Top of the league and and eight goal win in the League Cup, it’s fair to say that August went quite well for Linfield. The first day of a new month saw Ards visit Windsor Park, knowing that if they continued their early season form over the next three weeks, they would have an opportunity to pull clear at the top of the table.
At kick-off, the Top 7 were separated by 3 points. This matchday had two games that pitted two of them against each other, 2nd place Glenavon at home to Glentoran and, most notably, Crusaders at home to Coleraine.
With point droppage below them guaranteed, Linfield knew that they could pull clear of at least two rivals with a win, especially with Crusaders and Coleraine being inactive in League terms next weekend.
A run of games against the bottom three represented a great opportunity for Linfield to rack up points in September.
For two of those games, Linfield would be without Jamie Mulgrew following his red card at Solitude last week, having served the first of a three match ban against Moyola Park in midweek.
After the Crusaders game two weeks ago, I stated that a case could be made for resting Mulgrew during the season. I certainly wasn’t advocating it for the first week of September. Two games out, two games in then three games out isn’t ideal for getting momentum, but having seen him slot in like he’d never been away against Crusaders, there shouldn’t be any concerns about his performance when he returns against Dungannon Swifts.
This has been a kind fixture to Linfield in recent years, winning all six meetings since Ards returned to the top flight in 2016, including keeping five clean sheets, though Ards will have fond memories of their last visit to Windsor Park, winning 1-0 in the County Antrim Shield last season.
In a game like this, an early goal is always a bonus, and Linfield almost had one inside thirty seconds when an overhit cross from Niall Quinn almost went straight in, with Ards just about clearing the resulting corner.
Even though Ards had the ball in Linfield’s half in the opening minutes, they never looked like causing any danger, as Linfield looked the most likely team to score when they had the ball.
Michael O’Connor looked like he was going to head home but was blocked off by an Ards defender to deny him an attempt on goal, before another header later on went over.
The pressure continued when Matthew Clarke had a low shot saved while Michael O’Connor fired a long range shot wide.
Linfield’s best chance came from a Joel Cooper run which saw Andrew Waterworth’s perfectly timed run get him in behind the Ards defence, with Sam Johnstone getting in the way of his goalbound shot, taking enough sting out of it for Jonny Frazer to make a goalline clearance just as it looked like.
Despite all of Linfield’s pressure, it looked like Ards would be going in at half-time 1-0 up when David McAllister dispossessed Chris Casement and ran through on goal only to see hid left foot shot saved by Roy Carroll, who had made himself big. A shot across Carroll would have scored, thankfully, he went for the near post.
0-0 at half-time but no need to panic. If Linfield kept attacking and creating chances, there would be no way Ards would hold out.
Though Linfield continued to have a lot of the ball but there was no real urgency, Ards weren’t holding on. It took a while for Linfield to get going.
In both halves, Linfield won a lot of corners but never had any real joy. Most of them were going straight into the arms of Sam Johnstone.
This prompted a change in tactic, moving from inswingers to outswingers.
Inswinger or outswinger, there was no change in fortune. If Johnstone wasn’t catching it, there always seemed to be an Ards body in the way.
After trying to get Michael O’Connor sent-off after a tangle with a spot of playacting, Johnny Taylor got himself booked for a foul a few minutes later.
Having been sent-off against Linfield at Windsor Park in 2016 and 2017, Taylor is a walking red card, and Linfield fans were hoping he would add 2018 to the list to give their side a lucky break they needed.
More Linfield headers came but the goal didn’t. With each passing minute, it was becoming abundantly clear that if there was to be a goal, it would probably win the game.
Who would get that goal, if it came, was still in doubt, as despite Linfield’s pressure, Ards, and specifically Jonny Frazer were posing a threat on the break.
Any attempts that Ards were making to waste time were promptly stopped by quick thinking Ballboys who always made sure a new ball was immediately on the pitch to restart the game. Good to see.
David Healy turned to the bench for some attacking substitutions, with Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart coming on for Niall Quinn and Matthew Clarke.
