Eighteen days into the year, and 2020 has still to get going for Linfield.
It’s been a case of one step forward and then one step back for Linfield in 2020. Although the steps back have felt like falls or head first tumbles.
That win at Cliftonville looked to be setting Linfield back on track, as they looked to gain momentum to launch a title charge.
Matches against Dungannon Swifts usually go one of three ways for Linfield. There is an outright thrashing, which they have dished out in their last three meetings: 5-0, 4-0 and 4-1. Then there are undeserved scrappy wins, such as last season at Dungannon. And then there are draws, which Dungannon had achieved at Windsor Park in two of the last three seasons. After six defeats in a row to Linfield, they will have felt they were due something in this fixture.
The first result would have been great, the second would have been welcome. The third, well that would have been catastrophic in a season where the title race is so tight.
Linfield’s starting eleven showed only one change from that game at Solitude, with Mark Stafford coming in for Mark Haughey, having come on as a substitute for him in North Belfast.
Partly surprising, that Linfield stuck with the three man midfield they had at Solitude.
Even though none of Stephen Fallon, Andrew Mitchell or Jamie Mulgrew merited being dropped for this game, they were part of a team selected to beat Cliftonville. Linfield needed a team to beat Dungannon Swifts.
Linfield’s first opportunity in the game came when Shayne Lavery got into space and set himself up to shoot, but was denied by a last gasp tackle just as he was about to shoot.
Lavery then headed over under pressure in the six yard box as Linfield searched for an opener.
Any time they tried to start an attack, they were usually denied by a cynical fouls, which were not punished with a yellow card, which only encouraged, emboldened and empowered them to continue with it.
Despite that, it was too pedestrian from Linfield, as Dungannon were allowed to be comfortable when setting themselves up to defend.
It wasn’t until the final minutes of the half that Linfield had a flurry of attacks, the best moment coming when a Stephen Fallon shot from outside the box was tipped over.
0-0 at half-time, but no need to panic. However, there was a need to step things up and have more urgency in their attacks. Scores elsewhere saw Coleraine, Glentoran and Crusaders all winning, while Cliftonville were drawing.
Linfield’s pressure early in the second-half saw Mark Stafford head over from close range when he really should have scored. In a game where Linfield had created very few clear scoring opportunities, they really had to take them when they came their way.
Linfield’s next moment of frustration came when Shayne Lavery headed against the post. It looked like being one of those days for Linfield.
In order to avoid it being one of those days, David Healy turned to his substitute’s bench, bringing on Kirk Millar for Jordan Stewart, a like for like change.
One of the three centre midfielders should have been sacrificed instead to give Linfield more of a presence and more options in the final third.
Millar almost had an instant impact with a low cross which agonisingly evaded everybody, after an earlier cross for Shayne Lavery where he just couldn’t get his header across Dungannon’s keeper, the ball landing safely in his arms.
Mark Stafford then had a volley go just wide as Linfield searched for the goal that didn’t look like coming.
In fact, it was Dungannon who should have scored when the ball fell perfectly to Daniel Hughes after a counter attack, volleying over when he had (a short amount of) time to set himself up and then shoot.
By then, Daniel Kearns had come on for Andrew Mitchell to give Linfield more presence up front. He would be joined by Matthew Shevlin, who had come on for Ethan Boyle.
It looked like Shevlin was going to score a dramatic late winner when he was played through, only to be denied as the game was pulled back for a foul, and a yellow card to be awarded to a Dungannon Swifts player. Of course.
Shayne Lavery headed over in injury time with Linfield’s last chance on a day of frustration where they had to settle for a 0-0 draw.
It was a game that Linfield deserved to win, but one that they didn’t do enough to win.
There was a lack of urgency in attack and Dungannon were able to get comfortable when defending.
On a day when it wasn’t happening for Linfield in open play, Linfield had to make the most of their set pieces. They didn’t.
It didn’t help that they only had one player taking them. Dungannon knew what to expect and could defend accordingly. I find it incredible that Matthew Clarke or Joel Cooper can’t provide a left footed option at set pieces.
This match reminded me of the draw against draw against Portadown in 2017. Hopefully, Linfield will have a similar response as they did in the aftermath of that match.
Of the other four games that day, only one provided a result of benefit to Linfield, with Cliftonville losing to Carrick Rangers. Wins for Glentoran, Crusaders and Coleraine meant that Linfield dropped to 3rd.
Those games in hand that they have, were now only giving them an opportunity to sneak ahead at the top, rather than consolidating a lead.
The week following this match saw some transfer activity at Windsor Park. Daniel Reynolds left on loan to Carrick Rangers to get some gametime, while Rory Currie came in on loan from Hearts.
Even though I hinted that I wasn’t happy with the selection of Andrew Mitchell for this match, I wasn’t suggesting that he be sold. I have a horrible feeling that we may regret this.
After this match, I headed to a concert, then I was off to England for a few days, so I didn’t get to finish this blog until after Linfield’s next match, against Glenavon.
It was a game that Linfield needed to win and perform far better in.
Spoiler alert, it was better. Much much better.