It doesn’t quite make up for the fact i’ll be spending my birthday in Ballymena, but it’s a start.
Two trophies already gone, Linfield weren’t in the mood to let a third slip away. Defeat today wouldn’t have been a fatal blow in the title race, but it would be a setback Linfield could do without.
Kicking off in 4th, just two points off the top, every time Linfield have got close to the top, a defeat to a rival has seen them fall further away. With matches against the Top 5 before 2019 is over, this habit of losing big games was something that needed to be kicked. A new year’s resolution before the new year has started.
A win could see Linfield jump up to top spot, but that would need two results to go in their favour. That would be nice, but they needed to help themselves. If they did, they would be 3rd at least.
Today’s fixture list would guarantee a result going in Linfield’s favour as 2nd place Coleraine faced 5th place Glentoran. A draw would be perfect, but you could live with a winner, as you would pull closer to Coleraine, or further away from Glentoran.
That, would be on the condition of Linfield winning.
They would be playing a Cliftonville who have hit a slump in form in their last two games, a draw with Larne and a defeat to Glentoran. You could argue that it was not unexpected, as their winning run coincided with a run of games against Bottom 6 teams.
They were there for the taking, although the only teams that Glenavon and Coleraine have beaten recently have been Linfield. We don’t do well against teams who are on bad runs of form recently.
That was not the case against Cliftonville last season, with wins in November and December coming against a Cliftonville side who were on the back of successive defeats. Linfield were ruthless on those days. They had to be just as ruthless in this match.
There was an extra pressure on Linfield as I was going to this over the Ulster match. I usually do one of Ulster’s group matches, but they’ve all been arranged for the same time as Linfield matches. It was never going to be a contest, but I was hoping they would make it worth not considering the Rugby, unlike when I was at the Glenavon match a few weeks back.
Linfield’s starting eleven saw a return to four at the back, hallelujah, and a return to the starting eleven for Bastien Hery.
In the early minutes of the game, Linfield had a lot of the ball but couldn’t make much of it. Cliftonville looked like they were going to have the first chance of the game when Joe Gormley looked like he was getting in behind Linfield’s defence, only to be denied by a hooked clearance from Matthew Clarke, with Jimmy Callacher’s header back to Rohan Ferguson mopping up any danger.
It was a first-half dominated by overzealous refereeing, not playing advantages when a team was on the attack, or awarding free-kicks for the most minimal of physical contact.
Shayne Lavery’s presence in their defensive third was enough to cause concern for Cliftonville, especially at set pieces. On one such occasion, his presence in the six yard box caused Richard Brush to drop a cross, but was first to react to his own error, managing to grab the ball immediately.
It was Cliftonville who had the first clear opportunity on goal when Jimmy Callacher lost possession to Rory Donnelly, who ran through on goal. Thankfully, Josh Robinson was on the scene to put pressure on him, forcing him into a rushed shot which was saved by Rohan Ferguson.
As the half neared it’s end, Linfield began to show themselves as an attacking force, being camped in Cliftonville’s half. A neat passing move saw a Kirk Millar cross just evade Joel Cooper as he set himself up for a bicycle kick.
By this point, Cooper and Millar had switched wings. Cooper was getting a lot of joy cutting inside and running with the ball, causing panic in Cliftonville’s defence.
Despite that, Linfield couldn’t get a goal before half-time.
As the teams left the pitch, fans were digesting scores from elsewhere, as Crusaders were drawing 0-0 with Ballymena United and Coleraine were 2-0 down to Glentoran. It was set up to be a great day for Glentoran. Linfield and Cliftonville knew that if the scores stayed as they were, a win would see them go top of the League.
The second-half began with more Linfield pressure, again being camped in Cliftonville’s half. The best moment came when Richard Brush missed a free-kick, but Jimmy Callacher headed onto the top of the bar.
On 56 minutes, Liam Bagnall got sent-off for a second yellow for a foul on Jamie Mulgrew as Linfield attacked, with no advantage played as the ball broke to a Linfield player and a promising attack was about to start.
Linfield fans had sensed the game was now swinging in their favour. Cliftonville had been struggling to get out of their half and a Linfield goal looked inevitable. Now they had to push on and show no mercy.
The pressure continued, and eventually a goal, when a cross was missed by Brush, and fell perfectly for Chris Casement, the ball hitting him and going in, a replica of Josh Robinson’s goal against Larne the previous week.
Brush had a few hairy moments, no pun intended, from crosses during the game, especially in crowded penalty areas, and Linfield made one of them count.
Just like when Conor Devlin struggled with the presence of Mark Stafford last week, Linfield saw a weakness and ruthlessly exploited it. They had also made their extra man count.
Linfield needed a second goal, just to be sure. Matthew Clarke had a low shot blocked and Bastien Hery hit the post as Linfield went in search of it.
They were given a reminder that they needed a second goal when Rory Donnelly pulled clear but hit the top of the crossbar.
