After defeat at The Oval on Boxing Day, David Healy said that Linfield were out of the title race. Wether he actually believed that though, is another matter.
They might have kicked off fifteen points behind morning leaders Coleraine, but with two games in hand, that gap could be reduced to nine points, the gap that Linfield clawed back from February onwards last season. Obviously, points in the bag are better to have than games in hand.
However, defeat at home to Crusaders would surely have put them out of the title race, and they would have to believe it.
It seems to be a tradition in recent years that Linfield and Crusaders meet after Boxing Day, this being the fourth successive season that the two sides have met on New Year’s Day or the last Saturday in December.
Linfield fans will have had fond memories of the last time they faced Crusaders after a Boxing Day defeat at The Oval, a 5-0 win at Windsor Park on 29th December 2007. A repeat scoreline would have been wishful thinking.
As I arrived at Windsor Park, Disappear by INXS was on the stereo. I’m not sure if that song was in relation to Linfield’s title fans, as they looked to Baby Don’t Cry over a team that has continued to Mystify this season.
They were hoping that Ryan Strain being brought into the team would be a New Sensation.
Results against Crusaders this season have been disappointing so far. That would be an understatement. Two games where we surrendered to them by playing 4-5-1, and then a third decided by a horrendous refereeing decision to send off Mark Stafford for being fouled when the game was in the balance.
Those games have seen Linfield gift goals to the opposition.
Linfield made a positive start to this game and were straight on the attack, winning a free-kick which was headed home by Josh Robinson just as sixty seconds appeared on the clock. It was the perfect start, and the first time this season that Linfield had led against Crusaders.
Linfield continued the positive start, Stephen Fallon having a shot saved after Sean O’Neill rushed out to deny Ryan Strain. There were groans that he didn’t get height on it, he really needed to in order to scored. The problem was, getting the right amount of height, so he gambled and hit it low. It didn’t pay off.
Strain and Fallon were getting a lot of joy against Crusaders defence, as was Matthew Clarke. The start was similar to the County Antrim Shield Final. Except, that Linfield couldn’t get a second goal when they were on top.
Crusaders then had chances. Jordan Owens hit the bar from a header after a soft free-kick given for a foul on Paul Heatley. For a player renowned for going down at the slightest touch, Linfield players were giving him too many excuses to go down, and the officials were buying it.
In the opening minutes, it appeared that someone had given Arnold Hunter a rulebook for Christmas as he was actually awarding free-kicks and punishing Crusaders tactical fouling.
He might have had a rulebook, but it appeared he didn’t get a yellow card for Christmas.
That was until midway through the half when his yellow card appeared frequently but his rule book seemed to disappear.
Well, not for Howard Beverland, who seemed to be able to foul without consequence throughout the first-half.
A big second-half performance was needed from Linfield, but they couldn’t get the early goal like last week against Cliftonville.
Just before the hour, Crusaders equalised when Billy Joe Burns fired home from long range. As good as the goal will look on TV, questions have to be asked of Linfield’s defending.
It came from a clearance from Matthew Clarke clearing it inside across the pitch rather than the way he was playing.
It’s literally schoolboy stuff, the first thing you learn when learning to play football.
Yes, Matthew Clarke was under pressure, but he had options. He could have won a cheap foul or gone safety first and just conceded a throw.
By clearing the ball across the pitch, he put his own team under pressure that they didn’t need to be under. Even so, questions have to be asked why Billy Joe Burns was allowed so much freedom to run with the ball, especially when it was so glaringly obvious what he was going to do.
Even more worrying, was the body language of the Linfield players after the goal. They looked like they didn’t believe they could go 2-1 in front, they looked like a beaten team when the score was 1-1.
David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Robert Garrett and Ross Clarke for Jamie Mulgrew and Stephen Fallon. I’m not sure if Jordan Stewart is injured, but if he’s not, he should be in the matchday squad.
He had an awful game on his last appearance against Warrenpoint, and no player should be an automatic selection, but surely he should be on the bench. Boxing Day and today were crying out for him when the score was 1-1.
Crusaders then hit the bar twice, albeit the top of it. They were getting too close for Linfield’s liking.
