The last time David Jeffrey sat on top of the Irish League table (Remember them days?), it was a result in a match between Linfield and Cliftonville at Windsor Park which knocked him off. History repeated itself, but in a lot happier circumstances than the last time it happened in March 2014.
Ballymena’s win over Newry City the night before sent them top, but Linfield knew that a win would knock Ballymena off the top and also keep them ahead of Glenavon, ensuring that next week’s visit to the Ballymena Showgrounds would be between the top two in the League.
Cliftonville arrived at Windsor Park doing their usual unnecessary use of away kit, wearing white/green/green and resembling Bulgaria.
Such is the Jeckyll and Hyde nature of Cliftonville, you knew they would resemble Bulgaria at USA 94. Wether it would be the group defeat to Nigeria (0-3) or 3rd Place Play-Off v Sweden (0-4), or the side the beat Argentina, Mexico and Germany remained to be seen.
Cliftonville arrived at Windsor Park looking for a boost after a bad week, losing to Ballymena in the League, and Dungannon Swifts in the League Cup.
That defeat to Dungannon meant that this would be the first of two meetings in five weeks, rather than the first of potentially three meetings in five weeks.
This was a match that I would be watching the first-half from The Kop.
Recently, having fans in The Kop was trialled against Ballymena, but not used against Newry City and Warrenpoint Town.
There were no concerns that it was being dropped after one game, but rather not being used against bottom six teams (Glentoran excepted). It was brought back against Coleraine, but I gambled that Linfield would attack The Kop in the second-half.
The game began with a lot of Linfield pressure. Cliftonville could barely get out of their own half. If Cliftonville players were wanting to “Leave one on” Roy Carroll in the opening minutes, they didn’t get an opportunity to.
Joel Cooper, in for the (I presume) injured Michael O’Connor, and Jordan Stewart were the main threats for Linfield down the left.
Cooper had lost his way a bit after getting injured at The Oval in early October, but a brief cameo at The Brandywell last week saw glimpses that he had found his way again.
That was evident in the first-half. Every time he got the ball, Cliftonville were scared of him, resorting to tactical and cynical fouling, which went unpunished in terms of cards, which only encouraged them.
Conceding lots of free-kicks by Cliftonville meant that Linfield were able to keep the pressure on. Cliftonville players were just getting to the ball, they weren’t clearing it. The ball was either going out for another corner, or it was being kept live for the Linfield attack to continue.
On one such occasion, the ball fell to Stephen Fallon, whose shot went just wide. From where I was sat, it looked like it was going in, and that he would repeat his feat from last season by putting Linfield 1-0 up against Cliftonville in front of The Kop.
The first-half was one way traffic, similar to the Irish Cup tie last season. Linfield found out the hard way that night about the importance of taking your chances when you are on top. They had to make this pressure count.
Cliftonville couldn’t hold out. On 17 minutes, Jimmy Callacher headed home to put Linfield 1-0 up. It was the second successive home match against Cliftonville that he scored in. The circumstances were different. On the last day of last season, the goal was just a consolation, a low point in a season of low points. This time around, it was a team chasing for the title looking to kill a rival in late November.
The pressure continued. Kirk Millar got his foot the a cross but couldn’t divert it in. Josh Robinson headed from a few yards out but couldn’t get the direction.
Andrew Waterworth missed a free header from a few yards out. He really should have scored. He didn’t need me to tell him that. The collective groans around Windsor Park told him that.
Within minutes, that miss was forgotten as Joel Cooper broke down the left and his cross was turned in by Andrew Waterworth from a few yards out. It was now looking like a case of how many will Linfield win this game by.
A third goal would have put the result beyond doubt. Linfield couldn’t get it.
As the half neared it’s end, Cliftonville made their first ventures into Linfield’s final third. One of those saw them do a cover version of Alan Shearer’s goal against Holland in Euro 96, always seeming to have an extra player in the attack, with Joe Gormley firing home.
It changed the whole mood around the first-half. At 2-0 up, it would be a matter of seeing the job out. At 2-1, Linfield were now having to make sure of the points.
They ended up happy for it to be 2-1 at the break, as sloppiness crept in during the final minutes, most notably Joel Cooper not tracking back because he didn’t think the Cliftonville player would keep the ball in, meaning they gained possession when he did.
In the aftermath of Gormley’s goal, Roy Carroll was booked for kicking the ball away, the first yellow card of the game. All this while Cliftonville’s cynical fouling went unpunished in terms of cards.
