Queen’s Greatest Hits, Track 17. Or, seeing as it’s Record Store Day and you might have it on vinyl, Side 2 Track 9.
Job done. No ifs, not buts. No hoping to avoid a mathematical freak.
The Irish League Champions arrived at Windsor Park today and set up camp in the away dressing room. By 5pm, they were now based in the home dressing room.
A win at Ballymena United the previous week meant that Linfield were virtually Champions but still needed one point to make sure, as they began the first of three successive home games with a game against a side they have beaten three times out of three in the League.
It was a far happier situation for Linfield than when they travelled to Seaview to face Crusaders in this weekend last year.
Having kept a winning team in recent weeks, Linfield had to make a change today with Josh Robinson unavailable. Ryan McGivern got the nod to replace him, surprisingly ahead of Mark Stafford.
Crusaders had the first attack of the game, spending the first few minutes in Linfield’s half, but Linfield were able to clear the danger, the best that Crusaders could offer was a Ronan Hale shot that went over the bar.
Linfield’s first attacks saw a Jamie Mulgrew run try to set up Jordan Stewart but he couldn’t get into a striking position, while a cleared corner fell to Daniel Kearns who fired over.
There was even a bizarre incident where Howard Beverland got a yellow card for fouling Jamie Mulgrew. Nothing new there, but Beverland was off the pitch after receiving treatment. Opposition teams are now finding creative ways to foul him.
Gareth Deane was forced into a save from a Philip Lowry header before Jamie Mulgrew had a penalty appeal turned down.
Linfield had a strong finish to the half, being camped in Crusaders half, but couldn’t get the breakthrough.
0-0 at half-time, job done. Not the three points wanted to do it in style, but job done.
Paul Heatley had the first shot on goal in the second-half, his shot on the counter attack being saved by Gareth Deane from a wide angle.
Soon after, Linfield were presented with the best opportunity of the game when they were awarded a penalty for a handball by Michael Reddy.
Andrew Waterworth, Andrew Mitchell and Jordan Stewart loitered around the ball, with Stewart getting the nod to take it.
Stewart had scored every penalty he’d taken this season which was ominous, which meant he was due to miss one, like when Stephen Lowry missed one against Dungannon Swifts in 2017.
Those fears proved to be right as his spot kick was saved by Gerard Doherty. It was a good save by him, but it was a good height for the keeper.
We probably should have tried to dive and get a penalty when we were 5-0 up at Dungannon recently just so he could miss it and get it out of the way.
Doherty was making another save soon afterwards when Ryan McGivern flicked goalwards from a corner.
David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Stephen Fallon, Kirk Millar and Marek Cervenka in search of a winner.
The closest either of them cam was when Fallon got in behind Crusaders defence and crossing when he perhaps should have shot, taking Daniel Kearns by surprised who would have scored if he ran in, but he stopped having anticipated a shot.
It was a 0-0 sort of game, you know what I mean, both teams were trying, but not really looking like scoring.
With a few minutes remaining, the final whistle blew at Solitude, where Cliftonville held Ballymena United to a 1-1 draw. It meant that Linfield were Champions regardless of the score at Windsor Park, not that they planned on conceding a late winner to Crusaders for the third successive meeting.
They didn’t, it finished 0-0. It wasn’t as dramatic as in 2017, but Linfield were Champions again.
It was a day of draws in the Top Six, much to the frustration of Glenavon who conceded a late equaliser to dent their chances of claiming 2nd and securing automatic European football. The farce that is the UEFA Cup Play-Offs is of no concern to Linfield.
It’s looking likely that the presentation will be next Saturday against Glenavon, even though the protocol is for it to be in the last home game. It makes sense to have it on a Saturday afternoon rather than a Tuesday night when it will be more convenient for more people to attend.
This win wipes away the ghost of the 2017-2018 season. What went wrong? Everything.
It was hard to see it coming. Linfield recruited well, securing three signings in May 2017 while other clubs were playing in the UEFA Cup Play-Offs. Of those three signings – Robert Garrett, Jordan Stewart and Andrew Mitchell – Two had won the title while the other had won the Irish Cup. Josh Robinson was added in mid July, another title winner. The signings were no brainers, and three of them proved to be key players this season.