On 80 minutes, came a goal that summed up Linfield’s season, as a long ball was allowed to bounce, Robert Garrett and Josh Robinson tackled each other, before Garrett stands on the ball when trying to win it back, while Robinson backs off Gavin Whyte, allowing him to shoot into the bottom corner via a deflection.
If you are Alan Hansen, this is porn for you.
We’re not even losing to good goals. We’re losing to the absolute worst in Pub League goals.
You don’t to single players out but that’s the second goal this week we’ve conceded that you look at Robert Garrett and think “Hmmmmm”. He’s not the worst offender this season or in recent weeks. Josh Robinson’s contribution in this goal is also questionable.
Worst thing was, it was game over. You just looked at the players and they believed it was game over. It was like the worst games between 2008 and 2010, when Linfield went three years without winning a League game from behind. It was like the worst games in David Jeffrey’s final years, when we used to bend over for Cliftonville for fun. Not our fun, might I add.
Cameron Stewart came on for Ryan Strain. It was a substitution that had seemed obvious for about ten minutes before. It should have been proactive rather than reactive.
Colin Coates did have to head over on his own goal line when it looked like Andrew Waterworth was going to head home. It was the only thing that Linfield could offer rather than being the start of the siege.
There was nobody taking the game by the scruff of the neck for Linfield, nobody looking like they were going to make something happen, to offer something different.
Crusaders were able to see out the final ten minutes, aided by Sean O’Neill timewasting at goal kicks, the referee being too stupid to do anything about it. Naturally, the time wasn’t added on at the end of the game.
Linfield players looked too defeated to protest. I’m not sure how many times i have to mention it, but the players should be making an issue of it, putting teams under pressure when taking their own throws and goal kicks, getting players on yellow card tightropes, to have it in the referee’s head that the appropriate amount of injury time needs to be added when Linfield need a goal.
We can’t continue to allow ourselves to be outsmarted by stupid teams, because opposition teams aren’t slow in raising it if a Linfield player looks at them funny.
Yes, Linfield are missing Paul Smyth, but there’s no point in having Paul Smyth when you concede the goals we concede. Basic stuff. Do they even practice defending at training?
Jay Donnelly not being tracked, Jamie McGonigle being allowed a free run in the last minute, Curtis Allen allowed to roam the penalty area unmarked, take your pick from the Crusaders match in October, take your pick from the Warrenpoint game a few weeks back.
Teams don’t have to do a lot in order to score against us.
It seems to be a perfect storm, as the goals aren’t going in at the other end, which seems to be a strange thing to say about the only team in the League to have scored in every game this season.
We’re not killing teams off when we’re in front, and not seeing the game out when we need to.
We have options up front, but nobody seems to be making the most of the opportunity when they get a game or a run of games.
Brandon Adams has been scoring for fun in the Reserves but has been anonymous when he’s made a first team appearance. Louis Rooney needs a goal but hasn’t looked like getting one.
We’ve conceded last minute winners to Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glentoran. They were all games we never looked like losing. Even those three points could give us a glimmer of hope.
We’ve thrown away leads against Cliftonville, Ballymena, Glentoran and Crusaders. We led at half-time in three of those games (the other was a late first-half goal) and never looked like losing when we went in at half-time in any of those games.
We wouldn’t be top with those twelve points, but we’d be in a far better position.
Where has all the self-belief gone? Where has the concentration in the final minutes of games gone? All the bad habits from David Jeffrey’s final years have returned. Why are we not turning up in big games?
For the second successive matchday, Coleraine have dropped points and we haven’t taken advantage. Now we’re eying up Glenavon instead, hoping to finish 3rd to possibly secure European Football.
We can’t let heads go down and for the season just to drift. If Cliftonville in 2014 were our reference point last season, Cliftonville in 2015 have to be our reference point for how not to do things, they let the season drift once the title had gone, finishing 5th and have never recovered.
Up next, is a trip to Coleraine on Monday afternoon (Or, New Year’s Day, if you prefer), starting 2018 at the venue of my favourite football match in 2017 (The one in April, not October, in case you hadn’t worked it out)
Before the match, I purchased the addendum to Every Other Saturday, to include last season’s three trophies.
I’d held off purchasing it in case Santa got it for me. He didn’t.
I’m hoping the players got a copy and read it on the long journey to Coleraine. They could do with the inspiration, and a reminder that they are a far better team than results and league position suggests.