In the early minutes of the second-half, Andrew Waterworth fired wide when through from a tight angle, when Jordan Stewart (pass) and Joel Cooper (cross) were better options.
Just like in the first-half, Waterworth amended a miss within minuted by heading home to put Linfield 3-1 up. That would surely be the three points secured.
Nope, not yet. Within minutes, Cliftonville pulled it back to 3-2 when Jamie Harney headed home from close range. It was a bad goal to concede, especially when the initial header which set him up was at the far post, Harney finding himself unmarked in the six yard box.
If Linfield needed reminded that they were in a came, it came when Jay Donnelly ran unchallenged and his long range shot hit the top of the net.
It was frustrating from Linfield, as the match should have been put to bed by now.
It was obvious that Linfield needed to turn to their bench. They had some new options today, with both Andrew Mitchell and Lorcan Forde both returning from injury. In the case of Forde, it was his first appearance in a matchday squad after suffering an injury in pre-season, not long after signing from Warrenpoint Town.
Hopefully, Daniel Kearns, Cameron Stewart and Mark Haughey will be available for selection in the New Year.
Linfield were able to work with 14-15 players in the first two months of the season. That would never have lasted the season. In recent weeks, Stephen Fallon, Jordan Stewart and Mark Stafford (briefly) have come into the team. The squad is key.
Robert Garrett got the nod ahead of Mitchell to come on, replacing Jordan Stewart.
David Healy hoped for some punk poetry when Cooper was replaced by Clarke, with Niall Quinn being pushed forward.
That wouldn’t have been a sub I would have made, but it had it’s reward within a few minutes as Quinn got in behind Cliftonville’s defence to cross for Waterworth to make it 4-2.
And that is why i’m not the manager of Linfield.
It wasn’t the first time Waterworth has scored a hat-trick against Cliftonville (any excuse to bring up the 2017 title win) but it was the first hat-trick by a Linfield player against Cliftonville at Windsor Park since Chris Morgan in November 2000.
And that, definitely was that, even though Cliftonville did have a couple of moments where they went close.
As injury time approached, Daniel Reynolds came on for Andrew Waterworth. It would have been nice if Lorcan Forde had got on, to ease him into the team after injury.
Other results didn’t go for Linfield, but they won, which is all that matters. The most important thing is to help yourself.
Coleraine had another bad result. Of course, their only win recently comes against Linfield. Same with Ards. I’m quite glad that the next two League games come against teams on form. I hate it when we play teams on a bad run of form.
Glentoran are without a win in five games, which is a worry ahead of Boxing Day, so hopefully they can get a few wins before then. That is something I never thought I would write.
That result sees Linfield go 11 points clear of Cliftonville, albeit that Cliftonville have a game in hand. Realistically, they are out of the title race, if they were ever in it.
Though, I said something similar about Ballymena in late September. A few defeats can put you out of the race, just as a few wins can put you back in it. You have to review it on a game by game basis.
Tuesday night, sees Linfield travel to Ballymena United in the County Antrim Shield. It’s not our biggest priority in terms of trophies, but we’re in it, we might as well try to win it. And it would pop Ballymena’s balloon ahead of next Saturday.
Fingers crossed that David Jeffrey is awarded Manager of the Month before then, and suffers from the jinx as a result.
Ballymena’s form has grabbed the headlines, but Linfield have also found a bit of form, with eight goals in two games, five for Andrew Waterworth. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Ballymena were only one game unbeaten.
I won’t be there, i’ll be making my first trip of the season to Old Trafford and I have to say I am excited by it. Mostly about Manchester Christmas Market and Empire Exchange. Can’t say i’ve any urge to watch highlights of a 0-0 draw at home to Crystal Palace.
Next Saturday, Linfield travel to Ballymena in the League for a game that has 0-0 written all over it. If Linfield beat Portadown on the Tuesday after it, they will face five road trips (Ballymena x 2, Portadown, Dungannon and Newry) in the space of seventeen days.
If you’re stuck for ideas for a Christmas present for a Linfield supporter, petrol vouchers will be handy.
Elsewhere, a date has been confirmed for the Bohs v East Fife Scottish Challenge Cup game, Saturday 2nd February 2019.
That’s an Irish Cup date. If Linfield are out (heaven forbid) or have a home game against a lower league team, I might be tempted by a Dublin day trip.
It’s not petrol vouchers that Linfield supporters will be wanting over the next month, it’s three points, three more points, and then three more points. And repeat.
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