You sometimes get strange quirks in the Irish Cup. For the second successive season, Linfield hosted opposition from North Belfast who were hoping to avenge a Quarter-Final defeat at home two years previously.
For the first time in a long time, Linfield made several unenforced changes to their starting eleven, Stephen Fallon coming in after injury, and Daniel Kearns and Michael O’Connor were rewarded for changing the game against Glentoran five days earlier with a start.
David Cushley had the first chance of the game, firing wide from an angle. It was never really troubling the goal, but it looked a lot closer than it was from where I was sat, at the other end of the pitch.
Linfield were then forced into an early change after 6 minutes when Stephen Fallon went off injured and was replaced by Kyle McClean. Having to make an early change is never ideal in any game, but especially in one that could last 120 minutes.
Linfield’s first attack came to an abrupt end when a Joel Cooper run was ended by a foul by Rory Hale.
The biggest surprise was that a yellow card was awarded, mainly due to the unwritten rule in Irish League football that referees don’t issue yellow cards in the first 15 minutes of a game. The resulting free-kick from Chris Casement went just wide.
Cooper was then able to get away from Crusaders defence without being fouled but fired wide from a wide angle when a cross to Kyle McClean looked like a better option. This was after he had an early shot from the edge of the box blocked behind for a corner.
Linfield continued to dominate the half but couldn’t get a breakthrough.
That was, when the ball was in play, due to Crusaders timewasting at goal kicks at a level that would embarrass Elliott Morris. Eventualy, 119 minutes, Sean O’Neill was booked for booting the ball into the North Stand when given it by a ballboy. It should have been his tenth of the game.
The Ballboys were, no pun intended, on the ball, making sure a new ball came back into play as soon as another ball went out, but those on the pitch need to start making an issue of it, putting refs under pressure by flagging it up and getting it actioned.
We can’t allow ourselves to be outsmarted by stupid teams, we can’t let opposition dictate the pace of the game and be comfortable doing so. The game should be played at our pace.
There’s not much you can do though when you have a weak referee who is easy to make a mug of, and Crusaders weren’t slow in exploiting it.
At the start of the second-half, Crusaders introduced Jordan Owens from the bench, and in the opening minutes, Ronan Hale volleyed over.
Linfield responded with a Kyle McClean header which hit the post, before Michael O’Connor had a shot saved and then had a header against the bar.
Nobody dared say it, but we were starting to think it, that this was going to be a repeat of the Cliftonville game in the Irish Cup last season.
Linfield now turned to the bench to try and win the game, with Kirk Millar coming on for Joel Cooper. With each passing minute, it looked like Andrew Waterworth was being saved for the possibility of Extra-Time. He ended up coming on quite late in the regulation time, coming on for Daniel Kearns as Linfield went more attacking to try and win the game in 90 minutes.
It was Crusaders who had the best chance in injury time when Kyle McClean was forced to save a goalbound shot on the line.
It finished 0-0 at 90 minutes and went to Extra-Time. Extra-Time in the Irish Cup isn’t a new experience for Linfield in the Irish Cup under David Healy, after needing two hours to defeat Ballymena in 2016 and Glentoran in 2017. Hopefully, this was going to be three out of three.
This looked like the sort of game that was going to be goal the winner. Making that breakthrough would be so crucial.
It looked like Linfield were going to get it when Andrew Waterworth headed over from six yards out. He really should have scored, or at least get the shot on target and make the keeper work.
Soon after Crusaders went 1-0 up in typical Crusaders fashion, a long hoof upfield fell for Jordan Owens to smash home. To be fair, it was a decent strike, but it should have been defended better, to win the original header, and to make sure the second ball was won. That looked like being it.
Linfield responded by bringing on Marek Cervenka for Jordan Stewart. Not through choice though as Stewart was suffering from an injury, watching the remainder of the game from the bench with an ice pack strapped to him.
As the clock ran down, Cervenka gave Linfield a lifeline when a misplaced Crusaders pass played him through to make no mistake to make it 1-1. The ball was in the back of the net as soon as he set himself up to strike.
Now the momentum was with Linfield to go an win the game.
But Crusaders went straight on the attack with Gareth Deane saving from David Cushley. From the resulting corner, Billy Joe Burns scored to win the game for Crusaders. It wasn’t the first time a second ball had fallen to Crusaders when they had an attacking set piece. They were two bad goals to concede.
It was an absolute travesty of a result. One team trying to win the game, and another trying to play for penalties.
There still should have been enough time for Linfield to get a second equaliser, due to the amount of stoppages, but the Referee’s watch wasn’t working.
The worst thing about this result, as it was when we lost to Cliftonville last season, is that we all know Crusaders will choke in the Quarter-Finals or Semi-Finals.
The Clean Sweep is over, but nobody was ever really talking about it. The season, however, is far from over.
This was Linfield’s first defeat since early December. We simply have to do what we did then, dust ourselves down and go again.
When we lost to Ballymena in December, we had a game straight away on the Tuesday night. We have that again.
One thing about this result that we can use to our advantage, is that we can use the free weekend at the start of March to slot in our rearranged League match against Newry City, which is currently scheduled for the midweek before.
It makes so much sense for both sets of players and fans for the game to take place on a weekend, hopefully that option gets explored.
We all hoped that February would be the month that Linfield win two competitions and make progress in two others. It can still be a month where Linfield win two competitions and progress in another.