This was a pleasant and most welcoming early Christmas present, a win at Larne at long long last.
Ever since Larne won promotion in 2019, Inver Park had been a tricky venue for Linfield. Scoring hadn’t been a problem, keeping them out was, as scorelines such as 1-3, 1-4, 1-3, 1-1 and 1-1 would testify.
Those last two scorelines gave hope to Linfield that they could something. They’d stopped the rot but they needed to start winning. A draw wouldn’t have been a disaster, but having dropped points to Warrenpoint Town last weekend, there was a danger that others could start to pull away from them with the table so tight at the moment, and this game presenting Linfield with an opportunity to go top, even if it was potentially for a short period of time.
As with the game in October, this game was moved for TV coverage, this time on the BBC, where Linfield have a record of two wins and one defeat in this fixture when live on the BBC.
Not much use if you were planning to get the train to the game, as you’d have to leave midway through the second-half to get the last train home.
Linfield’s starting eleven picked itself, mainly because there was nobody else fit, opting for a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation.
If you thought this was going to be a defensive affair due to what was at stake, you would be mistaken, with both sides having attacks inside the first 45 seconds.
A shot from Davy McDaid took a bounce which caused Chris John’s to spill it, luckily Matthew Clarke was there to shield the ball and stop Larne from scoring.
Immediately, Linfield had an attack of their own which was stopped by a foul, giving them a free-kick in a promising position which was eventually cleared.
And there was still 89 minutes of this still to go.
Larne seemed determined to get an early goal, with Ben Doherty having a long range shot go just over he bar, while Ronan Hale fired across goal.
Linfield had opportunities of their own, but they were usually thwarted by a pass or a tackle or a miscontrol. Both teams were having the same amoutn of attacking time, but Larne were making better use of their attacking possession.
Their best moment came from a Christy Manzinga run which resulted in a shot being saved from a wide angle.
On the half hour, the game swing massively in Linfield’s favour with the award of a penalty kick.
Christy Manzinga was fouled just as he entered the penalty (I was unsure at the ground, as I was so far away from the incident, but TV footage showed that it was) area and Kofi Balmer was given a red card for bringing him down.
Chris Shields, who else, stepped up to take the penalty, in off the post. I’d actually thought he missed it from where I was.
A goal up and a man up, Linfield would never have a better chance to win at Inver Park.
They almost doubled that lead when Stephen Fallon hit the bar from close range under pressure from a Larne defender after a pull back from Christy Manzinga.
A 1-0 lead at half-time, not too bad, but Linfield needed to make this extra man work for them.
And work for them it did in the second-half, as Linfield came out strong, determined to make the most of their advantage and kill the game off.
They almost did that in the early minutes of the half when Ahmed Salam had a goalbound volley cleared off the line.
Trai Hume then had a shot saved as Linfield searched for a second goal. The important thing was, they were restricting Larne and keeping them well away from their own goal.
If you can’t score, don’t concede.
With a squad decimated by injuries, there wasn’t a lot of experienced players for Linfield to call on from the bench.
Martin Donnelly, who set up the equaliser on his last visit to Larne, came on, as did Josh Archer, who had so far only featured in cup games.
A quick counter attack looked like it was going to bring that elusive second goal, but Kyle McClean saw his shot saved by Rohan Ferguson.
Two and a half minutes into three minutes of injury time, if you can’t score, just don’t lose the ball and keep it in play. Ferguson’s save turned the ball out for a corner. Linfield still had the ball in Larne’s defensive third. Hold onto it and don’t do anything stupid, and three points would be in the bag.
Thankfully, they were able to see the game out, securing a 1-0 win to go top, albeit temporarily when they were immediately but not unsurprisingly knocked off by Cliftonville who beat Carrick Rangers.
Elsewhere, Glentoran beat Glenavon while Coleraine and Crusaders drew with each other, giving Linfield a bit of breathing space from both, but not enough to rule them out of the title race.
Larne won’t have long to wait for a chance to get revenge, although it will be the trophy on offer that will be the main motivation, with the County Antrim Shield Final on 11th January.
The venue for that has been confirmed for Seaview. Surprised by that, I thought it might have been too small and that it was going to be played at The Oval.
It should be a decent atmosphere there. Well, if fans are allowed in. Sadly, that’s where we are because this whole country is too thick to not spread disease.
League Of Ireland fixture list for 2022 has just been released, i’m still digesting it. It might be as far as I get to travel in 2022 so might as well take in a game if i’m staying somewhere. Bray Wanderers and Finn Harps are the teams i’m looking out for.
Another free Saturday, and Harland and Wolff Welders are away. They’re doing this on purpose to annoy me. I will visit that stadium.
Eyeing up their Irish Cup tie against Annagh United (Linfield have a home tie to lower league opposition which should be a non-event, famous last words) on January 8th.
The draw for the UEFA Nations League was made. Pointless competition, waste of time, should just go straight to Euro 2024 Qualifiers.
For what it’s worth, the draw could have been kinder to Northern Ireland. There were some teams they could have got which would have been certain promotion.
They are more than capable of beating Greece and Kosovo, but they’ll have to work for it.
Depending on the Play-Off result, Estonia could be in their group. The away game is sandwiched inbetween two Finland home games. There is the potential of a long trip to both neighbouring countries.
Forget about Finland and Tallin, i’ll be grateful to visit Fermanagh and Tyrone in 2022.
Up next for Linfield is a home match against Ballymena United, their game in hand.
A win will see them go top, and send out a message to their rivals.
It wouldn’t hurt to go top of the league in case the season has to be abandoned. That’s where this stupid fucking country is at.