The Saturday Before Christmas. It sounds like a novel which has been turned into an animated movie which fills up mid afternoon schedules every year, funnily enough, on the Saturday before Christmas.
For Linfield in recent years, the Saturday before Christmas has usually had a happy ending.
2014 saw a come from behind win (with a last minute penalty save added in) against Portadown which was one of the highlights of Warren Feeney’s brief spell as Manager.
2015 saw another come from behind win, against Ballymena United, which really kickstarted David Healy’s reign as Manager. A year later, came a dramatic and vital injury time win against the same opponents.
Even the wretched 2017-2018 season saw a dominant win over win over Cliftonville.
Last year, wasn’t as memorable, a 0-0 draw against Glenavon as they were trying to keep up with Ballymena United.
On 45 minutes, this was The Nightmare Before Christmas. By full-time, it wasn’t quite a Christmas miracle, but an unexpected and greatly appreciated early present of a point.
The pre-match scenario was similar to when Linfield faced Crusaders in December and January last season, with Crusaders a couple of points behind, and Linfield knowing they could pull clear of them with a win.
Linfield’s starting eleven was the same as the previous week at Warrenpoint, lining up 4-4-2.
The deviation from 4-2-3-1 was not that surprising with Kirk Millar suspended and Daniel Kearns recovering from injury, so they had to make use of the players that were available.
Bastien Hery continued to be rested, having been playing all year with the League Of Ireland playing Summer football.
Linfield enjoyed a lot of the ball in the early minutes, but a free-kick from Chris Casement was all they could offer.
On 7 minutes, Crusaders scored with their first attack when a Philip Lowry cross was headed home by Declan Caddell from six yards out.
The home fans waited for an offside flag. It didn’t come as he wasn’t. Chris Casement and Josh Robinson switched off and left him unmarked.
Caddell became the first opposition player to score a League goal at Windsor Park since August, a goal that was key if recent form in this fixture was anything to go by, as Linfield hadn’t come from behind to beat Crusaders since April 2014.
What we got after that, was a repeat of the bad old days when Linfield go a goal behind against Crusaders, being scared of them and forgetting how to play football.
When Linfield had the ball, Crusaders had everybody defending, and Linfield didn’t have the imagination to break through. They had the players to do it.
When the ball went to them, there were swarms of Crusaders players around them. Far too many times, Linfield players were second to the ball, or when they got it, easily outmuscled in possession.
Most of Linfield’s possession in the first-half saw Josh Robinson and Jimmy Callacher passing it to each other as they had nobody else to pass it to.
Sometimes, they involved Rohan Ferguson, passing it back to him. Every backpass was cheered louder than their goal by the Crusaders fans. Strange bunch.
Hesitancy in defence from Josh Robinson allowed Jamie McGonigle in behind Linfield’s defence. As Jimmy Callacher anticpated a cross, it left space for McGonigle to shoot, only to be denied twice by Ferguson.
Every time Crusaders counter-attacked, Linfield’s defence was stretched and had no support. You would have been happy to take a 0-1 scoreline at the break, and get it remedied in the second-half.
However, Linfield would turn out to be disappointed by that score as they finished the half showing more of an attacking threat than they had previously.
Joel Cooper had a shot spilled by Gerard Doherty, who was able to recover with Shayne Lavery sniffing around.
Cooper would then have Linfield’s best chance of the half when the ball fell to him six yards out but he smashed it against the bar. Even though there were a lot of Crusaders bodies in the penalty area, he really should have scored.
Like in other recent matches, the presence of Shayne Lavery in the six yard box at corners had an offputting effect on defenders and goalkeepers. Linfield couldn’t exploit that, usually not beating the first man.
With no opportunities being created in open play, Linfield simply had to make the most of set piece opportunities that came their way.
The highlight of Linfield’s corners came when they got one, everybody was waiting in the penalty area but nobody was going over to take it so the ball just sat by the corner flag.
0-1 at half-time, and probably thankful to still be in the game. There was no need to panic. When Linfield did attack Crusaders, Crusaders looked shaky, they just weren’t attacking them enough. There were goals in this for Linfield, they just needed to step it up.
The lack of urgency was summed up by two minutes of injury time being signalled, but they were seeing out the half instead of pushing for a late equaliser that would change the mood in both Dressing Rooms.
This was summed up by Gerard Doherty having to play the ball outside his penalty area, but nobody putting pressure on him.
Linfield responded at half-time by making two substitutions, with Mark Haughey coming on for Chris Casement and Daniel Kearns coming on for Andrew Waterworth.
It was Haughey’s first appearance since May 2018, and the biggest compliment you can pay is that it looked like he had never been away. I thought it might have taken a few games to ease him back in. Especially when there were four Linfield players on the pitch when he joined the action who he had never played alongside before.
