Regardless of Coleraine and Crusaders results on Friday night, this was always going to be a must-win game for Linfield and Cliftonville. Both had hoped that they would be aiming to capitalise on dropped points by one or both. The reality that they woke up to on Saturday morning was that they were needing to win just to keep in touch after Crusaders beat Ballymena and Coleraine beat Warrenpoint.
Three points seperated these teams in Cliftonville’s favour at kick-off. Despite that, the two clubs had near similar records with the same amount of goals conceded but Linfield with one goal more scored. That meant that a win by any score would see Linfield leapfrog Cliftonville in the table.
The two clubs had one unwanted similarity this season, their records against fellow Top 5 teams.
5th at kick-off, Linfield were the highest ranked team that Cliftonville had beaten this season. They might have arrived at Windsor Park on a run of seven wins in a row and eleven wins out of the last twelve, but the run was perhaps deceptive.
Impressive you might think, but that run includes games against Carrick (x2), Warrenpoint (x2), Glentoran (x2), Dungannon Swifts, Ballinamallard, Ards and Ballymena. To be honest, you would expect them to be on that sort of run with that fixture list.
There were four changes to Linfield’s starting eleven after last week’s draw with Warrenpoint, with Robert Garrett, Josh Robinson, Cameron Stewart, Jamie Mulgrew and Stephen Fallon coming in for Chris Casement, Andrew Mitchell, Stephen Lowry, Jordan Stewart and Kirk Millar.
None of the players who were left out could really complain.
Cliftonville made a good start to the game, Linfield weren’t really at it. Inside the first couple of minutes, a Cliftonville corner was cleared, with the resulting play seeing Levi Ives play a through ball to Rory Donnelly, whose shot when clean through was easily saved by Roy Carroll. It was far too easy for Cliftonville.
That would turn out to be the only moment of worry for Linfield fans in the first-half. Cliftonville’s only main attacking moment of note came when Rory Donnelly was played into a good shooting position but sliced wide when the obvious thing to do was to shoot across Carroll.
Linfield couldn’t get the ball. Anytime they got a free-kick, Cliftonville wouldn’t give them the ball to restart the game. They knew what they were doing, they were trying to get a reaction from Linfield players, Robert Garrett getting needlessly involved.
Linfield players weren’t buying it, but they were worryingly browsing at the shop window.
Eventually, Linfield were able to get more of the ball and had their first attacking moment when a corner from Niall Quinn bounced over. If it hit the woodwork or the ground, Josh Robinson would have been in prime position to score into an empty net.
Another promising attack saw Niall Quinn cross for Andrew Waterworth. Waterworth couldn’t quite get into himself into a shooting position, ending up getting tackled, but the ball fell perfectly for Stephen Fallon, who fired home.
You could say that it was a lucky goal, but you make your own luck, and Fallon did that by being in the right place. Far too many times this season, the ball has fallen to an opposition player. This time, it fell to a Linfield player.
Suddenly, Cliftonville were looking shaky, struggling to cope with Cameron Stewart. The game had turned in Linfield’s favour.
Soon after, Robert Garrett got himself booked. Cliftonville players were now targeting him, trying to get a reaction from him and a second yellow card. It hard worked before for them, in February 2014.
Garrett has been sent-off four times as a Linfield player – 2008 (Glentoran), 2011 (Glenavon), 2014 (Cliftonville) and 2017 (Ballymena)
Logically, it would seem that he’s not due a red card until 2020, so he has two years, one week and two days left to kick all round him.
In all seriousness, as the half-time whistle blew, Linfield fans were expecting to see Stephen Lowry introduced from the bench in place of Robert Garrett. As the teams entered the field for the second-half, that would prove not to be the case.
It was a second-half that Linfield would start strongly, attacking Cliftonville and testing their defence. Cameron Stewart was able to get in behind them but his cross was blocked.
It came was no surprise when Linfield made it 2-0 on 56 minutes. The start of the move may have been though.
An inswinging Cliftonville free-kick was caught by Roy Carroll, who threw it to Niall Quinn, who cut inside his man, played it to Jamie Mulgrew, who played in Andrew Waterworth, who made it 2-0, off the post.
As Waterworth ran through on goal, there was only going to be one outcome. Hoever, as the strike was hit, from where I was sat, it looked like it was going agonisingly wide. Thankfully not.
Returning from injury, it was business as usual for Mulgrew. That included being fouled, making up for lost time as he looks to win the award of most fouled player for the umpteenth time in succession.
