 99% champions. Still, keep fighting to the end and make them win it, don’t hand it to them.
The result at Solitude did go Linfield’s way, as Cliftonville’s failure to win (they lost 2-0 to Glentoran) means Linfield have secured European football for next season.
Up next, is a trip to rejuvinated Glentoran on Tuesday evening. Hopefully, their mini revival will be over by Tuesday night.
For the first time in a long time, Linfield have options and strength in depth. There aren’t many players making up the numbers.
Jamie Mulgrew, Aaron Burns, Andrew Waterworth, Ross Gaynor and Guy Bates didn’t play a minute of action today, and weren’t missed, in an easy win over a side Linfield had struggled against in previous meetings this season.
Despite the result at Mourneview (which we had no control over), it wasn’t a bad day. Back in the South Stand and back in Europe next season.
Unfortunately, it looks like it will be on Thursday nights.