It was a far different scenario than when Linfield made their second visit of the season to Solitude last season.
Of course, as you will remember, that game in April 2017 saw Linfield needing three points to secure the title. This time around, the three points were needed to put pressure on Glenavon in the race for 3rd, while a defeat would see them drop to 5th.
As recently as last Saturday, Linfield fans didn’t know if or when this match was going to take place. I’ll be touching on that later.
I headed to my usual spot for lunch when I go to Solitude. Every time I go there, we win. Well, apart from the last time I visited Solitude. I’m blaming it on my trip to The Co-Op afterwards to get a banana for jinxing us.
It definitely wasn’t us playing defensively and trying to hold onto a lead and giving the initiative to Cliftonville.
I had to take a carry-out lunch as there were two Linfield players (not in the matchday squad) hogging a table. Shameful behaviour that brings the game into disrepute. Okay, it’s not quite stealing a taxi, but still.
Linfield got off to a good start, putting Cliftonville on the back foot, with Andrew Waterworth flicking the ball over a defender only to see his shot saved. Kurtis Byrne then had instinctive close range shot saved.
Jay Donnelly then had Cliftonville’s first shot, but it was easily saved.
Achille Campion, recalled to the starting eleven, was involved in most of Linfield’s attacks, making life uncomfortable for Cliftonville’s defenders, as was Niall Quinn, with most of Linfield’s attacks coming down their left.
Campion fired over from inside the penalty area after the ball came to him after a Kirk Millar shot was blocked.
Gareth Deane was then forced into his first real save when he made himself big to deny Chris Curran after the ball fell to him.
Cliftonville were then denied when Jamie Harney hit the bar after a header from a free-kick.
Both sides had reason to feel aggrieved that it was still 0-0.
It was becoming clear that this was a game where the first goal would be vital. Five minutes before the break, Linfield got it when a Kirk Millar corner was headed home by Jimmy Callacher
It was the second time he has scored for Linfield at Solitude, having scored there, and at the same end in March 2016.
Paul Smyth made it 2-0 and secured the points that day. He did the same yesterday, but unfortunateley for Linfield fans, it was at Loftus Road, setting up Matt Smith to give QPR a 2-0 win over Bolton.
The opening minutes of the second-half saw some desperate defending from Linfield, with Mark Stafford blocking a shot on the line, and then blocking a shot from outside the box.
Kurtis Byrne then had a shot saved by Brian Neeson as Linfield looked for the second goal that they needed.
Byrne then made way soon afterwards, replaced by Ryan Strain.
At the same time, Cliftonville made a change, bringing on Rory Donnelly for Joe Gormley, the second successive match against Linfield that Gormley had been substituted just after the hour mark.
With fifteen minutes to go, Linfield got the two goal lead they needed when a Niall Quinn free-kick went in. It wasn’t Quinn who scored it, somebody got a touch to put the ball in. Who? That is up for debate.
I was stood to the left of the goal and thought it was headed in by Achille Campion. He celebrated like he scored it. Some media outlets have given the goal as a Tomas Cosgrove own goal. The TV footage is inconclusive.
It will probably go to the Dubious Goals Committe, which in the Irish League is if the attacking player shouts loud enough for it to be awarded to him.
What’s the French for “Oi! That’s my goal?”
2-0 up and coasting, Linfield fans started taking the piss out of Cliftonville goalkeeper Brian Neeson. He responded by offering one of them out, and it wasn’t for a date.
He even managed to do his own Conor Devlin tribute by booting the ball away (like for his red card in the Irish Cup tie in 2016) as Linfield had a corner. He managed to get a yellow card.
It was hilarious to see a goalkeeper getting so wound up and distracted so easily. This is something our players should be looking to exploit in two weeks time. It’s a pity we won’t have fans in the Railway End for that game.
Just when everything seemed to be going smoothly, Cliftonville pulled a goal back on 81 minutes from a low Jay Donnelly shot. It looked a goalkeeping mistake from where I was stood. On looking at the TV replay, it looks like a small deflection off a Linfield player which took the ball over Deane.
Gareth Deane has made some errors earlier in the season but there’s been absolutely no complaints about his performances since he came into the team against Coleraine in late January. Don’t forget, he made a vital save from Chris Curran when the score was 0-0.
The goal also ruined his own personal record against Cliftonville. Prior to this game, he had faced them three times, won every match (by an aggregate of 10-0) and obviously kept three clean sheets.
Four clean sheets in a row was gone, but he was still on course for four wins out of four.
It was around this point in the game that Cliftonville began their comeback in September.
At that game, you could feel a bad vibe at what was going to happen next.
At this game, it was more of an inconvenience.
Cliftonville fired a lot of crosses in, but that it what Linfield had to deal with. Both of their Donnellys had headers, but they went well wide of goal. Gareth Deane wasn’t troubled, and neither were Linfield.
Special mention to new signing Joe Crowe who was solid and reliable and kept it simple. He already looks like a decent acquisition to the squad.
However, David Healy appeared not to learn the lessons of September by bringing on Josh Robinson for Achille Campion. You could argue that Andrew Mitchell would have been a better choice. The real answer was, Stephen Fallon or Brandon Adams. Going defensive to hold on to a lead doesn’t work. It’s bitten us on the arse too many times in recent seasons.
