Haven’t been to a match since Christmas, and then I turn up at the Irish Cup Final, I’m such a part-time supporter.
If only that was the case. Sadly, nobody has been in a football ground since December due to football fans being punished because the rest of society can’t behave themselves.
I’m surprised that my ticket application was accepted as I’m a bit of a jinx for Linfield in the Irish Cup in recent years, the last time I saw them win a game was the 2017 Final.
I don’t usually bother with home games against lower league sides, meaning I missed the games against Dergview and Newry in 2018, before turning up for the Quarter-Final defeat to Cliftonville.
The following year, I didn’t bother with the home game against Ballyclare, before turning up in time for defeat to Crusaders.
Away games against lower league teams excite me, but my jinxiness continued as Linfield lost to Queen’s University four days into 2020.
And the rest of the year didn’t get much better.
Thankfully, my application was successful, taking advantage of the later opening hours at Windsor Park on Wednesday to pay for it and pick up my testing list. You’ve probably worked out that my pre-match test on Wednesday was negative, or else it was BBC Two for me.
The tickets had to be printed off, which was a pain in the arse. Thankfully, I was able to make use of a nearby Internet Cafe to get that problem resolved.
Just getting a Final on Friday was a success, as Crusaders protest against their Semi-Final defeat was rejected.
If they did get a replay and won, they would have ground out a draw and won on penalties after Jonathan Tuffey saved every penalty while stood on the six yard line.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing a lot about how things are “Going back to normal”. This might come as a shock to those in the Media, but there quite a lot of people who don’t give a flying fuck about Pubs or Primark. Things aren’t “Going back to normal” until everybody’s life is “Going back to normal”.
One of this signs of normality is the pre-match ritual, making sure I’ve remembered everything such as money, ticket and scarf, before a pre-match meal in Applegreen if the game is outside Greater Belfast, just as this one was.
I’ve never realised how much I’ve missed Applegreen.
Masks, tests and a reduced crowd, this was going to be a Cup Final that would be different to others.
For the second successive season, it was on a Friday night (Let’s not make that a tradition when full normality returns) and, for the first time since 1975, outside Belfast, due to Windsor Park’s pitch being relaid for the European Super Cup Final.
In 1975, it was at Ballymena Showgrounds. It was a bit surprising it wasn’t there again. That and Mourneview Park were the only two options if they needed an all seater ground that could accommodate two different sets of fans and Social Distancing.
Disappointingly, there were no physical programmes available on the night, although I was able to order one online afterwards. Not a chance I would have been doing that if Linfield lost.
Linfield fans were housed in the Glenfield Road Stand. Or, in simpler terms, the Away Stand.
Normally, I sit at the far end when Linfield attack the home fans, and then move to stand behind the goal in the second-half. Allocated seating meant that wouldn’t be possible, my seat was around the halfway line, not too bad and it turned out to be very convenient later in the evening.
Having not been to Mourneview Park since November 2019, the first thing you notice when approaching the ground is the amount of new houses that have been built or are being built. Some houses at the end where away fans stand offer a decent view. I wouldn’t be surprised if the new owners were offering a corporate package to supporters.
Going into Tuesday’s Semi-Final against Ballymena United, Linfield had lost on three of their last four visits to Mourneview Park. Despite that, they were able to make themselves feel at home when using it to host European games in 2009 and 2014 when Windsor Park was unavailable.
It was expected that Linfield’s line-up would be unchanged barring injury. That would be the case, unfortunately for Stephen Fallon, as an injury would force him out. His place was taken by Matthew Clarke with Niall Quinn moving into midfield.
There was a bit of pre-match drama as Andrew Waterworth had to withdraw due to his wife going into labour, safely delivering a girl that night.
I actually didn’t realise he was unavailable until midway through the second-half when I had a quick check during a break in play to see what Linfield’s substitute options were.
The game got off to a false start, with Shayne Lavery already closing down a Larne player for possession before Larne kicked off. That would be the only false start for Linfield.