They came in to replace Sean Ward, Josh Carson and Ross Gaynor, who left in pursuit of first team football (although Gaynor is now playing at a lower level due to employment commitments) and you couldn’t blame them for doing so. The irony is, they probably would have played 30-40 games in 2017-2018 if they had stayed. The team picked itself in the final months of 2016-2017, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Andrew Waterworth and Jimmy Callacher both missed pre-season due to injury, and were always playing catch-up in terms of fitness when they returned.
There were even injuries at the other end of the season, with both Jordan Stewart and Jamie Mulgrew missing the run-in. Linfield were lost without Mulgrew in the final weeks.
It was a perfect storm. We weren’t creating enough chances. When we did we were missing them. We were conceding bad goals due to individual errors. We were losing or drawing games we should have won.
Part of that was remedied in the signings of Joel Cooper and Daniel Kearns, both of whom hit the ground running as part of a 4231 formation forced on David Healy due to a shortage of midfielders on the opening day.
It was obvious from his 45 minute debut in a friendly at Dundela in July that Cooper was going to be a star player for Linfield, even if a title win looked far away during the first-half of that game as we were lucky to be 1-0 down.
I’m going to put 2017-2018 down to us angering the Football Gods with those idiots against Celtic for landing us with a partial ground closure for one European match, expecting to serve it in the Summer of 2018, we’d have to wait a year for that.
Just a heads up about that if you like to sit at the end of the South Stand closest to The Kop.
You could perhaps argue that Linfield had too easy a start in 2017-2018 and weren’t ready by the time the big games came around.
Things didn’t start great, penned into their own half and conceding a penalty inside the first five minutes of the opening game of the season at Mourneview. Thankfully, it was missed, and when Linfield had a period on top, they scored to win 1-0, but were thankful to their defence for helping to keep a clean sheet. Clean sheets would be a theme throughout the season.
The second match of the season against Institute was scheduled for a Friday night allowed them to get points on board early and put pressure on rivals, which they did winning 3-0.
Having seen Crusaders be walloped in Europe, and then concede twice in both of their opening two League games, Linfield knew they had nothing to fear from Crusaders, and so it proved, securing a 2-0 win, which could have been more.
The following week saw the first points dropped and first goal conceded in a 1-1 draw at Cliftonville, with a late equaliser from substitute Michael O’Connor.
Linfield’s success this season was built on a contradictory mix of having a settled starting eleven, but also utilising the squad.
Mark Haughey missed the season through injury, Chris Casement took his face. Mark Stafford was suspended on the opening day, Josh Robinson came in and never looked back. When Robinson was injured in October/November, Stafford took his place and even produced a late winner at Dungannon. Stafford even filled in when Callacher got injured at Seaview in January. Stephen Fallon broke into the team when Andrew Mitchell got injured, and then Kyle McClean took advantage when both of them were injured. Most famously, Jordan Stewart made the most of his opportunity when Daniel Kearns got injured.
Gareth Deane came in for the injured Roy Carroll at Newry in January, and then filled in when Carroll’s injury was confirmed as season ending. In that game at Newry, Deane saved a penalty.
That same match saw Michael O’Connor come in for the suspended Andrew Waterworth and score twice in a 2-0 win. Suspensions and red cards were a lot rarer this season as well. When somebody came into the team, more often than not, when someone came into the team, they made the most of the opportunity.
That game at Solitude saw Linfield play with ten men after a first-half red card for Jamie Mulgrew. The previous meeting against Cliftonville, four months earlier, saw Linfield capitulate after a first-half red card. Not this time.
September began on a frustrating manner with a 0-0 draw against Ards. Naturally, this is frustrating, but even more so with Crusaders and Coleraine playing each other on Sky on the Monday night after it, and then not having a League game the following weekend due to playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup. It was an opportunity to pull clear of rivals that was missed.
No mistake was made the following weekend, blasting aside Warrenpoint 5-0 though.
