Today at Seaview was not make or break for Linfield’s season. Defeat, though disappointing, wouldn’t have signalled the end of 2016-2017 as a competitive matter. However, a 2-0 win for Linfield means that, if they do the business in their three remaining League matches in March, April has the potential to be a very interesting month for Linfield.
Crusaders went into this game hoping for fifth time lucky, on two counts. They were hoping for a first win of the season against Linfield at the fifth attempt. If they did that, they would be hoping to reach the Irish Cup Final for the first time since 2012, after four successive Semi-Final defeats.
An Irish Cup Quarter-Final in North Belfast wasn’t a new experience for Linfield, having won 3-0 at Solitude on this weekend last year. Linfield went into that game looking to get a win against a team they had struggled againts in recent years and hadn’t beaten in a while. This year, they were facing a team they knew how to beat, winning three and drawing two of the last six games against Crusaders.
Linfield were boosted by the returns of Roy Carroll and Mark Haughey for this match, coming in for Alex Moore and Reece Glendenning, the only changes from last week’s win at The Oval.
The pre-match arrangements were farcical, as I looked for the turnstile on my ticket, a Police Officer told me what turnstile to go to, and when I got to that turnstile, I got told to go elsewhere. The very same thing happened when I attended the League Cup Final at Seaview two weeks ago.
It turned out that the turnstile I had to go to was a Fire Exit being used to let people in. Seriously, if you’re going to direct people to certain entrances on their ticket, at least have it signposted where it is.
And as a bonus, they put up segregation between Linfield supporters in the Shore Road Stand and the St Vincent Road Stand. One of the advantages of Seaview is being able to freely move position during the game. Can’t even do that now. For future reference, i’ll just make sure I have a ticket for the St Vincent Road Stand.
There weren’t many chances for Linfield, Mainly due to the fact that any time they did try to go on the attack, it was usually stopped by a Crusaders foul. The early minutes were dominated by Crusaders fouls, their players safe in the knowledge that referee’s cards would remain in his pocket due to it being “too early” to issue a yellow card.
Crusaders fired a lot of crosses into Linfield’s box which was mostly defended, barring a few shaky moments, resulting in a few needless corners and throws conceded.
Linfield’s first real quality attacking moment saw Andrew Waterworth get enough space to tee up an onrushing Steven Lowry, whose shot was saved by Sean O’Neill’s feet, with Paul Smyth firing over the rebound.
Crusaders best chance came when a Rodney Brown header was easily saved by Roy Carroll, while Linfield ended the half with Paul Smyth firing wide, Jimmy Callacher having an effort cleared off the goal-line (it was hitting the post anyway) and Steven Lowry heading over.
It was 0-0 at half-time, just as it was at Solitude last year in the Quarter-Final against Cliftonville. The big difference was the weather, with hail and rain falling from the sky for most of the first-half.
Gavin Whyte had Crusaders best chance in the early minutes of the second-half, but his near post effort was tipped wide by Roy Carroll, while Linfield belatedly got into the second-half, with Niall Quinn heading agonisingly wide.
As each minute passed at 0-0, it was clear that the first goal was going to be key. Jordan Owens had the ball in the net for Crusaders, heading home from a corner. The goal was rightly disallowed for a foul by David Cushley blocking off Roy Carroll.
Paul Smyth was the danger man for Linfield, whipping in a cross into the six yard box which agonisingly missed everyone. The next time he got free, would be the moment Linfield got the breakthrough.
Smyth got the ball on the right hand side and ran towards goal, making his way into the penalty area. As the crowd waited to see if he was going to pass or shoot, Billy Joe Burns attempted a last gasp tackle and brought him down, the referee pointing to the spot. It was such a clear penalty, even the Crusaders players didn’t complain, and they’ll complain about anything.
Crusaders had been the beneficiaries of penalty misses by the opposition this season. The County Antrim Shield Final wasn’t one of those games, as Steven Lowry put Linfield 3-1 up with a spot kick in that game.
Lowry went to the same side today, O’Neill guessed he might and went that way. It didn’t matter, the power beat him, and Linfield were 1-0 up. Three from three from the spot from Lowry in recent weeks.
Aaron Burns for Cameron Stewart was a substitution that was always going to happen in the second-half. It came a bit later than people would have expected, David Healy having an eye on the fact that this game might need 120 minutes rather than 90.
Despite an aerial bombardment, Linfield were relatively comfortable at 1-0 up. Like in the League game on New Year’s Eve and the County Antrim Shield Final, as long as Linfield did nothing stupid, they would see the game out.
Paul Smyth went off inured and was replaced by Sean Ward. The obvious replacement would have been Kirk Millar. One criticism I have of David Healy is that he is easily tempted to go defensive sometimes. If Crusaders did force extra-time, we would have no attacking threat (no offence to Sean Ward) in right midfield in the extra half hour.
In truth, Linfield were never in danger, and made sure of it as injury time approached as Jamie Mulgew charged forward. It looked like he was playing to win a corner, but got the the byline, got past a defender, and crossed to Niall Quinn to head home from close range to make it 2-0.
As soon as the ball went in, the home stands at Seaview emptied. Linfield supporters who had bought tickets for the Crusaders end were easy to spot. They were the ones still in their seat.
For the second successive season, Linfield had won an Irish Cup Quarter-Final in North Belfast. We even got a repeat of the sunshine that Linfield fans celebrated in at Solitude last year.
Unlike last season, we didn’t get a couple of comedy red cards in the final minutes. That would have been greedy. We did get Jordan Forsythe going in hard on Jamie Mulgrew on the touchline, a tackle that was born of frustration. Mulgrew just got up and laughed at him. It was the perfect response.
The other ten teams in the League might be scared of Crusaders. Linfield, certainly aren’t.
Naturally, attention turned to the Semi-Final draw, and Linfield were paired with Dungannon Swifts at Mourneview Park. Very happy with that choice of venue.
The other Semi-Final is between Coleraine and Glenavon. I’m glad that Coleraine won today as it continues their unbeaten run. They host Crusaders at the end of the month. That game can’t come soon enough as far as Linfield are concerned.
However, Linfield need to help themselves, starting with the home match against Cliftonville next Monday night. That game will be broadcast live on Sky Sports by the way.