There may have been sixteen ties in the Irish Cup today, but there was only one which took top billing as Glentoran and Linfield faced each other at The Oval, hoping to avoid an early exit in a season that hasn’t gone to plan for both clubs.
Linfield’s season was best summed up in the past week, by cutting the gap at the top last Saturday at Seaview, then seeing all that work undone with a defeat to Coleraine. It wasn’t quite make or break for Linfield today, but the fallout from an early Irish Cup exit was a distraction they could do without.
As well as the disappointing result on Tuesday, Linfield would go into this game without Jimmy Callacher, their matchwinner on their last visit to The Oval in October, through suspension as a result of his red card. Perhaps surprisingly, Jamie Mulgrew coming in for him was the only change from Tuesday’s team.
Linfield had a lot of possession in the early moments of the game but didn’t really do much with it. A familiar theme this season.
Linfield didn’t help themselves with misplaced and sloppy passing. One of those sloppy passes, from Aaron Burns, set up Glentoran’s first attacking moment of the game as Curtis Allen raced towards goal but Linfield’s defence was able to see off the danger.
Allen made no mistake when he was able to get a shooting position outside the box to put Glentoran 1-0 up. The goal came from more sloppy passing from Linfield, losing possession to set up a Glentoran chance, not once but twice, having already cleared an original attack, they gave Glentoran another try.
Instead of passing to each other, they were passing at each other, with predictable results.
With each passing minute, the introduction of Ross Gaynor from the bench, back after missing recent matches, was becoming a better and better idea.
It was actually a relief that Linfield were only 1-0 down at half-time, was an indication of how poor the performance was.
Linfield’s best moment in the first-half came when some nice passing played in Andrew Waterworth, whose shot beat Elliott Morris but hit the post.
I was already celebrating when the ball went past Morris. I wasn’t the only one. It’s one of those cheap laughs when opposition fans prematurely celebrate a goal. Sadly, Linfield fans were the punchline on this occasion.
Niall Quinn fired a free-kick over from a wide position as the half neared it;s end. That was as good as it got for Linfield.
Early in the second-half, Linfield made changes out wide, bringing on Ross Gaynor and Kirk Millar for Jonny Frazer and Niall Quinn. The substitution had an instant impact.
A cross from Millar forced Glentoran to concede a corner, which was cleared, and then played back to Gaynor, who got to the byline, even managing to see off a Glentoran defender trying to shepherd the ball out, to play it back to Kirk Millar to cross it in for Stephen Lowry to volley home from close range.
I had originally thought it was Aaron Burns who scored, not realising until I got home. It didn’t matter, Linfield were level.
Glentoran were sitting back and hoping to get a second on the counter or by forcing a mistake from Linfield’s defence as they chased a goal. Now they had to come up with a different gameplan.
Even if Glentoran had got a second on the counter, their recent home results (2-3 v Ballymena and 2-2 v Dungannon after being 2-0 up in both games) would have given Linfield hope, it was not an avenue they wanted to explore.
Linfield failed to build on the game swinging in their favour, all they could get was a snapshot by Andrew Waterworth straight at Morris, while Aaron Burns missed out on a goalscoring opportunity by taking a touch when he should have shot instantly.
Linfield fans thought their team was going to pay for this in the final moments as a free-kick was deflected past Roy Carroll, but just wide of the post. Glentoran are so bad these days they can’t even be jammy.
Just like on Boxing Day, it finished 1-1 after 90 minutes. Unlike on Boxing Day, there had to be a winner. Extra-time would be needed. Linfield fans went through this at this stage last year against Ballymena United. They were hoping for a similar, but less nervy outcome.
It was goal the winner. Not literally, but the way the game had gone, whoever went 2-1 down was never going to pull it back.
We had a dramatic start to extra-time, but not a goal, a delay due to a problem with the nets at the Sydenham End.
The next action at that net was a goal for Linfield when Stephen Lowry found enough space in the box to cross for Andrew Waterworth to put Linfield 2-1 up.
Within a minute, Waterworth’s game was over, as he was substituted for Sean Ward, who was unlucky not to start today in place of Chris Casement.
I can only assume Waterworth had an injury. Even though Cameron Stewart was on the bench, it wasn’t the game for a young converted defender to be leading the line. Aaron Burns and Kirk Millar took on that role with Ross Gaynor supporting.
Thankfully, Kevin Amuneke will be eligible to offer more options in attacking positions, especially with Paul Smyth still injured.
In the second-half of extra-time, you would have thought it was Linfield chasing a goal with Ross Gaynor, Aaron Burns and Stephen Lowry having chances to score. All Glentoran could offer was a Chris Lavery shot which went well wide.
Kirk Millar was played through and had a toepoke saved by Morris despite having time to run through and set himself up to shoot.
Aaron Burns as he ran on to a through ball, clear on goal with only Morris to beat, not by Elliott Morris, but by a referee’s whistle pulling the game back for a foul on a Linfield player.
All the ref had to do was to wait a few seconds. Burns might have missed, he might have scored. Elliott Morris might have got to the ball first. It would have been good to know.
As the game entered the final minutes, a section of Linfield supporters taunted their rivals by chanting “YOU’RE SEASON’s OVER, WHY DON’T YOU GO HOME?”
They were tempting fate. They didn’t need to worry, Glentoran weren’t going to make them look silly as Linfield held out for the win.
At half-time in extra-time, I had a quick look on Twitter for other scores, and an update during Ballymena United v Cliftonville game of a Ballymena player avoiding a second yellow card from a lenient referee.
Who was that referee? Raymond Crangle, who refereed Linfield v Coleraine on Tuesday. A second yellow instantly brandished or a final warning? Depends what colour of shirt you’re wearing.
The draw for the next round was done, giving Linfield an away trip to Institute. I shall be travelling to that one, one of the relatively easier North-West grounds to get to.
Linfield fans will be seeing a lot of Northern Ireland’s motorways over the next few weeks, with away trips on four of the next five Saturdays.
That means the match against Ballymena on 21st January will be only chance over the next few weeks to purchase Every Other Saturday, a book chronicling Linfield’s history from 1986 to 2016.
I held off in the hope that Santa would bring it to me, but he didn’t, and I was too peeved leaving the ground after the last two home games to call into the shop afterwards. Ie – I forgot.
Up next in the league is a trip to Glenavon in a must-win. If we can get through the first ten minutes with eleven men on the pitch, that would be a good start.