A 0-0 draw at Coleraine in mid September wasn’t the worst result in the world, as it kept Linfield five points clear of Coleraine albeit with a game more played, it was frustrating as there was a traffic jam forming in the table when Linfield were looking to pull clear. Those draws allowed Glenavon to take leadership of the League table.
At the end of the month, Linfield beat Ballymena United 2-1 to go eight points clear of them. I thought that would be the last time we’d have to worry about them.
October began with a throwback, a top of the table clash against Glentoran, live on Sky, which Linfield won 1-0 and sent their season into freefall. That was followed by a win over Newry City with a hat-trick from Jimmy Callcher.
Everybody played, eight wins, three draws and no defeats. There were also eight clean sheets in those eleven games.
However, there would soon be a run of no League clean sheets in two months as Linfield entered a sticky period.
October has been a problematic month for Linfield in recent years, so five wins from six matches in all competitions was a miracle.
That one blemish was a shock defeat to relegation threatened Ards. Espeecially frustrating as it was dropped points at the start of a run of games against Bottom Six teams.
The turning point of the season turned out to be a trip to The Brandywell in November to face Institute. It didn’t feel like it when we were 1-0 down. We turned it around and won 4-1. Joel Cooper was dropped for the first time as a Linfield player having lost his way after being kicked out of the game at The Oval in October.
A brief came at The Brandywell saw him regain his form, and an injury gave him an opportunity against Cliftonville the following week. They couldn’t handle him.
It was the start of a run of games at home in the space of four months where four was the magic number, where Cliftonville, Crusaders, Glentoran, Warrenpoint Town and Glentoran again left after picking the ball out of the back of the net four times.
December was full of big games. The first of the month saw Linfield lose to Ballymena who overtook them at the top. Especially frustrating as we were 1-0 up and could have killed off their title hopes. Instead, it gave them the boost of life.
By this point, we were managing a schedule of Midweek-Saturday. Even though our County Antrim Shield game against Ballymena was postponed twice, we were still having to prepare for it, as well as Bank Holiday games taking place on weekday afternoons.
A draw at home to Glenavon on the Saturday before Christmas saw Ballymena go four points clear. They had a generous run of games coming up as well. The only Top Six teams they were facing soon, Coleraine and Crusaders, were both out of form.
However, Coleraine and Crusaders did us a favour, and by New Year’s Day, Linfield were top. By mid January, it was now three points clear. With the superior Goal Difference (from all those scrappy 1-0 wins that those in North Antrim would have you believe), Ballymena needed Linfield to slip up twice.
Crusaders were never in the title race, and a win at Seaview made sure we weren’t going to let them into it. That was followed up by a win at Newry in midweek while Ballymena didn’t play to make the lead six points. Points on the board always trumps games in hand.
There was no time for rest as Linfield struggled at Newry the following midweek. A draw would have undone the win over Ballymena and given them a lifeline, but Linfield dug out an injury time winner. You could hear the groans in Ballymena.
You would soon be hearing cheers in Ballymena as Linfield lost at Glenavon, while Ballymena responded with a win at Coleraine. If Ballymena won their game in hand, the gap would be three points, and with Linfield still to come to Ballymena, they were eyeing up being level with four to play.
Thankfully, shock home defeats to Glentoran and Warrenpoint Town for Ballymena saw Linfield arrive nine points clear. A 1-0 win saw them leave twelve points clear. It was almost job done.
This 0-0 draw sealed the deal.
There’s still something to play for as winning our final games will secure a 90 point haul, something Linfield have never done in a 38 game season. The previous best in a 38 game season was 89 in 2017.
And, can we go through a season without losing at home to Cliftonville please? It would be the first time sine 2011-2012 if we do.
Here’s some stats for you:
20 clean sheets out of 35 matches.
Half as many goals conceded as the team with the second best defensive record
3 or more successive clean sheets on 6 occasions
Scoring 4 or more on 8 different occasions
Wins against every team in the League
Clean sheets against every team in the League
A win at Coleraine on the final game will see Linfield win at every ground in the League