In their last league matchday, Linfield reduced Crusaders lead at the top to seven points. They kicked-off against Cliftonville, a side they have lost twice to this season in the league, looking to keep that lead at seven points following Crusaders expected win over Carrick Rangers on Saturday.
The reason why Linfield were playing two days later than Crusaders was that this match was moved for live broadcast on Sky Sports, though with the counter attraction of Chelsea v Manchester United on the BBC, there were probably more people in the ground watching it than watching it on TV.
It’s great that the Irish League is getting this exposure, and we know it’s to fill gaps on FA Cup and International weekends, but Sky should have held off until the FA Cup TV games were confirmed before scheduling this.
It never stood a chance against Chelsea v United, it might have done better when slotted against Brighton v Derby on the Friday.
No doubt there were quite a lot of people in both stands keeping an eye on events at Stamford Bridge. I overheard someone behind me saying that United would take a replay, obviously unaware that FA Cup Quarter-Finals are played to a finish from this season onwards, when Ander Herrera was sent-off.
Even if supporters had an eye on Chelsea v United, Linfield players had to focus on the task in front of them, getting three points to keep the pressure on Crusaders, against a Cliftonville team in a rotten run of form. They were there for the taking, Linfield had to go out and take them.
February and March have been defining months for Cliftonville in recent years, winning runs setting up title successes in 2013 and 2014, while poor runs of form have caused damage to them in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
From the outside, it appears their players have given up following their Irish Cup exit and are fulfilling fixtures ahead of the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, just like last season. The worrying thing for them is, they exited the Irish Cup two rounds earlier this season.
However, Cliftonville’s concerns are not my concerns.
For most of the season, Linfield have been in a sandwich – trying to keep up with Crusaders in front while trying to keep clear of Cliftonville behind them. An eleven point lead at kick-off meant that Linfield had stopped worrying about Cliftonville overtaking them a long time ago,
I arrived at Windsor Park, as I do for most weeknight matches, in a totally shitty mood, after navigating the street from hell known as Elgantine Avenue.
This is a street where the residents have just enough brain power to order a taxi, but not enough to be ready when the taxi comes, meaning that taxis are just parked in the middle of the street, and you have to go around them to get past.When you get to the end of the street, there are the never ending red lights.
The residents and taxi drivers can collectively just fuck right off. Fuck the fucking lot of them.
I arrived at Windsor Park to see signing in the South Stand depicting Linfield glory days past and more recent, such as the County Antrim Shield win last month, the expectant crowd hoping that more glorious images will be added over the coming months,
Cliftonville began the match like a team on a rotten run of form, being defensively nervous and giving away cheap possession when under no or little pressure.
Gradually, Linfield took control of the game, the first chance coming when a low Jamie Mulgrew shot was saved by Jason Mooney, while Mark Haughey got in front of Mooney from a cross but couldn’t direct his header in.
Some Linfield fans, dependent on their view, thought it had gone in and began celebrating. Cliftonville fans ironically cheered the premature celebrations. It was the only cheer they had all night.
Recent meetings between the two sides suggested that the first goal would be vital. You have to go back to September 2012 for the last time a team came from behind (Cliftonville at Windsor Park) to win, while Linfield’s last come from behind win was January 2011. You have to go back to April 2005 for the last time Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville.
For clarification, those stats refer to League matches, Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville in a County Antrim Shield match in October 2015.
Linfield got the breakthrough midway through the first-half when a penalty was awarded for a handball by Chris Ramsey. Stephen Lowry stepped up to make it four penalties out of four in the past month and a bit to put Linfield 1-0 up.
That lead almost disappeared soon afterwards when Mark Haughey got caught in possession in his own penalty area to concede a penalty.
Jay Donnelly put the ball wide from the resulting spot kick.
Linfield were in the mood to make Cliftonville pay for their generousity. Cameron Stewart almost made it 2-0 but his shot hit the post.
As the half neared it’s end, Linfield made it 2-0 when Jason Mooney dropped a cross and, after a bit of a scramble, Andrew Waterworth fired home from close range.
Now, i’ve seen Cliftonville fans online complaining about Mooney’s performances, but it really needs to be seen in the flesh how bad he is. He was actually much worse than they said he was.
At one corner, he caught the ball unchallenged, then held it and dropped it. It’s a pity no Linfield players were alert enough to take advantage. They really should have been, considering how bad he was playing.
He even manage to drop kick the ball out for a throw-in on the halfway line. Linfield fans were running low on sympathy for him.
This performance from October is truly astounding. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact it gifted Crusaders three points.
Cliftonville started the second-half having a lot of the ball but not doing much with it. Despite that, Linfield were giving them too much encouragement and needed to quickly improve.
It soon became clear that Cliftonville never looked like scoring no matter how much of the ball they had. Linfield’s full-backs were their most worked defensive players, and that was juts shepherding the ball out for a throw or a goal kick.
Despite recent memories of blowing two goal leads to draw against Cliftonville, Linfield fans were relaxed at 2-0 up. Despite that, they would have preferred their team to make it 3-0.
Mark Stafford thought he did it, but his header hit the post, before a spectacular effort went wide later of.
Mark Haughey had a goal disallowed. There was a bit of confusion as to why. It was either offside against Andrew Waterworth who crossed it, or the ball went out of play before he crossed it. I haven’t seen a TV replay of it yet.
Paul Smyth was running the show for Linfield, and it was no surprise when he was announced as the Man Of The Match.
Up next is a home match against Ards. If we win that, the gap is cut to four, and an opportunity to put pressure on Crusaders before they play on Sky next Monday against Ballinamallard.
If we win all our games, we only need Crusaders to slip up twice. It’s not that inconceivable.
Meanwhile, I got myself a ticket for the Irish Cup Semi-Final against Dungannon on April 1st. Having Ticketmaster is handy, but it should never be the only option. It’s good that the club are able to sell tickets as well to compliment this.
I decided to be a hero and get mine at Monday lunchtime as I work in the City Centre, leaving Windsor Park tickets for those who find it more convenient to get from there, instead of getting one at this match.
Staying at Windsor Park, a new Education and Heritage Centre was opened last week. It’s a Museum. Let’s just call it what it is. I’m hoping to get a chance to visit this soon, though it won’t be immediately soon.
Roy Carroll has been called-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the match against Norway. Hopefully, a deal can be done to allow him to play against Ballinamallard the day before. We only win at Ballinamallard when i’m there, and i’m not sure if I could get to a midweek match.
And finally, the post split fixtures have been confirmed. For Linfield, it is :
H Crusaders (8th April)
A Ballymena United (15th April)
H Glenavon (18th April)
A Coleraine (22nd April)
A Cliftonville (29th April)
Going to be some fun trying to get a ticket if the title race goes to the last day. On the plus side, if Cliftonville’s slide continues, there may be plenty of spaces in the home end that day.
Despite a seven point deficit to make up, things are looking up for Linfield fans. And it just gets better, up next is a Saturday 3pm match at home.
Remember when Linfield played home matches at 3pm on a Saturday? Don’t blame you if you don’t, it’s only our second of 2017.