New Year’s Day. A new start, and an opportunity to remove any negativity from the year before.
For Linfield, it gave them an opportunity to finally get a win against a team who had been problematic so far this season, managing only one point from the previous two meetings with Ards in front of a bumper Bank Holiday crowd which included Gary Lightbody, as both sides looked for three points to avoide their respective ambitions facing the Final Straw.
Linfield didn’t quite start the game in a new way, making a similar start to the game in October that they lost to Ards.
Ards had opportunities in the opening minutes with Roy Carrroll being forced to save from a Jonah Mitchell shot, before Mark Kelly hit the side netting.
The only positive for Linfield was that they didn’t concede like they did in the early minutes like they did in October.
Jordan Stewart had Linfield’s first attacking moment of note but his shot went just wide.
Every other attacking moment seemed to be lacking. Passes going astray, too short, too long, the run not being made. Ards were quite comfortable when defending against it.
Ards replied with a Kym Nelson free-kick which was saved by Carroll. The important thing for Linfield was not to concede and give Ards something to defend.
Belatedly, Linfield began to put pressure on Ards in the final minutes of the half, but Ards held firm.
Most of the attacks came through Jamie Mulgrew, the only way he could be stopped was by fouling him. It may be a new year, but some things never changes. Kyle Cherry was lucky not to be sent-off for a tackle that was so late, it was in 2020.
0-0 at half-time, but no need to panic, but Linfield needed to step it up.
They did just that in the early minutes of the second-half, with more pressure, but more believable.
A last gasp header denied Andrew Waterworth just as a cross was set to fall to him, before he finally got past Ards defence before firing agonisingly just wide. Nobody in the away support was allowed to think it was going to be one of those days.
Eventually, the goal came, from a familiar source, Jimmy Callacher with his eight of the season, but first away from home.
Linfield still needed a second goal to be safe.
Kirk Millar looked like he was going to get it when he was played through, lifting the ball ove the keeper, but over the bar.
Jimmy Callacher headed home to make it 2-0 to ease the pressure and secure the points.
Andrew Waterworth continued to be denied as a last gasp tackle stopped him just as he was about to fire home.
It didn’t matter, as Linfield began 2019 with a win.
By this point, Glenavon were losing at home to Warrenpoint, to fall eight points behind Linfield.
With Ballymena United facing Crusaders, Linfield were going to take advantage with a win regardless. A draw would have been perfect, but Crusaders late 3-2 win means that Linfield now sit on top of the table.
If you want to look at the Christmas/New Year Period as a four game mini league, only Crusaders got more points than Linfield. Most importantly, four clean sheets. Keeping them out boosts the goal difference, which sits at more than ten better than the next best team.
There are good omens in recent years regarding a change of leadership in the early days of a year, with 3rd January 2015 and 1st January 2018 being dates when Crusaders took leadership and stayed there. There is no reason why Linfield can’t do likewise.
Crusaders might be only three points behind Linfield, but they have a played a game more. Linfield know if they win at Seaview in a few weeks time, they can kill Crusaders in the title race. On the basis of the two meetings this season, Linfield know they can beat Crusaders, and beat them well.
That can wait though. Up next is two cup games.
I don’t usually bother with cup ties at home to Lower League teams so I’ll be giving he home game against Ballyclare a miss. If it was away, I’d be all over it.
That is followed by the County Antrim Shield game against Ballymena. If it is postponed again, that could be problematic, as they’ll try to fit it in the midweek before the Crusaders game, which must be resisted. We have to look after ourselves when it comes to fixture management.
After that, our first home League match of 2019, against Warrenpoint. It’s a game we’ve already slipped up in this season.
However, we started 2019 by making up for a game we had previously slipped up in.
That defeat to Ards in October kicked off Linfield’s shakiest period of the season in terms of results and performances.
Hopefully, the win in January against the same opponents can have the opposite and more positive effect.