So, here it was, the big top of the table clash live on Sky Sports, and a bit of a throwback to days of yore, as Glentoran and Linfield faced each other in a top of the table clash.
If the inter-city rivalry in the North-West of England the previous day was billed (Seriously, Sky, can we just stop the WWEisation of football coverage?) as Challengers v Champions, this cross-city rivalry in the North-East of Northern Ireland could be billed as Surprise Challengers v Wounded Champions.
It was a game so big, that Kylie Minogue cancelled* her concert at The Odyssey because she wanted to watch it.
(*Legal Disclaimer, might not actually be true)
With Glentoran’s match against Ballymena a few weeks back being postponed, they kicked-off six points behind Linfield. If they won this match, and that game against Ballymena, they would be level with Linfield, and very much in the title race, if Linfield consider themselves to be in it.
Linfield haven’t been a Locomotion this season, but have still left opponents Spinning Around at times. Despite now being the only unbeaten team in the League, Linfield weren’t top and wouldn’t be top even if they won, as those three drawn games meaning Glenavon had a four point lead at kick-off.
Somebody forgot to pass the memo to Glenavon that, in their role as the Spurs of the Irish League, they should start acting a bit more Spursy and not looking like a competent title chasing outfit, as demonstrated by their 4-1 win at Coleraine.
A few weeks back, there was a traffic jam at the top of the League. With each passing week, Glenavon and Linfield have started to pull away. Victory for Linfield would see them go nine points clear of Glentoran and Coleraine, ten clear of Cliftonville and maintain an eight point lead over Crusaders. Linfield would be looking up, not around them or behind them.
The traffic jam is now in the middle of the table, but that will be of no concern to Linfield.
The weather was pishing down. Just think, if this game took place on Saturday afternoon as scheduled, we would have had a nice sunny day when watching this. Standing in the pishing rain wasn’t helped by a delayed kick-off by five minutes due to crowd congestion.
Linfield’s starting eleven had one change. Chris Casement was missing, I presume, through injury, meaning Andrew Mitchell moved to right-back, while Robert Garrett came into midfield.
If he was still at the club, Joe Crowe would probably have come in for Casement. Instead, he was playing for Glentoran, having moved across the city during the summer.
I rated him, but we’re coping more than fine without him. It seemed strange that he wasn’t prepared to stay and fight for a starting place, especially when Mark Haughey is ruled out through long-term injury.
He started the game in midfield. Anyone who saw the pre-season friendly against Dundela can confirm he is not a midfielder. That’s where he was played on Monday night, and was just as ineffective.
Linfield struggled in the conditions early in the game, conceding a lot of soft free-kicks and corners, and not looking convincing when dealing with them.
One of those saw John Herron have an overhead kick when he would have been better off controlling the ball and smashing it. For some reason, Glentoran players were preferring overhead kicks in attacking situations when more functional contact would have resulted in a goal.
Steven Gordon went into the book for a foul on Joel Cooper. Good bit of refereeing, laying down the law. Sadly, it was not a marker of things to come.
A few minutes later, Glentoran players couldn’t get close enough to Cooper to kick him, running past a couple of defenders. It looked set for a right foot curler, but instead he passed to Michael O’Connor to finish low and put Linfield 1-0 up.
It came a week after his brother scored against Glentoran. Stephen Baxter will be checking to see if there is a third brother who can play for Crusaders against Glentoran on Saturday.
It was early, but not the earliest goal against Glentoran in recent years. Linfield have struggled after early goals against Glentoran at Windsor Park in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017. An early goal at The Oval in 2016 was the springboard for a 4-0 win. That was the scenario Linfield fans were hoping for.
If Joel Cooper has been racking assists all season, The Wind looked set to assist it’s first Linfield goal since Stephen Beatty scored against Glenavon in the 1994 Irish Cup Semi-Final at The Oval, when Kirk Millar’s corner hit the far post.