Waterworth had needed treatment during the first-half, so his withdrawal may have been due to injury, but the switch allowed Linfield to revert to 4-2-3-1, which they enjoyed so much success against Crusaders last season.
There was no immediate pressure on Crusaders goal. Joel Cooper had a speculative shot from a wide angle saved by Doherty before Stephen Fallon hit the bar, the ball didn’t come down quick enough for Shayne Lavery to head in, a Crusaders player managing to clear.
With each passing minute, it became obvious that Linfield needed Bastien Hery from the bench.
He is supposed to be getting rested, but unfortunately, Linfield keep needing to get him out there.
It looked like Matthew Clarke was going to equalise when he went for a loose ball in the penalty area, but was denied by Billy Joe Burns at the expense of a corner.
Burns was involved from the resulting corner, conceding a penalty after handling.
When conceding the corner, it looked like Clarke had fouled Burns. Finally, a stroke of luck which went in Linfield’s favour.
When a penalty is awarded, you can sometimes get a sense what the outcome will be. You didn’t get the sense that a goal was incoming when Bastien Hery stepped up.
And so it proved, as Gerard Doherty saved his low effort, at the same end where he saved a penalty from Jordan Stewart last season.
Whenever a penalty is missed, the team who survives the penalty miss is usually galvanised. Unusually, it was Linfield who were galvanised by the penalty miss, the crowd urging them on in search of an equaliser.
They didn’t have long to wait, as Joel Cooper picked up the ball and fired home spectacularly from outside the penalty area to make it 1-1.
Literally just seconds earlier, across Belfast, Cliftonville had gone 1-0 up against Coleraine in the other match between teams in the Top 4.
Midway through the second-half, I had a feeling that Crusaders would tire, and Linfield could capitalise, as they had conceded decisive late goals in their last two matches against Ballymena United and Glentoran.
Linfield fans were immediately thinking of winning the game. Apart from me, I was immediately having flashbacks to the Irish Cup game in February when Linfield conceded a late winner just after scoring a late equaliser.
Both teams had late chances to win it.
Jamie McGonigle had a shot saved by Rohan Ferguson at the expense of a corner, and a corner was awarded. You weren’t too sure, considering the last time a Linfield player denied McGonigle from scoring in injury time, a goal was awarded anyway.
With just 30 seconds left in injury time, Linfield had a free kick out wide. It was set up perfectly for Josh Robinson or Jimmy Callacher to power home a dramatic winner.
Santa would not oblige, as Crusaders cleared the danger to secure a 1-1 draw.
It was a day of mixed emotions for Linfield. Frustration at not being able to pull clear of Crusaders and Coleraine, but relief that Crusaders haven’t pulled closer.
Glentoran have pulled the gap to five points, which will give them encouragement ahead of Boxing Day.
Just like this match, it is don’t lose, but let’s go and win it. No point being in a traffic jam when we can charge ahead, especially with Crusaders and Cliftonville playing each other, and Coleraine facing an in-form Ballymena United.
How very convenient that Ballymena hit form just as they are due to play Coleraine and Glentoran.
This week, it was announced that the County Antrim Shield Final on 21st January will be held at Windsor Park.
Not ideal, as it rules out that date for scheduling in the rearranged home match against Dungannon, even though that would mean two home games against the same opposition in four days. We could still schedule in a trip to Larne for that date.
Handy for me personally though as i’ll be in England that date and won’t miss a home game.
There’s no need to panic regarding the two outstanding games, there’s still plenty of time to slot them in.
Even though it disappointed me from a travelling and groundhopping point of view, the decision not to enter the Scottish Challenge Cup has been totally justified.
Without the nine points acquired against Cliftonville, Dungannon Swifts and Institute, we’d be 5th, seven points off the top with five games to schedule in. Possibly a sixth if we reached the Semi-Final.
Elsewhere, Friday saw the release of the 2020 League Of Ireland fixtures.
It works out well for me, as there’s a full fixture list on the Monday night that i’m in the Dublin Area next June. I’ll have the choice of St Patrick’s Athletic v Cork City or Bohemians v Shelbourne.
First Division fixtures are yet to be announced, so i’m hoping that Bray are at home that night.
I’m toying with the idea of a break in Tallinn over the July Holidays. They play Summer football so I can take in a game, and sneak in a day trip to Helsinki. Will definitely be giving that serious consideration.
More immediately, I probably won’t be going to the Steel and Sons Cup Final on Christmas Day. Of course, good luck to Linfield Swifts.
I can’t sign off without wishing you all a Merry Christmas. Even to Glentoran supporters, but I hope they have shitty Boxing Day.
Dare you ask what I want for Christmas? I’ll give you a clue, i’m happy to wait until April and May 2020 for it.
Would it be rude to ask Santa for a pre-season trip to Stranraer?