It had been one month and two days since Linfield beat Glentoran 4-0 on Boxing Day, as Glentoran returned to Windsor Park in order to avenge that result. Linfield scored four again, but it wasn’t as comfortable as it was when we were still digesting out Christmas Dinner.
Since that day, Linfield have continued winning, and then winning some more, while Glentoran kept on losing, then they started winning under new management, arriving at Windsor Park on the back of two successive League wins since Gary Smyth replaced Ronnie McFall.
Linfield’s success this season, especially since mid December, has been due to having a settled starting eleven. However, that was disturbed in their previous League game at Newry when two enforced changes were made with Michael O’Connor and Gareth Deane coming in for Andrew Waterworth (Suspension) and Roy Carroll (Injury) and proved how valuable a squad is by scoring two goals and saving a penalty to give Linfield the three points.
Despite those two goals, O’Connor had to make do with a place on the bench, with Andrew Waterworth returning. Roy Carroll didn’t return to the starting eleven, and won’t be doing so any time soon, as it was announced during this match that he has suffered a season-ending injury. There’ll be more on that later.
Andrew Waterworth wouldn’t be the only change for this game, as injuries to both Stephen Fallon and Andrew Mitchell giving Kyle McClean the opportunity for his first start, with Robert Garrett probably cursing his decision to leave in search of first-team football just as an opportunity would have presented itself.
There was also a place on the bench for new Czech loan signing Marek Cervenka, who was joined by Ryan McGivern, making his first appearance in a matchday squad after injury.
It wasn’t just Linfield who were missing their first choice goalkeeper, with Elliott Morris missing this match through injury. Despite that, his replacement Dwayne Nelson still took Morris-esque lengths of times at goal kicks at 0-0 and 2-2.
With this match taking place on a Monday night, it presented Ballymena United and Crusaders and opportunity to close the gap on Linfield with wins on the Saturday, which they did, not that surprising as they faced Bottom Six opponents, with Linfield looking to restore a six and nine point gap respectively.
If Linfield had ambitions of finishing top of the League, Glentoran had ambitions of finishing top of the bottom half, with 7th giving them a chance of European football in the reward for mediocrity that is the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.
After defeat to Dungannon Swifts on New Year’s Day, the possibility of Glentoran getting sucked into a relegation battle was an actual discussion. It didn’t last for long as wins over Institute and Newry, as well as upturns in form for Warrenpoint Town and Dungannon Swifts have seen those three pull away from Newry City and Ards, to join Institute in a four team battle for 7th, with Glentoran knowing that a win would put them there, though a ten goal defeat would drop them down to 10th, appropriately enough.
Linfield thought they were going to get an opportunity to take the lead in the early minutes when a Joel Cooper shot was saved, but fell to Jordan Stewart, who was setting himself up to shoot only to be brought down for one of the clearest penalties you’ll ever see, only for the referee to turn down the appeals.
The ball didn’t change direction as it would have done if won by a Glentoran player, and Stewart didn’t get booked for a dive. Quite why a player on form certain to score a goal would dive.
Moments later, a Joel Cooper attack was pulled back for a foul on him just as he got past his man and ran into the penalty area.
Frustrated by bad refereeing as much as Glentoran defending, Linfield couldn’t make the most of their early pressure as the game started to even out, Glentoran’s best change being an attempted lob from Curtis Allen. Linfield weren’t helping themselves with final passes being agonisingly short or astray.
Eventually, in the 36th minute, Linfield had an opportunity to take the lead when they were awarded a penalty for a foul by Joe Crowe on Josh Robinson.
The way the game had gone, you felt that Linfield had to score this. If they missed it, you felt there was going to “One of those nights” vibe. That would not be the case, as Jordan Stewart stuck the ball into the back of the net to go 1-0 up.
A few minutes later, Calum Birney diverted a cross into his own net to give Linfield a 2-0 lead, and surely the points.
The points would surely have been in the bag in the first-half if Andrew Waterworth was able to finish when a Joel Cooper shot was parried out to him, but it hit him and went wide.
The game changed in the early minutes of the second-half with two quickfire Glentoran goals, with Curtis Allen nipping in front of Gareth Deane to make it 2-1, before Robbie McDaid made it 2-2 from close range after a Darren Murray effort was saved.
The McDaid goal was particularly bad, as it came from Linfield losing cheap possession in their own defensive third when they had the opportunity to clear. There’s a time and a place to take on two players. In your right-back position is not it.
Even though I wasn’t at that match due to being at Noel Gallagher, it had the same vibe as the UEFA Cup Play-Off game last May which Linfield lost 4-3.
Linfield were struggling and crying out for Daniel Kearns and Michael O’Connor. It took until the 71st minute for them to be introduced, with Joel Cooper and Kirk Millar making way.
That move had an instant impact with Kearns making space for himself in the box and pulling it back for Chris Casement to make it 3-2. The game had swung back in Linfield’s favour.
It continued to go that way when Joe Crowe got sent-off for kicking out at Michael O’Connor. Glentoran were racking up the yellow cards throughout this game, it was no surprise that one of them became a red card.
With five minutes to go, Michael O’Connor finished after a Jordan Stewart shot was saved to make it 4-2 and secure the points for Linfiedl this time.
This allowed Linfield an opportunity to give a debut to loan signing Marek Cervenka off the bench.
In the limited time he had, he had an opportunity to shoot low and surely score, but he played in Daniel Kearns, who was set to make it 5-2 only to be denied by a goal saving tackle.
4-2 was enough, and another three points for Linfield as they lay down the challenge to Ballymena Untied and Crusaders.
During this game, it was announced that Roy Carroll’s season is over due to a Cruciate injury suffered against Crusaders the previous weekend. And yet, they still couldn’t score against him.
With Alex Moore on loan to Dungannon Swifts, Linfield needed to bring in a keeper, and they acted quick, bringing in Conor Mitchell from Burnley on loan.
Going out of Windsor Park on loan is Cameron Stewart, which is and isn’t a surprise. He’s only recently recovered from injury that has kept him out this season. I thought he would have been loaned out in January when he recovered and then released in the Summer.
He probably will be released in the Summer. The game against Coleraine in November when Linfield ran out of ideas and were relying on youngsters from the bench when chasing the game.
That game made me think he would be worth keeping, as an alternative option from the bench.
That role will now be taken by Marek Cervenka, freeing up Stewart to move to Glenavon.
I can’t back it up with logic, but I had a hunch that he might get us a big goal in the run-in. If he does, it will be in the colours of Glenavon.