As Linfield fans entered Mourneview Park on the opening day of the season, if you said to them that when they returned in March, a win would put them 12 points clear, they’d probably be a bit disappointed because they believe we should be 20 points clear. We’re a demanding bunch.
Exiting the Irish Cup allowed Linfield to have an unofficial mid season break, with a gap of ten days between this and their last match.
Last time out, they left it late to secure all three points at Newry, to give themselves a nine point lead at the top of the table. With Ballymena having a game in hand, it was always deceptive, you have to always assume that games in hand will be won, meaning it would always be viewed as a six point lead.
Good to have, but not enough to be comfortable, a lot of work still needed to be done to secure the title.
That work for the final run-in began at Mourneview Park on Friday night, for an away match against Glenavon which was selected for live TV coverage. This gave Linfield the opportunity the open up a twelve point lead, and really put the pressure on Ballymena United ahead of their trip to Coleraine.
Glenavon had most of the attacking play in the opening minutes, but the best they could offer was speculative shots on goal, on the stretch.
Linfield’s first attacking moment of note came when Andrew Waterworth dispossessed Caolan Marron, with the Glenavon defender being booked for a foul in the full back position.
The resulting free-kick was cleared. On a night when clear chances were rare, Linfield had to make the most of their set piece opportunities, especially as Jonathan Tuffey was struggling with the wind at times, nobody was really getting in front of him or near him to cause problems.
Linfield were now having pressure on Glenavon’s goal, but they needed to make it count. If they got the first goal, they could really push forward against a team that was there for the taking.
Their first real strike at goal came from a Jordan Stewart shot from a wide angle, which Tuffey turned around for a corner. Andrew Waterworth had Linfield’s next attempt on goal, flicking on a header from a corner.
Daniel Kearns frustrated when he got the ball in an attacking position, usually taking too many touches meaning the opportunity was missed to take advantage of the possession.
Just before half-time, a neat passing move created Linfield’s first clear chance of the half, but Kyle McClean saw his low shot excellently turned around by Tuffey.
0-0 at half-time, and Linfield were frustrated by not making the most of their set pieces, and having the weather in their favour. However, there was nothing to suggest that Linfield couldn’t go on and win the game in the second-half.
A minute into the second-half, things changed when Glenavon took the lead after a long range shot from Aaron Harmon. The goal came out of nowhere. Suddenly, from trying to win the game, Linfield were now having to turn around a deficit.
Linfield responded immediately, with Jordan Stewart being denied again by Tuffey from a wide angle when a cross to players running into the penalty area.
Jimmy Callacher later headed over from a corner as Linfield searched for an equaliser.
David Healy then turned to his bench, bringing on Marek Cervenka and Kirk Millar for Jordan Stewart and Daniel Kearns. The removal of Stewart didn’t go down too well with some supporters.
Cervenka’s main contribution was to gift Glenavon soft free-kicks in their defensive thirs with stupid fouls, stopping the game when Linfield needed the game to be alive.
Millar endured a frustrating evening, never really getting a clear opportunity to get a cross in.
It looked like Linfield were going to get that elusive equaliser when Andrew Waterworth lined up a shot in the penalty area, only to hit the post.
Marek Cervenka then had a half chance on the edge of the penalty area but he blasted over.
Lorcan Forde was then brought on for Kyle McClean as Linfield chased an equaliser.
It was Marek Cervenka who had Linfield’s next best opportunity, when he was played through on goal but his shot was saved by Tuffey. He really should have scored. On a night of few clear goalscoring opportunities, Linfield had to make the most of the ones that came their way.
You had the feeling if Linfield got an equaliser, they could push on and win it 2-1. With 81 minutes on the clock at that stage, there would have been plenty of time to make it happen.
Jimmy Callacher was next to be frustrated when he headed over from a corner. With 85 minutes on the clock, there would still have been time for Linfield to push on and win it.
Within a minute, Linfield’s task got a lot harder when Josh Robinson misjudged a header, allowing Josh Daniels to sneak in and finish low to make it 2-0.
You shouldn’t allow yourself to think it, but that was it, it was not going to be Linfield’s night.
A frustrating night against a team that were there for the taking. Despite the chances created, Glenavon’s goal was never under siege, which was the most frustrating thing.
With both Linfield and Ballymena United having tricky away games this weekend, you had the feeling there was going to be a plot twist in the title race. It would be Linfield getting pulled back rather than pulling away.
There’s no doubt that this result gave Ballymena a boost before their game at Coleraine, which they won 4-0.
Coleraine will use the red card at 0-0 as an excuse, but in truth, the defending for three of the goals was awful. Ballymena were more alert and eager on every occasion.
Ballymena’s second goal was given despite not crossing the line, much the Coleraine’s anger. Oh the irony of Coleraine complaining about a goal being given despite not crossing the line.
Coleraine fans found out the hard way that bad refereeing decisions aren’t so funny when it affects you’re own team.
It was a game that Linfield were hoping for a favour, but we should know by now that you don’t get any favours in a title race, you have to help yourself. Linfield didn’t do that at Mourneview.
A sense of perspective is needed. It brought to an end a run of 10 League wins in a row. Linfield’s record since losing at Ballymena in December is 16 wins from 19 games in all competitions.
The next eight games will determine if this is just a blip or the start of a slump. It is up to the players to make sure it is just a blip.
However, in recent weeks, Linfield have been getting away with it an scraping by.
The fixture list gives Linfield two games against Bottom Six teams, who must be beaten before the split if Linfield are to have realistic title ambitions.
Even though they have a goal difference in their favour, they don’t want to have to use it.
Crusaders let Coleraine back into it from a similar position this time last year though, but just about managed to get over the line.
Over the next few weeks, our attacking players need to step up. The stats are damming.
Michael O’Connor hasn’t scored since January 28th. Neither has Jordan Stewart. Andrew Waterworth hasn’t scored a League goal since January 12th. Marek Cervenka has only got one goal. Even Jimmy Callacher is experiencing a goal drought.
We just need to get back to basics. Joel Cooper’s absence is a loss but that can be overcome, we have the personnel to deal with it.
We might have versatile players, but we don’t need to constantly change formation and personnel. Our success this season has been based on having a settled line up. Let’s go back to 4231, and if we keep winning, keep the starting eleven.
The squad has served us well this season, but now is the time for minimal disruption.
Elsewhere, in unsurprising news, Larne confirmed their promotion to the top flight. I haven’t been to Inver Park since 2005, so it’ll be good to visit there again. Hopefully, Linfield will be visiting there next season as League champions.
With a County Antrim Shield Final in midweek, hopefully, Linfield will be entering the pitch ahead of their next League game, against Institute at Windsor Park next Saturday with another trophy in the bag.