Linfield ended this decade with a trip to Coleraine, where they should have started the decade.
Back then, in January 2010, it was a tight title race where nobody was able to go on a winning run to burst clear of the rest. Sounds familiar.
In fact, the only winner on a weekly basis during the Winter of 2009-2010 was the weather, with a backlog of games due to postponements. Linfield and Coleraine’s meeting on New Year’s Day 2010 was one of those games to fall victim.
Ten years on, there is a backlog of games to be scheduled, but thankfully not on the same scale.
For both teams, this was the second of two games in three days, both having contrasting fortunes in their respective Boxing Day encounters.
Both sides would have preferred Bottom 6 opponents where they could have rested players.
Linfield made six changes for this game. It’s possible that they could have made six changes if they won at The Oval on Boxing Day, that this rotation was always planned.
One change was enforced, with Joel Cooper missing out through suspension, giving an opportunity for Kirk Millar to slot in after his unscheduled three game break. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that a refreshed Millar would have slotted in anyway regardless of the result at The Oval, or any suspensions.
As suspected in my Boxing Day blog, the quick turnaround was too quick for Mark Haughey, while Mark Stafford and Ryan McGivern also came into the defence.
The last time the calendar fell this way, in 2013, there were no games on Saturday 28th December. The two previous times I can remember, 1996 and 2002, there were games, although I think 1996 was the first legs of a minor cup competition against a lower division side.
People would complain about no games on Saturday 28th, and will complain if there are. People just love complaining.
Travelling to the game by train, Linfield supporters travelling to this game that way will have enjoyed a 1/3 discount as part of a marketing campaign by Translink.
I’d hoped to have a nice relaxing trip. My hopes were not met as I ended up being sat beside a table of melters overdosing on Prosecco. “Derry won’t know what’s hit it” apparently, while one of them has sworn off men. Hopefully, that would be the only 90 minute nightmare of the afternoon.
On the topic of transport, and i’m going to keep saying it, it is incredible that there are no self service ticket machines at Great Victoria Street Train Station. Meanwhile, in Coleraine, I find it incredible that the door at Platform 2 which leads to the street outside (which is open for fans coming home) is closed as fans arrive, as this would be far more convenient as they can take a shortcut to the ground, and not have to wait at a Level Crossing when they can just bypass it.
Linfield started the game in the mood to get an early goal, with Kirk Millar bursting through in the opening minute, only to see his shot deflected behind for a corner.
Matthew Shevlin, making his first League start for Linfield, was then denied when Chris Johns saved his header.
Shevlin’s previous League appearances for Linfield had all been as a substitute, more often not getting enough time to get into the game. He did well in this game, looking lively when he got the ball and making things happen.
Eventually, Linfield took the lead when a throw saw Stephen Fallon in space, he looked up and fired a dipping shot into the net.
A few minutes earlier, Fallon had a shot at goal, so he was fancying his chances. From where I was stood, at the corner of the Terrace and the Away Stand, I was wondering what on earth he was doing.
Before I could think to myself “What the fuck did you shoot from there for?”, I could see the ball coming down and was only going to end up in the back of the net and was now celebrating before the ball hit the net.
The ball went in like a dart from, um, Fallon Sherrock. There’s a topical reference for you, although my only other knowledge of darts is Jim Bowen.
Jim himself would have described the goal as “Super, Smashing. Great”.
Even though Linfield had a few opportunities before that, it wasn’t one way traffic. A few minutes earlier, Coleraine had an opportunity when Josh Carson was played into space, but he fired wide from a wide angle.
Linfield fans weren’t that bothered about the run of play, as their side had a much needed early lead.
Coleraine had enough of an attacking threat for Linfield to know that this game was not won.
In fact this was the first time in eight games that Linfield went 1-0 up against Coleraine, and they’ve only led for about one minute in those eight games.
Coleraine’s best chance in response was a cross which fell perfectly for James McLaughlin, but he fired over when a low shot would surely have scored.
1-0 at half-time to Linfield. With Cliftonville and Glentoran both drawing their matches, this was an almost perfect afternoon for Linfield. So far.
As expected, Coleraine came out at the start of the second-half, hungry for an equaliser. Linfield couldn’t get out of their own half.
Stephen Fallon cleared a header at his post. It might have been hitting the post rather than going in, but he wasn’t to know that, before charging down the rebound as well.
Within a few minutes, Coleraine got their reward when Aaron Canning headed home a corner with Rohan Ferguson stranded, although Chris Casement needed to do better when challenging with Canning.
He didn’t need to win the header, just to do enough to stop Canning getting a clear header.
You couldn’t say that the Coleraine goal wasn’t coming.
The goal brought Linfield back to life and they almost responded with a run and shot from Matthew Shevlin that was saved.
Just as Jordan Stewart was warming up to be Linfield’s first substitute of the game, the game suddenly swung in Coleraine’s favour.
Ryan McGivern got a second yellow card for a foul. He couldn’t get out of the way. If Linfield were hoping for leniency and a talking to, those hopes were quickly dashed when the yellow card instantly came out. There’ll be more about that later.
Suddenly, the substitution changed. It was no longer about getting Jordan Stewart on to win the game, it was about getting Matthew Clarke on to make sure we were covered in the left-back position.
