It didn’t quit banish the memory of Dundalk on Monday night, but it was a welcome three points for Linfield as they looked to secure a place in next season’s Unite The Union Cup.
On paper, a trip to face Institute at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium looked like an easy three points to recover from that 6-0 defeat. The reality was far from that, with Institute enjoying a resurgence under new Manager Sean Connor, getting draws against Crusaders and Glentoran, as well as reaching the NIFL Cup Semi-Finals.
As it was last year, this matched kicked off at 1pm. That worked out convenient for fans and players, even though it wasn’t decided for those reasons.
Those going to the Northern Ireland match later in the evening could get back to Belfast in plenty of time for kick-off at Windsor Park, while the players knew that if they could get three points, they could put pressure on Coleraine and Cliftonville, who kicked off at 3pm.
As it was on the weekend the last time Linfield played a League match, on November 2nd, all the games were Top 6 v Bottom 6. You might get one shock result, but you won’t get three or four. Linfield didn’t want to be that team, especially as Crusaders had already secured three points on the Friday night, just about though.
Linfield’s starting eleven saw a return to League action for Chris Casement as Linfield returned to four defenders. Thank goodness for that.
There was a welcome return to the starting eleven for Joel Cooper, who recently had minor surgery after being roughed up by Carrick Rangers.
In the early moments, Linfield were trying to get him on the ball to make things happen. Not a lot was happening for Linfield in the early moments as Institute looked comfortable when defending, it didn’t look like a Linfield goal was inevitable.
Institute weren’t afraid to attack either, but Linfield were able to shut them out. Thankfully, as the last thing you want to do in a game like this is to give the opposition something to defend.
Linfield wee presented with an opportunity to make a breakthrough when they were awarded a penalty for a foul on Joel Cooper. A soft foul, but still a foul.
Cooper immediately grabbed the ball and stated that he was taking the kick. He had already scored from a penalty this season. Well, sort of, having scored the rebound from a saved penalty only for a goal not to be given despite the ball being clearly over the line. Yep, i’m still going on about it even though we won that match.
It was a bit surprising that Cooper was putting himself forward to take the kick, especially with Andrew Mitchell, on as a substitute for the injured Niall Quinn, and Andrew Waterworth being on the pitch.
Cooper’s finish didn’t match his confidence, with his poor kick being easily saved and held by Institute’s keeper. In a game where Linfield weren’t playing well, they needed to make the most of the rare opportunity that came their way.
Within a few minutes, Linfield were given another opportunity when they got a second penalty.
It was for an off the ball incident, so I don’t know what actually happened. However, the referee seemed certain in his decision when he flashed a red card at Institute defender Ryan Morrow.
It took a while for fans to compute that another penalty had been given. This time, Andrew Waterworth.
He Panenkaed it, it really wasn’t the time or place for it, and for a moment, it looked like he was going to miss it. Thankfully, he didn’t, and Linfield had the lead.
In the aftermath of the red card, Institute players lost their discipline, arguing with the referee and squaring up to Linfield players.
Sean Connor was hoping for half-time just to get them to calm down and work on a plan on getting back into the game. It was essential that Linfield made the most of this.’
As the half neared it’s end, Bastien Hery worked himself into space on the edge of the penalty area and fired home to make it 2-0.
Curiously, the move began when Institute’s keeper caught a low cross from Kirk Millar, and then kicked it away, Institute were never able to get the ball back from there.
I’m not sure why he kicked it out, I can only think that he lost his bearings and thought he was going to slip the ball into his own net.
Without playing too well, Linfield were 2-0 up and a man up.
However, it was Rohan Ferguson who was the busier keeper in the second-half, making four big saves to stop Institute pulling the game back to 2-1 and getting ideas of an unlikely comeback.
Linfield weren’t without their chances to kill the game off at 3-0, with Andrew Waterworth getting on the end of a Kirk Millar cross but his effort was saved.
It was crosses from Joel Cooper down the left that were causing Institute the most problems, going right into the six yard box, with a desperate block usually denying Linfield.
Deep into injury time, Linfield did make it 3-0, and it came from another penalty.
I think this was the first time I’ve ever been to a football match where three penalties have been awarded to the one team. It was a foul on guess who? Joel Cooper.
Andrew Waterworth stepped up and repeated his feat from last season, 364 days previously, by scoring twice at The Brandywell.
He must have been fuming inside at not getting to hit the first penalty, and missing out on the chance to get a hat-trick.
Three points in the bag, Linfield headed back down the motorway with their feet up hoping that Cliftonville or Coleraine slip up.
It was Coleraine who slipped up, losing 3-1 at Warrenpoint. That was not a result I saw coming, but it was welcomely accepted by Linfield fans.
That meant Cliftonville went top of the League, as a result of their seventh successive win.
Dare I be that guy and point out they had a run of games they should be winning?
I’ll be surprised if they’re top after 22 games when everybody plays each other twice. However, Linfield just have to look after themselves.
Up next, is a match against Glenavon live on BBC Two, which hopefully goes better than our previous televised games against Glenavon, both 2-0 defeats.
That is followed by a trip to Ballymena, which has been scheduled in after being postponed due to Linfield’s run in Europe. Both teams current runs of form mean they are games we should be winning.
If we do, we get to put pressure on the teams playing on Saturday afternoon. If we follow that up at Ballymena, we’ll be breathing down the necks of Coleraine, Cliftonville and Crusaders.
I’ll be missing that Ballymena match as i’ll be on a short break in Lithuania, meaning it’ll be a 9.45pm kick-off for me local time. Unfortunately, I’ve got an early morning flight home on Wednesday morning, so I may be sleeping the whole way through the match.
Unfortunately, I can’t go without mentioning the game against Dundalk.
I was hoping to go as i’d never been to Oriel Park before, but the ticketing arrangements were a pain in the arse. I had a lucky escape.
It was frankly, an embarrassing result. There’s no shame in losing to Dundalk, but that scoreline was embarrassing. We’re better than that.
We just looked off the pace from the start and were punished by a team who were ruthless. We weren’t as ruthless in the few opportunities we had.
David Healy didn’t really help himself by declaring it not a priority. He was probably saying what a lot of people were thinking, myself included, it probably wasn’t best to say it out loud in public.
If we won the Unite The Union Cup but finished 4th, it wouldn’t be considered a successful season.
If we win the League, that night in Dundalk will be forgotten about.
The best way to remedy that result? Qualify for next year’s Unite The Union Cup.