With Matchday 4 being split across three games on Friday and three games on Saturday, Linfield fans expected to arrive at Solitude on Saturday afternoon with their side knocked off the top of the table on Friday night.
What may have surprised them was that it was Glenavon rather than Coleraine who led the table, with Coleraine missing the opportunity to do so with a 2-2 draw at home to Institute.
Linfield and Cliftonville had identical starts this season to what they had last season. Linfield with three wins and three clean sheets, while Cliftonville followed an opening day win with a defeat to Coleraine and a draw against a Bottom Six team.
Cliftonville’s start to 2018-2019 also mirrored 2017-2018 as Matchday 4 over the August Bank Holiday saw them welcome the dethroned champions, as Crusaders got a 2-1 win.
A similar result for Linfield would see them pull eight points clear of Cliftonville. Even at this early stage, it would be hard to see that being overturned.
Unsurprisingly, Linfield had an unchanged team from the previous Saturday in North Belfast. There was no need to change anything.
The game began in a relatively subdued manner and atmosphere. That soon disappeared when Ryan Catney made a reckless tackles on Daniel Kearns and got away with a yellow card.
Yellow cards were plentiful for Cliftonville in the first-half. Cynical fouls with no intention of winning the ball, such as Garry Breen taking out Jamie Mulgrew (another foul for the counter, there will be a presentation for the player who commits the 5,000th foul on him, expected to be at some point this season).
The sort of fouls that frustratingly were yellow cards, even though you wanted more for them.
A well worked free-kick saw Andrew Waterworth go just wide, while Daniel Kearns thought he had played in Waterworth only for his pass to be intercepted. He probably should have shot at goal himself.
Not a lot was happening in the early minutes of the game, neither side having any real attempts at goal, but Linfield having more of the ball in the opposition half.
The game was to change just before the half hour when Jamie Mulgrew was sent-off after challenging for the ball with Jay Donnelly. A yellow card at worst, if there was to be a card. There is absolutely no doubt that the referee was influenced by Cliftonville players running to the scene of the foul, and it happening not far from the main stand where Cliftonville fans were housed.
He bottled it and allowed himself to be intimidated. One thing that Linfield could exploit was that so many Cliftonville players were on yellow cards, and could be targeted for second yellow. The only question was would the referee have the guts to issue that card.
The last time Linfield played Cliftonville, they had a first-half red card and went to pieces in the immediate aftermath, which ultimately cost them any chance of getting something from the game. Thankfully, that didn’t happen today. The knew they had to summon the spirit of Mourneview Park 2016.
It could have been tempting to introduce Robert Garrett from the bench, but there was no need as Niall Quinn had started the season in centre midfield, so was able to slot in there.
Josh Robinson had a couple of headed chances as Linfield sought to make the most of any set pieces they had. The vast majority of set pieces were poor, often failing to beat the first man, or Linfield losing out on the second ball.
The half ended with Joe Gormley getting a yellow card for shoulder barging Roy Carroll as he held onto the ball. Carroll was targeted throughout at set pieces by Cliftonville players.
Linfield would have been glad to get in at half-time to take a breather. Despite only having ten men, at no point did they look like they were playing with ten men. They never looked like being troubled, but never really troubled Cliftonville.
They had promising situations, but just needed to get that pass right, or make that run on time.
This game was there for the winning.
Joel Cooper, already on a yellow card by this point, was lucky not to get a second yellow for a foul on Levi Ives in the Cliftonville penalty area. If he wasn’t already booked, he probably would have been booked there.
Michael O’Connor then came on for Andrew Waterworth, as Linfield searched for a winner.
On 73 minutes, Cliftonville took the lead when a throw-in bounced over Jimmy Callacher, and Linfield couldn’t get the ball off Jay Donnelly, who crossed for Joe Gormley to head home from close range. It was Cliftonville’s first chance of note in the game.
Callacher wasn’t the only Linfield player having problems on a very bouncy pitch. Every time a backpass went to Roy Carroll, you had your heart in the mouth as you didn’t know where the ball was going to go.
Linfield responded with an attacking substitution, Kirk Millar coming on for Matthew Clarke.
Despite only having ten men, it was Linfield who were outnumbering Levi Ives, with Millar, Kearns, Casement and Mitchell working opportunities down the right.
Kearns and Millar created space for Andrew Mitchell to cross right into the six yard box for Michael O’Connor to get a touch to divert the ball past Richard Brush.
It wasn’t a clean touch, but it was enough to go past the keeper, which is all that matters.
From where I was standing, I thought it was going just wide.
There was still time for either side to win the game.
Thankfully, Linfield had that extra bit of energy to see out Cliftonville’s attacks. They almost won it when Joel Cooper got in behind Cliftonville’s defence, shooting across Richard Brush, who saved it. If he parried it, Michael O’Connor would have had an open net to win the game for Linfield.
It finished 1-1, Linfield’s first dropped points, but it was Cliftonville who were left feeling that they dropped points, from two positions of strength, with a goal and a man advantage.
The draw sent Linfield back to the top of the League, one point clear of Glenavon. With three difficult away games against Top Six teams, you’ll take that, especially as they only managed two points from three games in 2009 and two points from four games in 2013 with similar starts.
Up next, is a League Cup tie at home to Moyola Park. I’ll be giving that a miss. If it was away though, i’d be all over that.
Next Saturday is the start of a new month, and my first visit to Windsor Park of the season for the match against Ards, with the mood more upbeat that the last time I headed to Windsor Park in April.
Ards is a must win game. Obviously, but especially when you look at upcoming fixture lists.
On Monday 3rd September, Matchday 5 will conclude with Crusaders watching Coleraine on Sky Sports. I may watch it if there isn’t a railway documentary on Channel 5.
One or both of them will drop points, Linfield have to win to take advantage of that.
On Matchday 5, Linfield travel to Warrenpoint while Crusaders and Coleraine are in Scottish Challenge Cup.
If Linfield can win those two games, they will pull away from at least one of their rivals.
And then in upcoming weeks after that, Glenavon will have to face Crusaders, Coleraine and Cliftonville. More guaranteed points droppage for Linfield to take advantage.
Three points seperate 1st to 7th, there’s a traffic jam at the top of the League, led by Linfield. Long may that continue.
Thursday will see the draw for the Group Stages of the European Cup, and i’ll hope to take in one of United’s group games at home.
Hopefully, it will be a competition Linfield will be playing in during 2019-2020.