Matthew Shevlin, who probably would have went off for Jordan Stewart, was now coming off for Matthew Clarke.
A man down, Linfield now had to dig in and make the most of any opportunities that fell their way. They almost got one when the ball broke to Kirk Millar, whose first time shot was blocked by Chris Johns, who rushed out and made himself big.
It looked like it was going to be ten against ten when Stephen Lowry, on a yellow card looked like he was going to get a second yellow for a foul, but was spared by refereeing leniency that was denied to Ryan McGivern.
It was such a clear yellow that people around me were celebrating Lowry’s impending removal from the pitch, and that Coleraine’s numerical advantage was soon to be gone.
I’d have had no problem with McGivern’s red card if Lowry got one, likewise i’d have had no issue with the leniency towards Lowry if McGivern had got the same.
It’s not the application that’s the problem, it’s the lack of consistency when applying them.
There’s absolutely no suggestion that Linfield would have automatically won the game if Lowry was sent-off, but that doesn’t change the fact it was a wrong decision.
Instead of 10 v 10, it looked like it was going to be 11 v 9 when Rohan Ferguson mistimed a tackle outside the penalty area. I’m not sure why he was out there in the first place.
I must admit, I muttered to myself in the style of Brenda from Bristol “Not another one” as the whistle blew.
The fact it was a genuine attempt to win the ball saved him, we saw something similar when Jonathan Tuffey was booked when conceding a penalty against Linfield in 2017.
Jordan Stewart was also walking a disciplinary tightrope, after getting booked after a series of cheap fouls. It was utter stupidity on his part, giving away cheap free-kicks when Coleraine weren’t having possession in dangerous areas. He was making himself noticed by the referee, even though there wasn’t long left in the game.
In injury time, it looked like Coleraine were going to win it when Jamie Glackin created space for himself in the penalty area. Surprisingly, he didn’t shoot, instead choosing to set up James McLaughlin.
That split second allowed Rohan Ferguson to get out and make himself big, just as Chris Johns did with Kirk Millar, and save the shot and earn Linfield a point.
If there was any blame attached to him for the goal, he made up for it with that save.
Most Linfield matches in recent weeks, there was been at least one big and key save made by him.
Both teams had to settle for a point. It didn’t suit either of them in terms of the League table. Both teams were left frustrated that they didn’t win a game that was there for them to win, but also relieved not to lose a game that was slipping away from them.
Results elsewhere didn’t do any favours for both teams, with Cliftonville, Crusaders and Glentoran all winning.
It means that Cliftonville are three points clear of both Linfield and Coleraine, who both sit above Glentoran on goal difference, with Crusaders a further point behind.
Much has been made of Linfield’s games in hand, but they only have one in hand on Glentoran and Cliftonville. You won’t be able to fully assess the League table until everybody has played the same amount of games.
It’s been a good Christmas for Glentoran and Cliftonville, displaying the same form over the Festive Period that enabled Linfield to lay the foundations for winning the League last season.
For Linfield, it feels disastrous, but it’s probably more disappointing. Failure to beat Institute on New Year’s Day, and you could legitimately describe it as disastrous. A win over Institute would only upgrade the Festive results to meh.
So that concludes Linfield in the 2010s, a decade that saw 5 League titles, 3 Managers and a rebuilt stadium.
The 2020s will begin at home to Institute, three points is a must if we have ambitions of starting the decade with a title.
Hopefully, this game and the cup tie against Queen’s will give us an opportunity to rotate and get some fresh legs after a couple of tired performances.
Not only that, a few goals will be nice. The last time Linfield scored more than one in a game was against Ballymena in November. We can’t win 1-0 every week.
Sky Sports have done us a favour as we’ll come off the back of this busy period with a break of nine days, a chance to get the batteries recharged ahead of the run-in.
We’ll need to be on full charge for the first game of that run. Away to Cliftonville. We simply cannot afford to let Cliftonville pull ahead of us and get any form of belief in the title race.
Curiously, we arrived for our previous visit to Solitude after a nine day break after a busy run of games. Another 1-0 win would be nice.
That match against Queen’s sees Linfield restricted to 150 tickets, which means it is more than likely that i’ll miss out, which is a bit shit as it was a game I was looking forward to. I’ve never been to The Dub before, but surely it can hold more than that?
A random thought, with the NIFL Cup Final taking place at 7.45pm on Saturday 15th February, surely the League matches scheduled for Friday 14th February can be moved to the Saturday afternoon, even if the kick-offs are slightly earlier. Surely that makes so much more sense?
So, what will football in 2020 hold for me?
Well, i’m going to United v Burnley in mid January. I’ll keep an eye out for other games in Greater Manchester on the Tuesday night when i’m there.
I’m spending time in Dublin/Bray in late June to be in the city on the day of the Last 16 match in Euro 2020 at Lansdowne Road. Hoping to get a ticket for that, but there’s League Of Ireland games on while i’m there, so i’ll be guaranteed to see some football.
Still toying with the idea of doing a Tallinn/Helsinki double header over the July Holidays, so I might even take in an Estonian game.
Who knows what my football watching will be like in 2020?
All I know is that I plan to keep going to as many matches as possible.
Starting with Institute on New Year’s Day