Jordan Stewart was transfer listed in August but i’m glad he’s still at the club as he’s a player I rate. To say it didn’t happen for him today would be kind. His only moment of note was an overhit backpass on the halfway line which resulted in a corner for Ards.
With five minutes to go, a crossfield pass from Daniel Kearns and a first time cross from Chris Casement saw Andrew Waterworth get on the end of it, only to see his close range effort hit the bar.
Linfield fans thought it was going to be their moment. It turned out to be another moment that confirmed it was going to be “One of those days”.
For the final minutes, Ards had the ball in Linfield’s half but had very little ambition of going for goal, although a shot from Michael McLellan which was going well wide was almost headed in by Kyle Cherry.
In future games (apart from against Linfield) Ards will be hoping to have Ryan Strain on the end of crosses, or wayward shots, having joined on loan from Linfield on Friday night.
It was not that surprising that Strain has gone out on loan, and it’s good to see he’ll be doing so at a top flight club, like Alex Moore.
The match ended with more Linfield pressure on the Ards goal, but they just couldn’t get that pass right, or that header on goal.
If the match had lasted for ten more minutes, Linfield might have snuck a win, but they had ninety minutes to score.
It’s a frustrating two points dropped, but we had more than enough chances to win. If Linfield had got an early goal, they would have won comfortable. If – the biggest word in football. Linfield will play worse and win at some point over the next eight months.
For me, it was my first visit to Windsor Park since April. That’s three games i’ve visited since I saw a Linfield win. If we don’t beat Dungannon in two weeks, you’ll be more than justified in asking for a Banning Order put out against me.
Thankfully, results went in Linfield’s favour today, with Glenavon and Glentoran drawing. The Top 6 are separated by three points, with Ballymena the big movers up to 3rd, a point off the top, with Glenavon missing the chance to jump above Linfield.
That means we’ll all be hoping for a draw between Crusaders and Coleraine, just so that no damage is done by today’s result, as opposed to wanting to make capital of a win today.
That match is on Sky Sports. I won’t be seeing any of it as i’ll be seeing The Kooks at The Limelight.
Whatever the result of that game, both sides are inactive in the League next weekend due to their involvement in the Scottish Challenge Cup. Add to that that Glenavon’s trip to Ards has been postponed, Linfield simply have to win at bottom placed Warrenpoint on Friday night.
There’s a traffic jam at the top of the League, which Linfield lead, but they need to start pulling away.
Elsewhere in today’s results, Cliftonville lost 1-0 away to Newry City and now find themselves closer to the bottom of the League (five points) than the top (six points)
Next weekend’s games will be taking place on Friday night as Northern Ireland are playing Bosnia at home in the UEFA Nations League on Saturday afternoon. UEFA Nonsense League more like.
A competition devised to end pointless friendlies, yet teams who only have one game scheduled are using the spare date to play pointless friendlies. What a waste of time, just jump straight into the Euro 2020 Qualifiers.
Northern Ireland are one of those countries playing a pointless friendly, against Israel, which i’ll be giving a miss to, unless I score a free ticket in a competition.
If you are a Bosnian fan over for that game, or even a Fortmarine United fan over for their match, next week, there’s some great groundhopping opportunities next weekend.
Of course, you should go to Warrenpoint v Linfield on Friday, but Glentoran and Cliftonville are at home on Friday if you don’t want to leave Belfast, then Northern Ireland v Bosnia, then a walk to City Hospital for a train to Coleraine for Coleraine v Fortmarine United at 7.45pm on Saturday.
The draw for the Group Stages of the European Cup took place last week, and i’ve booked a trip to United’s match against Young Boys Berne. Of course, I was always going to choose a game taking place during Manchester Christmas Market.
Finally, the draw for the NIFL Cup took place, a competition we never win. We’ll be losing on penalties at home to Institute if you care.
Overall, a day of frustration but relief elsewhere. Even though no damage was done, it was still two points dropped.