Linfield ended what has been a disappointing month with their biggest game of the month. Failure to win any of the last two league games made it so. This game would dictate if October would be a disappointing month or a disastrous month.
Kicking-off four points off the top of the league, it wasn’t quite must win for Linfield, but it was definitely not lose. Even though there is still a lot of football to be played, seven points would be a large gap to pull back, despite having to play Crusaders twice.
Linfield lined-up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Ross Gaynor and Kirk Millar supporting Andrew Waterworth. It was Linfield who had all of the early pressure, with Sammy Clingan firing just wide from a free-kick.
Most of their attacking invention came when Jamie Mulgrew had the ball. It was like a magnet to him in the opening minutes.
It looked like Andrew Waterworth was going to score when the ball fell to him in the penalty area, but Sean O’Neill was able to get down and block it.
It was the only time Crusaders were able to legally stop a Linfield attack, most of them were stopped by cynical fouling, which was dealt leniently by the referee who deemed it too early in the game to issue a yellow card. Naturally, it only encouraged Crusaders to commit moe fouls.
There were concerns that the referee had lost his yellow card. That panic was averted when he found it just in time for the first Linfield foul, by Mark Haughey on Paul Heatley.
No complaints about the yellow card, the only issue was that it was the first of the game.
Crusaders had their best attacking moment when Jordan Forsythe stretched to a cross and hit the bar. A speculative cross/shot had to be palmed out by Roy Carroll, but thankfully there was no Crusaders player to score when the ball was loose.
Linfield had a penalty appeal turned down for a cross being handled. It would have been soft. The irony was, seconds late, Kirk Millar got penalised when the ball hit him in the exact same place when the ball was in the middle of the pitch. Some decisions are easier to make than others.
Linfield didn’t enjoy the pressure they had in the first-half in the second-half, but Crusaders weren’t giving them any moments of worry, restricting them to speculative long range shots, all of which went over.
It was only a matter of time before Linfield turned to their attacking options on the bench, which included Paul Smyth and Ross Clarke, both recovering from (different lengths of though) injury.
It was Smyth who came on first, unsurprisingly for Kirk Millar, who didn’t have the best of games.
One Ross came on for another, Clarke for Gaynor.
The two substitutes combined for Linfield’s best moment of the second-half when Smyth crossed for Clarke, whose header was straight at O’Neill.
Andrew Waterworth ran down the right hand side to try and get a late winner before he was cynically taken out by Paul “Not that kind of player” Heatley. It was cynical, no attempt to play the ball. Not only that, it was reckless and a straight red card. In line with the refereeing performance, only a yellow was awarded.
While the free-kick was awaiting to be taken, things got fiesty in the penalty area, which resulted in a few Crusaders players getting booked. 80 minutes too late some could say.
The incidents awoke those in the South Stand and fired Linfield up as they piled on the pressure in the final moments.
It was a pity this incident didn’t happen about 10-15 minutes earlier.
The final whistle blew, the second 0-0 between the sides this season. In both games, Linfield were comfortable and never in any danger. The title destiny is still in their own hands.
A draw wasn’t ideal, but it’s not a disaster. The situation is retrievable. Linfield have come through a difficult month relatively unscathed, even managing to get closer to the top of the table by a point.
We might have exited two cup competitions, but it was one we’ve never entered before, and one we haven’t win for ten years.
We did make progress in one competition, the County Antrim Shield, the Semi-Final draw taking place today, giving Linfield a home tie against Ards.
Another draw of interest to Linfield fans was the Steel and Sons Cup Semi-Final draw, pairing Linfield Swifts with Crumlin Star. The Final is on Christmas Eve this year, which makes it very tempting to go, regardless of the result.
In other cup competitions, Crusaders have been reinstated into the Scottish Challenge Cup due to Livingston playing an ineligible player, replaying their tie against Livingston on Tuesday.
Wouldn’t it be an awful shame if Crusaders won that and caused their leage match against Portadown on November 12th to be postponed.
Up next for Linfield is a trip to Glenavon. Glenavon have struggled in the early months of this season. Let’s hope that continues, before games against Dungannon and Cliftonville.
It’s a tough run of games, but if you want to win the league, these are the games you have to win, especially as Crusaders have a game against draw specialists Coleraine coming up.
Linfield have survived a difficult month with only slight, but retrievable, damage to the league campaign.
November killed their title chances last season. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen this season.