Linfield and Andrew Waterworth are really enjoying February 2020. The good news is, it has an extra day this year. The bad news is, the next match isn’t until 7th March.
After three successive wins from games they were expected to win, now Linfield faced a game that they must win. Or certainly, do not lose.
Too many times this season, Linfield have failed to deliver when presented with the opportunity to pull clear of a rival. Kicking off eight points clear of Crusaders, albeit with a game more played, Linfield knew that if they won, they could have some justification is regrading the five team title race as a four team title race.
Crusaders were there for the taking, both sides recent forms was going in opposite directions. Linfield had won their last three games while Crusaders had lost their last two.
The pre-match team news saw mixed injury news for Linfield – one in and one out, luckily in the same position as Jamie Mulgrew returned for Kyle McClean.
Straight from kick-off, Linfield looked to get the ball to Joel Cooper. Not a bad tactic considering his recent form.
Linfield were already putting Crusaders under pressure, a statement, winning a corner in the first minute.
Gerard Doherty punched the corner away to Joel Cooper, whose sliced volley fell to Mark Haughey.
The temptation for Haughey would be to help the effort goalwards, but he sent the ball left to Kirk Millar.
Millar’s cross has headed in by Jimmy Callacher, who got in front of his man, to put Linfield 1-0 up with just ninety seconds on the clock.
The man who Callacher beat to the ball incidentally, was his own team-mate, Mark Haughey.
It kept up an incredible run, that this was the ninth successive League goal for Linfield against Crusaders scored by a player whose first name began with J.
It was a run that began when Josh Robinson put them 1-0 up after a minute in December 2017. Linfield would be hoping to kick on and avoid a repeat of the 2-1 defeat they suffered that day.
Cameron Dummigan got a yellow card ten minutes into the game, a surprise considering the unwritten rule that Referees aren’t allowed to issue a yellow card in the opening fifteen minutes of an Irish League game. Even more reason to get Joel Cooper on the ball.
It looked like a second goal was going to come when a cross fell to Andrew Waterworth in the penalty area. Unfortunately, the ball hit him as he tried to control it, and bounced into Gerard Doherty’s arms. A moment of frustration for Linfield.
Crusaders did have sights of Linfield’s goal. Paul Heatley had a left foot shot saved when he would have been better trying to cut in and hit it with his right foot. Rodney Brown saw a header from a free-kick tipped over by Rohan Ferguson.
A satisfactory first-half for Linfield, mostly nullifying Crusaders attack and getting a lead of their own. Now they needed to kill the game off in the second-half.
Linfield went out in the second-half determined to secure the points as early as possible.
Andrew Waterworth had a shot which forced Gerard Doherty into a spectacular save. The respite was only brief for Crusaders.
As Crusaders tried to counter attack, Jamie Mulgrew wasn’t having any of it, winning back possession and starting Linfield on another attack.
That attack saw Joel Cooper run at Crusaders defence and pull the ball back. There was a bit of a scramble, but when the ball fell to Andrew Waterworth a few yards out, there was only going to be one outcome, as Linfield went 2-0 up.
That goal gave Linfield control of the game, but it was almost wiped out straight away when Jamie McGonigle had a free header from a cross, but the ball went straight into Rohan Ferguson’s arms.
Linfield made the most of their escape, applying more pressure on Crusaders goal in search of a third goal just to be sure.
Chris Casement had an effort saved while Stephen Fallon had an effort go just over.
There wasn’t long to wait for the third, as Jimmy Callacher headed home from a corner to make it 3-0. As with the other two goals, it was a case of the Linfield player wanting it more and reacting quicker to the ball when it was in the six yard box.
Even someone as cautious as me knew that the points were in the bag. It was now a case of how many for Linfield.
The three goal lead allowed Linfield to make use of their bench.
Having missed the match against Ballymena through injury, Shayne Lavery came on. Surprisingly, not a straight swap for Andrew Waterworth, but for Jordan Stewart. Why not throw on an extra striker when you’re 3-0 up?
Lavery almost had an instant impact when he got in behind Crusaders defence, but his first time effort was saved by Gerard Doherty while under pressure from a Crusaders defender.
With two more subs to make, Daniel Kearns was introduced to give him game time, having not featured much recently.
For the same reason, it was a bit surprising that Bastien Hery didn’t get a brief cameo, as Rory Currie was Linfield’s final sub, coming on for Andrew Waterworth.