It was noticeable during the first-half that when Roy Carroll caught a cross or set piece, he was looking to release the ball straight away for a counter attack, barking at his team-mates for not being on his wavelength. His willingness to launch a counter attack was rewarded.
Not long after that, Stephen Lowry came on for Robert Garrett. David Healy had gambled on keeping Robert Garrett on until Linfield increased their lead. It was a gamble that paid off.
Stephen Fallon blasted over from a similar position that he scored from as Linfield tried to make it 3-0.
Cliftonville’s response was to take off Joe Gormley and replace him with Daniel Hughes, to ironic cheers from the home support.
A surprising substitution to some. If you’re chasing the game, you’d rather have Joe Gormley on the pitch, no matter how bad he was playing.
It didn’t matter who was on the pitch, as Cliftonville never looked like scoring, though Daniel Hughes did force Roy Carroll into a save from outside the box, that was as good as it got for Cliftonville.
Stephen Fallon was replaced by Kirk Millar for the final minutes. Nobody has really claimed right midfield this season since Paul Smyth, the vacancy is there. Fallon has given himself an excellent opportunity of making it his over the past two Saturdays.
Kirk Millar would be facing a Cliftonville side that by now had lost their discipline, falling for the type of tricks that they were trying to pull on Linfield players in the first-half.
Brian Neeson barged into Louis Rooney after a challenge. The ball was still in play and the game was still live. It should have been a penalty. Cliftonville were rattled and frustrated, and Linfield players and fans knew it.
A much needed win for Linfield, that sees them jump above Cliftonville into 4th, both those sides below Glenavon, who beat Dungannon.
This was Cliftonville’s first defeat in seven games. Ending runs but not really going on one of their own has been a Linfield trademark this season. They had previously ended Coleraine’s unbeaten start and Glenavon’s unbeaten home record.
The challenge that is next, is ending Glentoran’s one match unbeaten run, Crusaders unbeaten recent run (Sorry Cliftonville, but you’re not winning on Boxing Day) and Coleraine’s unbeaten home record (Sorry Ballymena, but you’re not winning on Boxing Day)
There is also Linfield Swifts on Christmas Day against Newington in Steel and Sons Cup Final, so hopefully they can win the trophy for the second successive year. I’m not going, but if you are, enjoy yourself.
Curiously, last year was the last time the trophy was used and a new replica will be used in the future. It would be a nice curiousity if Linfield Swifts were to be the last and first winners of each trophy.
I forgot to mention last week, that Easyjet have announced routes to Valencia and Naples from Belfast. I think they will only be seasonal and only on a couple of days a week, so that put an end of my dreaming of a football weekend.
Closer to home, this week saw the announcement of the 2018 League Of Ireland fixture list.
The date I was looking out for was Friday 13th July, as i’ll be off for the July Holidays. I might book an overnight to Dublin that day, and take in a football match while doing touristy stuff.
The matches on in Dublin I will have to choose from if I go down that day will be Bohemians v Sligo Rovers or Shelbourne v Drogheda United.
Also, a full fixture list on Monday 12th March with Wateford at home interests me as I have to use excess carry-over Annual Leave by the end of March and I do want to see Waterford Walls.
Back to Linfield, and dates for the two outstanding League matches were announced this week, with a trip to Carrick on Tuesday 9th January and a home match against Glenavon on Tuesday 27th February.
That trip to Carrick is concerning, as it is added to an already packed fixture list, making it six games in seventeen days. Expect to see a lot of changes for the Irish Cup tie against Glebe.
Tuesday 16th January is the NIFL Cup Semi-Finals, why not play that night? Can’t say anything about the competition wanting sole billing as there’s a full fixture list on the weekened of the Final. Or even just play it on the Wednesday?
Tuesday 23rd January is the County Antrim Shield Final. Can’t say anything about that competition wanting sole billing as Cliftonville played Carrick Rangers on the night of the Final in 2016.
I just think we’re not helping ourselves by agreeing to that date.
However, we can flip it around to our advantage. If we win the next three games, we’ll probably be desperate to play Carrick on January 2nd, and use it as an opportunity to get some points on the board after a productive Christmas. Hopefully.
So, I sign off by wishing you a Merry Christmas, except if you support Newington, Glentoran, Crusaders or Coleraine. May you have an awful 25th December, 26th December, 30th December or 1st January, whichever is applicable.