Calum Birney and Joe Crowe picked up yellow cards which could easily have been red.
Steven Gordon, already on a yellow card, made contact with Joel Cooper off the ball in front of the Linesman. No card.
All the attention that Joel Cooper received resulted in him having to be substituted through injury in the early minutes of the second-half, with Niall Quinn coming on. Quinn almost set up a second for Linfield, but his cross narrowly evaded O’Connor.
That came after a poor and slow start to the second-half from Linfield, with Curtis Allen missing two headed chances to equalise.
Robert Garrett danced through Glentoran’s defence, almost trying to recreate his goal against them in April 2010, but he was unable to get himself into a clear shooting position, toepoking just wide.
Linfield needed a second goal, but never looked like getting it. Andrew Waterworth came on for Daniel Kearns, a rare occurrence of both Waterworth and O’Connor being on the pitch at the same time, as usually one starts, then is subbed for the other.
Despite the slender lead, Linfield were able to hold onto their lead. After Allen’s headed chances, the closest that Glentoran came to scoring was when a free-kick upfield from Elliott Morris went goalwards, but was easily held by Roy Carroll.
For stat fans, this represented a first win for David Healy against Ronnie McFall at the fifth attempt (three defeats and one draw previously) meaning he has now won against every domestic manager he has faced.
Another statistical barrier that Linfield will be hoping to overcome in the next few weeks is their awful record in October (and November) in recent years.
In 2014, there were three successive home defeats to Cliftonville and Crusaders (x2)
2016 saw a defeat to Cliftonville followed by draws against Coleraine, Crusaders and Glenavon which gave Crusaders a massive lead at the top which Linfield were battling against until finally overcoming it in April.
The last day of September 2017 saw a defeat at Cliftonville which led into a month which saw defeats to Coleraine and Crusaders, and cup exits to Dundee United (Irn Bru Cup) and Ards (County Antrim Shield). The rest of 2017-2018 didn’t get much better.
Without sounding arrogant, the fixture list for the rest of October is generous, with three Bottom Six teams (Newry City, Ards, Dungannon Swifts) before starting November against another Bottom Six team, Warrenpoint Town.
Looking ahead to Saturday, and Newry City visit Windsor Park in the League for the first time since February 2011.
They are all must win, but this one especially so, as Glenavon’s match against Cliftonville has been postponed due to international call-ups. I would have expected Glenavon to hammer them to be honest. That match won’t be played until mid November.
A win on Saturday sees Linfield go top, and if they keep winning, the pressure will be on Glenavon to keep in touch with us.
Glenavon are the only team we have to worry about. Everybody else is too far away to worry about. They will only be a concern if the points gap closes. If Linfield keep winning, that points gap won’t close.
The good news continued for Linfield fans when is was announced that Michael O’Connor extended his contract with the club until 2020.
This match was one of two Irish League games broadcast on TV, with Crusaders v Cliftonville being broadcast on BBCNI, the first game they have broadcast as part of a package agreed with them.
Fair play to the BBC for giving two mid table teams a moment in the spotlight.
Looking ahead, games that stand out are Linfield’s home clash with Glenavon, scheduled for Saturday 22nd December. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was brought forward to the Friday.
Because of this, i’m holding off making Ulster v Munster that night my one Rugby match of the year. I usually do a European game, but they clash with Linfield matches.
To contradict myself, i’d be amazed if a Boxing Day game wasn’t shown live, though i’m not sure if the BBC would want to broadcast two games so quickly after each other.
Also on TV on Monday night was Cork City v Bohs, with Cork winning to reach the FAI Cup Final, meaning that Shamrock Rovers and Waterford will be in the UEFA Cup next season. I’m planning to be in Dublin on 11th July next year, a UEFA Cup matchnight, so if there is a game on, it will be Shamrock Rovers the only option, now that Bohs won’t be in Europe.
Talking of football matches in Dublin, €45 if you want to watch the Friendly between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I think i’ll pass on that.