The night got worse for Crusaders when Howard Beverland got a second yellow card for a foul on Shayne Lavery on the halfway line.
When Beverland got his first yellow card, someone beside me was screaming for a second yellow. Beverland is one of those players that you just always think is on a yellow card, even if he isn’t.
I know you always want your team to fight to the end and all that, but Beverland would have been better off letting him go and hope a team mate can cover for you. Now he is suspended from his side’s biggest match of the season.
Not that it is of any concern to Linfield.
Shayne Lavery had an opportunity to make it 4-0 in injury time, but he dragged his shot wide.
Just as against Glenavon last month, Linfield had a counter attack with thirty seconds to go. Just as then, they managed to get a goal in that timeframe, with ten seconds to spare this time, as Stephen Fallon passed a low shot into the back of the net.
Just as with the first three goals, it was about Linfield players wanting it more, Fallon making that run to make something happen, even though the game was long won.
Not important in terms of the result, but it could be by the end of the season.
At kick-off, Linfield’s goal difference was only two better than Crusaders, the only team close to them in this regard. This was effectively an eight goal win, as Linfield’s advantage over Crusaders in terms of goal difference is now ten goals.
The most pleasing thing about this game was the clean sheet, a first in five matches. Wins, goals and clean sheets are good habits to get into at this time of year.
Linfield fans went to bed on Friday night safe in their knowledge their team was now nine points clear at the top, though that would change after Saturday’s games.
The lunchtime game didn’t give them the shock result they were hoping for, as Coleraine beat Institute 4-0.
The 3pm games were a lot kinder for Linfield, with Glentoran (v Glenavon) and Cliftonville (at home to a Ballymena side who had lost seven games in a row. Absolute textbook post 2014 Cliftonville) both drawing.
The five team title race isn’t as exciting as Neutrals are hoping for. Glentoran, Crusaders and Cliftonville are having to argument to say they are part of the title race.
You can’t fully assess the League table until everybody has played the same amount of games, as Coleraine, Cliftonville and Crusaders have a game in hand on Linfield.
Those games are scheduled to take place on Tuesday 3rd March. I won’t be thinking about them that night as i’ll be seeing Blossoms in concert at The Limelight.
The good news for Linfield, is that Crusaders face Cliftonville, so only one of those will win that night, if any. At eleven points behind, this is a title eliminator. Even the victor being eight points behind will be needing a spectacular run of form and a lot of help from others.
Glentoran are eight behind and up against it but not out. They face Linfield twice still, so they can cut that deficit to two. They will need to win all their remaining games just to be part of the title conversation.
Their next three games are against Crusaders, Cliftonville and Linfield. Those first two games will represent further point droppage for Linfield to take advantage of
Coleraine are the main worry for Linfield. Seven points behind but with a game in hand, and with one trophy in the bag.
If Linfield keep winning, it doesn’t matter what the others do. They will need to keep winning just to keep up, and they can’t all win if they play each other.
That game against Glentoran incidentally, has tickets on sale now. It’s good to see that tickets are on sale four weeks in advance of the match. I don’t think this is because of my constant moaning.
Supporters will have two home games, a free Saturday morning, and another Saturday morning on the day of a relatively short away trip to purchase tickets, which is very convenient. I’d better get a move on and get mine.
Here’s a pointless stat for you. A list of how many times Linfield have scored 4 or more goals in a League match under David Healy.
6 – Dungannon Swifts
5 – Warrenpoint Town
3 – Glenavon, Cliftonville, Glentoran, Ballymena United, Ballinamallard United
2 – Crusaders, Portadown, Ards
1 – Coleraine, Institute
Only three teams have avoided such a fate. Linfield face two of them, Carrick Rangers and Larne in their next two games.
Not being greedy. I’ll take a 1-0 win in those two games, and every game remaining this season.
The other club who haven’t conceded four goals in a game to Linfield under David Healy? A bit surprising, Newry City.
I’ll be heading to that game at Carrick by train, hopefully. Assuming that Northern Ireland still has a Railway Network in two weeks time.
Talking of trips, i’m looking at Warsaw maybe for later in the year. Most likely a Saturday-Tuesday on Ryanair. Hopefully, i’ll take in a game while there.
Before Linfield play again, is the UEFA Nations League draw. You should know my views on the “Competition” is that it is a farce. But while we’re in it, a trip to Scotland, midweek game please. It’s been a while since I was last in Glasgow.
So, February 2020 has been a good month for Linfield. Hopefully, March and April will be likewise.