Panto Season arrived early in Belfast as Raymond Crangle brought his award winning live show (***** review in Glentoran Gazette) to Windsor Park, with Linfield v Cliftonville as the support act.
Having been on the road over the past fortnight, Linfield were back at Windsor Park, hoping to build on the momentum of those three games.
Cliftonville had just come off the back of a League Cup defeat, their first in the competition since 2011, and after extra-time as well. You’re never tired if you win after extra-time.
Going into the game, Linfield were four points clear of Cliftonville. Not only would a win keep up the pressure on Crusaders, but pull themselves clear of Cliftonville, to ensure they are looking up and not having to be looking at who was behind them.
Linfield kept the same team that started against Dungannon, and had the first attacking moment of the game when Ross Gaynor’s cross went across the six yard box. Agonisingly, nobody was running in.
Cliftonville were having half chances, forcing Linfield into last gasp tackles. They were having too much possession in Linfield’s final third.
Linfield thought they had the lead when Jamie Mulgrew fired a shot just wide. It was Cliftonville who had the best chance of the half when Stephen Garrett’s volley just went wide of the post. He really should have scored.
Andrew Waterworth had Linfield’s best attacking moments in the first half when a shot was saved from a wide angle, and a half chance in the six yard box was diverted wide for a corner.
Crangle gonna Crangle, denying Linfield a penalty when Paul Smyth was clattered in the penalty area at a cross with the ball nowhere to be seen.
When Linfield fans held him to account at free-kicks by counting one to ten in a chant, he managed to walk in tiptoes rather than actual steps.
One of those free-kicks was a Niall Quin shot fro ma central position, which went just wide.
In the early minutes of the second-half, it was Cliftonville who took the lead when a headed clearance fell perfectly for Daniel Hughes to fire home.
Thinking on the positive side, it should have been the wake-up call for Linfield. It wasn’t. The response was slow in coming.
Paul Smyth had the best chance when he fired over from close range. In a game where Linfield had created very few chances, it was essential to make the most of them whenever they came.
David Healy turned to the bench, bringing on Ross Clarke and Kirk Millar.
It was Sean Ward who had Linfield’s next chance, but his volley was saved by Peter Burke. It looked like being one of those days.
There wasn’t long to wait for an equaliser, as Andrew Waterworth fired home from close range after a header was cleared.
Having lost leads away to Glenavon, Ballymena, Crusaders and Glentoran, it’s clear that Cliftonville are vulnerable when teams equalise against them on the road. This goal should have been the cue for Linfield to push forward and get the win, especially with left-back Levy Ives struggling with injury.
It was Cliftonville who looked the most likely team after that, and got a late winner when Ross Lavery scored from close ranger after a scramble.
At home to a team who have struggled on the road, and had a demoralising extra-time defeat on Wednesday night, Linfield should have powered on after the equaliser. This was three points thrown away. Coumpounded by news of Crusaders getting another injury time winner.
The title race is far from over, but there’s not much room for error for Linfield. Without sounding arrogant, the fixture list over the coming weeks is generous, with Portadown, Carrick and Ards next up.
If we have any ambitions of winning the league, nine points has to be the target. In the same run of games, Crusaders have to go to two grounds (Dungannon and Ballinamallard) they’ve struggled at in recent years. It could all change in the coming weeks. If it does, it has to be in Linfield’s favour. The gap can’t be allowed to get any bigger.
Next weekend, the Swifts will be battling to reach the Steel and Sons Cup Final. Good luck to them. The final is on Christmas Eve this year, so it’ll be more convenient for me (and i’m sure many other supporters) to attend this year.
That game at Portadown next week is one i’ll be missing as i’ll be in England. Next Saturday, i’ll be seeing Lisburn take on Sandy Row, in respect of the opposing managers in Oldham (Stephen Robinson) v Peterborough (Grant McCann) as I’m going over to Old Trafford on Thursday to see United take on Feyenoord, then staying over for the West Ham game the following Sunday, my first glimpses of Mourinho’s United in the flesh.
Not that United’s form is cheering me up at the moment.