Linfield were able to see the game out and get the win. There was no real danger of points being dropped, as Cliftonville couldn’t get hold of the ball in injury time.
Thankfully. Having been at the Ulster match the night before, I wasn’t in the mood for last minute heartbreak on two successive days.
This match was originally scheduled for the Friday night but was played on the Saturday afternoon. The confusion regarding arrangements for this game has been utterly farcical.
When the fixture list is done in June, the games I look out for are International Weekends and the NIFL Cup Final for possible postponements. The further that Cliftonville advanced in the competition, the more this game was in doubt.
Linfield also had another motive for monitoring Cliftonville’s cup progress as we could have used any potential free weekend to play their oustanding (Postponed from 7th October due to International Call-Ups and also Linfield playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup) League match against Glenavon.
Cliftonville’s NIFL Cup Semi-Final against Ballymena United was postponed three times. That was unfortunate. The fact they were having the third go just ten days before the Final was stupidity on behalf of NIFL.
There were three spare midweeks between week commencing 10th December and week commencing 5th February that weren’t used.
I can understand clubs being reluctant to play on week commencing 17th December as it led into two successive Saturday-Tuesday double headers.
There was a free midweek on week commencing 8th January. Clubs might have been reluctant to play that midweek having played Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday, but Linfield played Carrick Rangers on Tuesday 9th January.
If it was good enough for Linfield and Carrick Rangers, it should have been good enough for Cliftonville and Ballymena United.
The third midweek not used was week commencing 29th January.
On Monday 29th January, Cliftonville played Glenavon in a game that was broadcast on Sky Sports, having been postponed on it’s original date of Saturday 9th December 2017.
It is worth noting that Cliftonville v Glenavon on Saturday 9th December was not to have been broadcast on Sky Sports.
Sky Sports schedule their Irish League games on either International Weeks, Midweek Premier League Fixture Lists, European Weeks or FA Cup Weekends as their have no games to show, or don’t have the rights to broadcast games.
We are now in peak season in terms of knockout European football. There are plenty of midweeks in the next month where Cliftonville v Glenavon could have been scheduled for broadcast.
Why was a competition that is timebound for late March (So that 33 games can be played before the split) given priority over a competition that is timebound to be completed for mid February?
Why was Ballymena United v Cliftonville not scheduled for week commencing 29th January 2018 just as Dungannon Swifts v Crusaders was?
The knock on effect was that Linfield fans didn’t know if their team would be playing until 5pm last Saturday.
It wasn’t just any normal game. It is a game where we have to buy tickets and be bussed in. This all had to be arranged in a week.
Linfield fans were expected to purchase tickets during the working week. Thankfully, the club was open late on Tuesday evening for supporters. I was able to take advantage of this but others might not be able to.
The club deserves credit for making this option available to fans.
Linfield fans have all sorts of lifestyles and arrangements and should be given more than one week’s notice as to wether a match is on or off, and what day of the week it is taking place on, so that they can make arrangements to go to the game if they wish, and if they have anything that needs arranged in order for them to do so.
Ballymena United v Cliftonville being postponed three times was unlucky, but the point stands that three spare midweeks were not used to schedule this game into. Linfield fans have been inconvenience by utter incompetence by fixture schedulers.
As a result of Ballymena United v Cliftonville being played last Saturday, Cliftonville’s League game against Warrenpoint Town was postponed to Tuesday, and Cliftonville and Warrenpoint’s Friday games were put back to Saturday, presumably, to allow for more recovery time.
If I was Glentoran and Ards, i’d be asking questions as to why they were expected to play Tuesday and Friday, but other clubs were allowed to play Tuesday and Friday.
Upon heading home from this game, I watched the NIFL Cup Final between Ballymena United and Dungannon Swifts on Sky Sports. Well, flicking between that and the United match on BT Sport.
I was tempted to go to the NIFL Cup Final as a neutral but I was never going to make it from Solitude in time.
I’ve already said in a previous blog that Windsor Park was a poor choice for the Final due to it being too big. It was a lazy choice because they were backed into a corner because they had to choose a venue without knowing who the finalists are.
It was even more hilarious that the link for tickets was being advertised on my Social Media feeds, despite the fact that my own team was playing earlier that day.
Now it has been established (Well, it was established in 2012 when two League games were played at the same time as the Final) that League games can be played on the same day as the League Cup Final, hopefully, this will put an end to Friday night games on this weekend in future years.
Regular readers will know that I go to Edinburgh every August for the Festival, but I also like to take in a match while i’m there.
Last August, I went to see Edinburgh City.
They currently groundshare with Spartans due to the redevelopment of Meadowbank Stadium, which now won’t meet SPFL criteria. I’ll be monitoring this one. Hopefully, it all gets resolved.
Up next for Linfield is a trip to Ards followed by a home double header against Glenavon and then Cliftonville in the Irish Cup.
So that’s the short-term goal for Linfield. Win the next three games and we’ll be (at worst) level with Glenavon and into the Semi-Finals of the Irish Cup.
Linfield’s season began to go awry after the visit to Solitude in September. Hopefully, it will get on course for a strong finish after the visit in February.