If Lavery’s eagerness was a suggestion that Linfield were up for this, there would be no doubt 38 seconds into the game when Matthew Clarke thundered into a 40/60 tackle to win the ball.
It was a mission statement, a statement of intent. That intention being, to win the Irish Cup.
Linfield had the first opportunity of the game when Shayne Lavery got the ball on the byline. It looked like winning a corner would be his only option, but a late run from Cameron Palmer created an opportunity for him, only to be denied by Conor Mitchell closing him down and making himself big.
Unfortunately, the rebound which hit Palmer didn’t go goalwards, but it didn’t go out, Larne had to clear the ball away, the resulting play seeing a free-kick to Linfield in a wide position.
That free-kick was cleared at the expense of a corner as Linfield continued to put Larne under pressure, unable to get out of their own half.
The resulting corner fell perfectly for an unmarked Shayne Lavery, who miskicked his effort into the back of the net, and gave me a sense of jealousy at the supporters at that end who were able to join in the celebrations with the players just four minutes in.
It wasn’t the first time Linfield had scored early in an Irish Cup Final, scoring inside one minute in 2010 and inside three minutes in 2007.
Larne fans would also remember they netted early in 2005 ………. and went on to lose 5-1.
More recent memories that would have given Larne fans hope would have been coming from behind to win after conceding an early goal to Linfield in January 2020, November 2020 and December 2020.
There wasn’t much indication that would be the case, as Linfield continued to dominate the game.
Eventually, Larne would have their moments, offering a shot from Ronan Hale that was easily saved, another Hale shot that was blocked by Conor Pepper.
When Linfield were looking lively, it was usually when Joel Cooper was on the ball. And when he wasn’t on the ball, he was usually winning it back with an incredible amount of tackles, and not a single foul.
Even more impressive when you consider that he isn’t that tall, so doesn’t have the advantage of long legs that he can use.
Just after the half hour, he put Linfield 2-0 up when a cross from Conor Pepper evaded Shayne Lavery but fell perfectly for Joel Cooper for fire home.
There was a delayed reaction from the Linfield support as it initially looked like Conor Mitchell had tipped it around for a corner.
Those that were near it realised it was in when they saw Cooper celebrating, prompting those at the far end to start celebrating.
A commanding lead for Linfield at half-time, the only disappointment was that it was only 2-0.
Larne responded at half-time by taking off Martin Donnelly for David McDaid.
Usually, when the scoreline is 2-0, you expect the team that is trailing to be on top at the start of the second-half as they have the greater need to score. If you walked into Mourneview Park at half-time, you would have thought that it was Linfield who were 2-0 down and looking to get an early goal.
The second-half began the same way as the first-half, with Larne camped in their own half.
Shayne Lavery had a header saved while Cameron Palmer had a shot go just wide. He punched the ground in frustration as he knew that if it went to 3-0, there would be no way back for Larne.
Eventually, Larne would offer a second-half response, a flurry of shots that were easily dealt with by Chris Johns.
Linfield remained on top, the most likely to secure a third goal.
Josh Robinson was forced into a last gasp interception to stop a through ball to Shayne Lavery while Joel Cooper had a shot saved as the ball wouldn’t bounce in the direction of Cameron Palmer who was rushing in to try and get on the end of a rebound.
A header from Jimmy Callacher almost brought a third goal, which would have added him to a surprisingly large list of players who have scored for two different clubs in an Irish Cup Final this century (Kevin Braniff, Kyle Neill, Andrew Waterworth, Philip Lowry and Mark Dickson have also done it, while Glenn Ferguson completed that achievement this century)
There would be a third goal in the game, coming to Larne in injury time as Jeff Hughes had space to fire home to make it 2-1.
Now the last 90 seconds were going to feel like 90 years.
There would be no worries, as Linfield were able to keep Larne in their own half, as far away from Linfield’s goal as possible.
