When this game was chosen for live TV coverage, Dungannon Swifts were on a run of seven wins and a draw in eight games. It represented a major challenge to Linfield ahead of the split, a potential slip-up that would be captured live to the viewing public, just as it was against Glenavon a few weeks previously.
However, in more recent weeks, Dungannon’s form has gone on a downward trajectory, with defeats to Institute and Glenavon, and an Irish Cup exit to Ballinamallard United.
Even though Stangmore Park has been a kind ground to Linfield in recent years – Unbeaten since November 2013 and won on their last eight visits – the visits this season suggested this would be tight, with a last minute winner needed in October, and extra-time needed to end Dungannon’s grip on the League Cup in December.
Linfield went into this game missing two players due to international duty, though the two players in question, Kyle McClean and Michael O’Connor were substitutes last time out against Institiute, meaning that there was no disruption to the starting eleven. Their places on the bench were taken by Stephen Fallon, returning after injury, and Kirk Millar, returning after suspension.
Those absences didn’t affect them, going straight on the attack and spending the opening minutes in Dungannon’s half. They got rewarded with an early goal when Jordan Stewart created space down the right wing for Andrew Waterworth to nip in ahead of Joel Cooper and head home to put Linfield 1-0 up.
Having struggled at times against Bottom Six teams this season after not getting an early goal, Linfield now made sure that Dungannon didn’t have something to hold on to. It was also a timely goal for Waterworth, his first goal in five games.
Within a few minutes, he was making up for lost time when Jordan Stewart got in behind Dungannon’s defence to set him up to put it into the empty net. For the second time, Linfield had a situation that was going to result in a goal, the only question was who would score it. The answer each time was Andrew Waterworth.
Linfield must have been inspired by watching Kazakhstan score two in the early stages against Scotland the previous night.
Another cross from Jordan Stewart almost resulted in a goal but a Dungannon defender got to the ball ahead of Joel Cooper at the cost of a corner, while Cooper headed just wide from another cross.
All of Linfield’s attacking play was coming from the trio of Joel Cooper, Daniel Kearns and Jordan Stewart. Left or right, it didn’t matter which side Linfield went, one of those three would be setting something up.
A neat passing move resulted in Andrew Mitchell having a volley saved.
Linfield didn’t have to wait long to go 3-0 up, when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick, ending a goal drought for him, his first goal since New Year’s Day.
The half ended eventfully for Andrew Mitchell with a yellow card and an injury, making him a prime candidate to be the first one substituted once the points were secured, if they weren’t already.
A run from Joel Cooper resulted in Niall Quinn having a shot go just wide.
Dungannon had some half chances towards the end of the half, but the danger was easily snuffed out by Linfield’s defence.
3-0 up at half-time, Linfield were a bit slow at the start of the second-half, perhaps not that surprising as they didn’t need to score, but they didn’t need to be giving Dungannon any encouragement that they could get back into the game.
Any possibility that Dungannon could launch an unlikely comeback disappeared when a bout of Head Tennis between Jimmy Callacher and Josh Robinson after a Daniel Kearns cross resulted in Andrew Waterworth heading home from close range to complete his hat-trick to make it 4-0. It was the second time he had scored a hat-trick against Dungannon, having scored one against them in 2015.
Waterworth then scuffed home an effort to make it 5-0, or so he thought, only to be denied by an offside flag.
The game won, Andrew Mitchell was replaced by Stephen Fallon to give him some vital minutes ahead of the run-in, as he returns from injury.
Andrew Waterworth would then get his fourth goal of the game, heading home from a Daniel Kearns cross to make it 5-0. It kept up a bizarre run of Linfield scoring five goals at Stangmore Park having won 5-3 there in 1995 and 5-1 in 2007. I’m already looking forward to Linfield scoring five away to Dungannon in 2031.
With the points definitely in the bag, Kirk Millar and Marek Cervenka coming on for Andrew Waterworth and Jordan Stewart.
Both of them were involved in attacking moments, with Millar hitting a shot wide after being caught in two minds wether to head it or shoot.
It finished 5-0, which put Linfield nine points clear, which they would expected it to be cut to six by Saturday teatime.
Except, that it wasn’t, with Warrenpoint Town recording a surprise win at Ballymena United.
It means that if Linfield win at Ballymena on 5th April, they will effectively be champions, with Ballymena United having to win their last four games, Linfield to lose their last four, and Ballymena to overcome a goal difference advantage of nineteen in Linfield’s favour.
What a win at Ballymena will definitely result in, will be European football and a return to the Scottish Challenge Cup for 2019-2020.
Friday night games on TV have been a mixed bag for Linfield this season. Hopefully, the game against Ballymena is a repeat of this rather than Glenavon.