Andrew Waterworth came on for Shayne Lavery, on a yellow card and starting to be targeted by Cliftonville players desperate for the numbers to be evened up.
A repeat of his hat-trick last season would have been nice, but Waterworth has a habit in recent years of scoring against Cliftonville when they visit Windsor Park in Winter, having scored against them in November 2015, November 2016, December 2017 and November 2018.
With no Jordan Stewart available, Waterworth would be the only attacking option available from the bench for Linfield. If he was available, bringing him on for Millar or Cooper would have been an option.
Kirk Millar would be leaving the pitch early, but not through choice, as he was sent-off for a late tackle. After scoring in two of Cliftonville’s last three visits to Windsor Park, maybe he was due a downturn in fortunes in this fixture.
What it means is, as punishment, he will be spending the next two Saturdays and Boxing Day in the stands. Could be worse, he could be out shopping on those days. Now that would be a punishment.
Of more immediate concern, was the loss of Linfield’s one man advantage, and a gap down the right that Cliftonville could exploit.
That was immediately rectified with the introduction of Trai Hume for Stephen Fallon.
Despite a narrow lead and a reduced playing personnel, there was no real need for Linfield fans to be nervous, as their side were able to hold out. Cliftonville were struggling to get the ball out of their defensive third.
When they were able to, it was Jimmy Callacher who cleared the danger, with two headed clearances to keep the ball away from Linfield’s defensive third, to keep Cliftonville from getting any ideas that they could score.
It was probably appropriate that he had the last kick of the game, booting the ball back where it came from. Having given Rory Donnelly a Christmas gift in the first-half, Linfield’s defence were now taking the role of Scrooge. Like an Inn in Bethlehem in Christmas Eve, Cliftonville weren’t getting in.
It’s a stat that I never noticed until it was mentioned by Nicola McCarthy in the introduction to the NIFL Highlights, that Linfield have won six home League matches in a row, keeping five clean sheets. Make that seven home League wins in a row and six clean sheets. You know how much I love clean sheet stats.
Elsewhere, the scores in the two other games of interest to Linfield took a dramatic turn, with Coleraine coming from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 with Glentoran, a reversal of the game at The Oval in August.
As is tradition at Windsor Park, scores from other games were announced at full-time. Usually done in alphabetical order, announcing the score of Dungannon Swifts and no mention of Crusaders suggested something was up.
The final score announced was “Crusaders 0”, it could only be good news, and “Ballymena 1” was the icing on the cake.
This combination of results meant that Linfield were top of the League, on goal difference from Coleraine and a point clear of Crusaders and Cliftonville. Linfield have two games in hand though.
Those two games have yet to be rearranged, but there is no rush. December is already busy enough, there’s no need to make it busier. It’s a bit of a risk if we have games postponed during December/January due to weather that will necessitate further games needing arranged in the new year, but it is a risk worth taking.
This was the fourth successive weekend that leadership of the table has changed hands. Hopefully, Linfield will break that run next weekend and stay top.
Being out of action at the start of the season and playing catch up meant that the road to the top of the table was going to be long for Linfield. To get there before Christmas is probably ahead of schedule.
A traffic jam at the top is always welcome when you’re chasing, but there comes a point when you have to charge ahead, like Crusaders did in 2015.
With games coming up against Crusaders, Glentoran and Coleraine before the new year, Linfield can pull clear.
It was their form in December and January (well, after the defeat to Ballymena United on 1st December) that won the League for Linfield last season, a run of big games as well, including Cliftonville, Glentoran and Crusaders home and away.
Before this match, tickets for Boxing Day tickets went on sale. Well, some of them.
The first batch did, to Members only. Season Ticket holders will get their opportunity next Saturday, before they go on General Sale on 21st December.
I’ve no issue with the order of sales, and the club have to give people time to purchase, hence the week long window.
I’ve said it before, if a match is all ticket, there should be a rule that tickets should be on sale four weeks in advance.
It is inconveniencing a lot of people that they won’t know until five days before the match if they have a ticket.
If the tickets were put on sale last week (as they would have been under a Four Week Rule), Members could have purchased at the Larne and Coleraine matches, Season Ticket holders at this match, then General Sale from 14th December, which allows people purchasing under General Sale twelve days to get a ticket.
Boxing Day is still a long way off, it’s all about Warrenpoint.
Going off course with some TV recommendations for you, and RTE have two decent looking documentaries on Monday 9th December. Unfortunately, they’re on at the same time.
At 9.35pm on RTE1, there is a look back at a combined Bohs/St Patrick’s Athletic team playing in Libya, called In League with Gaddafi. While on RTE2 at 10.10pm is Wonder Walls, nothing to do with Oasis, but a look at Irish Street Art, where i’ll keep an eye out for places in Dublin and Waterford that I recognise.
I’ll record both and watch them at some point during the week.
As said earlier, up next for Linfield is a trip to Warrenpoint next Saturday. Hopefully, the most awkward part of the day is negotiating through traffic in Newry City Centre on the way home.