The final whistle blew a few seconds early, but there was no controversy, as Linfield had an attacking free-kick deep in Larne’s defensive third. It was more an act of mercy.
My seat turned out to be very convenient as it provided a great view of the trophy presentation.
However, attention soon turned to the visit to Coleraine in the League, where Linfield need to avoid defeat to win the League.
As previously mentioned, this was the first football match I have attended since December 2020, so I have a lot to catch up on.
A few departures in the January Transfer Window for a start. The kindest thing you can saw about Ethan Boyle is that it didn’t really work out.
I was a bit surprised that Bastien Hery and Daniel Kearns were allowed to leave in January. I did expect them to leave this Summer, but they might have been kept for the run-in. Thankfully, we haven’t been short of numbers without them.
Hery was frustrating because he promised so much.
There will be departures this Summer as well, with Mark Stafford, Mark Haughey and Andrew Waterworth already confirmed due to being unable to commit to full-time football.
Joel Cooper will be returning to Oxford United while it is expected that Shayne Lavery will leave.
And then there’s Kyle McClean being out injured long-term.
That’s a lot of key players and experience that will need to be replaced, and quick, with European football starting in July.
The quick turnaround shows how badly organised this season is. Starting a 38 game season in October was absolute lunacy, and our clubs will be up against it in Europe next season due to the quick turnaround.
Once the club season is over, thoughts will turn to the European Championship.
Regular readers will know I planned on taking in a Last 16 game in Dublin, basing myself in Bray.
Sadly, that plan bit the dust due to Dublin losing their hosting rights, but I still have my booking in Bray, i’ll leave it to mid June to decide if to cancel or not.
Personally, I can’t see why the European Championship can’t be played in the Summer of 2022, especially when the World Cup is being played that Winter.
Sadly, it looks like Northern Ireland will be missing out after making a poor start in a difficult group, prompting the usual cries of how we need one football team like in Rugby, even though such a team wouldn’t come close to qualifying in either Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland’s group.
All of Northern Ireland’s games have been behind closed doors. I actually would have loved to have gone to the friendly against USA as it would have been different, and a new team to tick off.
Not sure I could have put up with some middle aged man shouting “Donald Trump!!!” for 90 minutes and thinking he’s hilarious.
Northern Ireland’s tour of The Baltics in September would be tempting, although the dates don’t suit, so it doesn’t matter if fans are allowed to travel. Hopefully, Lithuania again in Euro 2024 Qualifying.
My next football match, hopefully, will be the European Super Cup Final at Windsor Park on 11th August. I hope, not sure how I would blag a ticket.
There has been a suggestion that Belfast might miss out due to Istanbul being compensated for missing out on the European Cup Final.
Now, i’m all for Istanbul being compensated, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of Belfast. Surely they should be first in line for the next available European Cup Final. Although, if Belfast’s Super Cup is deferred by a year, there will be an increased chance of getting a ticket, assuming we’ll be able to accommodate a bigger crowd.
A ground that i’m hoping to see in 2021-2022 is Harland and Wolff Welders new ground. I usually make it one of my cycle routes and work is going well.
Paul Smyth won’t be a QPR player in 2021-2022 as they’ve free transferred him. Idiots. He won’t be a Linfield player either. I’m not allowing myself to dream of that one, he’ll be choosing from clubs in League One.
Easyjet introducing a Belfast to Inverness flight has got me dreaming of football trips again. Catch a bit of football while Highland Hiking.
It’s great to be back in a football stadium again. Unfortunately, that will be it for me and Linfield this season due to the last two games being away.
Sad to think of the great celebrations missed out on. Waterworth’s goal at Portadown, Stewart at Coleraine, Callacher at Crusaders, Lavery and Cooper at Crusaders, Waterworth at Larne. All the goals where Linfield fans would have been, and all vital goals.
We’re almost over the finishing line, let’s not do anything stupid and get over the line.
That applies to Linfield’s title challenge and the battle against Covid.