After a year away in 2015, the Irish Cup Final returned to Windsor Park. You have to go back to 2012 for the last time the trophy resided at Windsor Park, with Linfield taking on Glenavon looking to cap off a fine run of form in the calendar year of 2016 with a trophy.
There were no big shocks in the Linfield line-up. The only questions were Ross Glendinning or Gareth Deane, and Kirk Millar or Aaron Burns. Deane and Burns got the nod, with Glendinning and Millar taking their place on the bench.
Linfield began the better team and had a lot of early pressure. Their best moment came when Stephen Lowry’s goalward touch forced Johnny Tuffey into a save.
Having failed to take advantage whenever they were on top, Linfield then had to face some Glenavon pressure. Joel Cooper fired just wide, before Glenavon thought they scored after a scramble when Gareth Deane fumbled, but it was disallowed.
It was a soft decision, but the right decision. It was good defending by Jimmy Callacher to put himself in the way of the ball in order to get fouled and win the free-kick for Linfield.
Linfield’s defence was nervous. Surprising for a team that had kept clean sheets in five of their last six games, and with players who had played in big games before.
The most glaring thing, was the cheap possession conceded by clearing the ball out for throw ins when a pass back to the goalkeeper was the best option.
It seemed that Linfield players didn’t trust the wet surface and were taking that option.
Linfield were able to ride out that period of Glenavon pressure without playing well themselves.
Whenever Linfield did get an attack, it didn’t happen for them. They couldn’t get a clear run or a touch in Glenavon’s defensive third.
They didn’t help themselves with poor decision making and sloppy passing, or passing when they should have shot.
As the first-half neared it’s end, both teams looked set to go in at 0-0. It wouldn’t have been the worst scenario given how poor Linfield had played.
As injury time approached, they got a corner, one last chance to take a lead.
The corner was cleared, and the bounce beat Stephen Lowry, allowing Glenavon to clear and go on a counter attack, Linfield didn’t look comfortable defending at any point in the attack, as the ball went out wide, crossed perfectly for Kevin Braniff to fire home from close range. He couldn’t miss.
As soon as the match restarted, the half-time whistle blew. That’s how late it was.
The situation was still retrievable for Linfield. A vast improvement in the second-half was needed for that to happen.
There was an early goal in the second-half. Unfortunately, it came for Glenavon when Andy Hall scuffed the ball home. The only positive for Linfield was that there was 43 minutes left to retrieve the situation.
To do so, Linfield needed a quick goal. They didn’t get it, and didn’t look like getting it, in either open play or at set pieces, and they had a lot set pieces.
Johnny Tuffey denied Linfield that quick response when he tipped an Aaron Burns free-kick over the bar.
Kirk Millar joined the action in place of Matthew Clarke, with Ross Gaynor moving to left-back. It didn’t happen for Millar when he came on. It didn’t happen for any of Linfield’s attacking players. It didn’t help that it wasn’t a great afternoon for Linfield’s defence and midfield.
Jimmy Callacher headed over from a corner as Linfield chased that goal to launch a comeback. With each passing minute, it looked more and more unlikely. The goal by Hall had changed the dynamic of the game. It’s a lot easier to make a comeback from 0-1 than 0-2.
In the back of their minds, Linfield supporters knew today wasn’t going to be their day. They weren’t admitting it though as they cheered their team to try and get the goal to launch a comeback.
Callacher was soon departing the action as he was substituted for Niall Quinn as Linfield went to 3-5-2. Personally, I would have went with Stephen Fallon for that substitution.
It looked like Andrew Waterworth was going to fire home from a corner, but his effort went over.
Kevin Braniff looked set to make it 3-0 whenever he raced clear, but he put it wide when he was through on goal. It was a let-off for Linfield as it would have killed the game. With time running out, Linfield only had a small hope, but it was better than no hope.
Paul Smyth, as in most games, was Linfield’s most lively attacking outlet, but couldn’t get a goal his play deserved.
Glenavon saw the game out and ran out deserved winners. Linfield had saved their worst performance for when they needed a performance most. Glenavon got the goals at key times, and were able to shut out Linfield, and deny them the chance to even contemplate a comeback.
That’s it for me in terms of Irish League watching this season. Next for me is a trip to Old Trafford next weekend to hopefully see United win the 4th Place Trophy so dominated by Arsenal in recent seasons.
After that, Northern Ireland v Belarus at the end of the month, before a day trip to Dublin on the Bank Holiday Weekend to take in two (Shelbourne v Limerick and Bohemians v St Patrick’s Athletic) League Of Ireland games on a day trip to Dublin.
Linfield have made great strides this season, which sadly has ended on a disappointing note. No amount of optimism can compensate for that.
Linfield are heading in the right direction. Hopefully today was just an unexpected bump in the road.