Jingle bells, jingle bells, two points thrown away.
For the first time in a long time, over a decade at least, Linfield and Glentoran met on Boxing Day (I know it was the 27th, but you know what I mean) with both sides challenging for the title. Usually it is just Linfield.
It was so close, both sides went into the game level on points, separated by goal difference.
In fact, even the goal difference was close, just three in Linfield’s favour.
Both sides went into this game on decent runs of form. For Linfield, an just one defeat in nineteen games, and an unbeaten run of six League games while Glentoran had won eight matches in a row.
It was worth pointing out though, that they hadn’t beaten a team higher than 6th in this run.
As well as a different date, many will have noticed that Windsor Park is now the host venue in an odd numbered year as there were no games scheduled for Boxing Day in 2020. It was easy to remember where it was when The Oval hosted it in odd numbered years because, well, they are a bit odd over there.
Wherever Linfield play, you are having to savour each Linfield match you go to, win lose or draw because of so much uncertainty at the moment regarding fans being allowed into grounds.
Such is the way of the world at the moment, fans were no doubt browsing Social Media to make sure this match was definitely on. There was always a scare when you browse Twitter and glance at a post from NIFL’s account announcing a postponement, hoping that it isn’t the match you are planning to go to.
One of those games that were postponed was Cliftonville v Crusaders, meaning that if there was a winner in this game, they could pull further clear of Cliftonville, even though Cliftonville would have a game in hand. You know what they say, points on the board are always better than games in hand.
That is probably why Cliftonville haven’t messed about rearranging this game, slotting it in for the next available midweek date, Tuesday 4th January 2022.
Even more motivation for Linfield to win.
Especially frustrating for Cliftonville was that if this game ended a draw, a win over Crusaders would have seen them go back to the top of the table.
The big team news for Linfield was that Christy Manzinga was fit to start for Linfield, while a tactical reshuffle saw starts for Jamie Mulgrew and Cameron Palmer, both returning after injury.
As ever, Boxing Day attracted a large crowd, giving me the rare opportunity to watch a match from the Railway Stand, the best stand at Windsor Park. No dissenting opinions will be tolerated.
It was Glentoran who settled into the game better, being more comfortable on the ball, with Shay McCartan having a shot deflected wide, before Jay Donnelly got in behind Linfield’s defence and stroked the ball past Chris Johns.
Just as he was about to celebrate putting his side 1-0 up, Trai Hume came to Linfield’s rescue, clearing the ball on the line to keep the score at 0-0, for the second match in a row.
For the first time in a long time, if ever, Glentoran were quickly restarting the game at throws and free-kicks, knowing this might be their only chance to get ahead in the game.
They couldn’t make the most of it as Linfield now took control of the game, starting to offer an attacking threat to Glentoran.
Matthew Clarke had an effort blocked while Jimmy Callacher had a header go just wide.
Christy Manzinga then narrowly missed being on the end of a cross as Linfield continued to be camped in Glentoran’s half.
That was rewarded ten minutes before half-time when Trai Hume got on the end of a cross to fire home from close range to give Linfield a deserved lead.
Curiously, it was Hume’s second goal for Linfield, both this season, and both against Glentoran.
Not that anyone in The Kop, South Stand or Railway Stand cared about curious stats, they were only interested in wether Linfield could make the most of this and get a second.
Even at this early stage, there would be no way back to Glentoran at 0-2.
It looked like that would happen when Christy Manzinga went on a run and cut inside, but his shot was deflected wide.
Apart from the opening ten minutes, that was a satisfactory first-half from Linfield, the only downside was the lack of a second goal.
Especially so, with the Ghosts Of Christmas Past, or rather, Ghosts Of Boxing Day Past looming large, Linfield hoping to avoid being haunted by missed chances to blow a 1-0 lead and control of the game as they did in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2016.
Logic would have dictated that there would have been a response from Glentoran at the start of the second-half. There wasn’t. The pressure from Linfield continued.
More chances continued, with Jordan Stewart having a low shot saved.
Cameron Palmer was too honest for his own good when he was held back and chipped at when running with the ball in the penalty area. Not enough contact to go down, but you would have got the decision anywhere else on the pitch. There were surprisingly no claims from Linfield players.
It looked like Christy Manzinga was going to make it 2-0, but a combination of Joe Crowe and Aaron McCarey were able to deny him.
Jamie Mulgrew’s game finished early after a tackle, being replaced by Kirk Millar, meaning that Linfield were now going for a more attacking formation in search for a second goal.
The game then swung massively in Linfield’s favour when Conor McMenamin was sent-off after a late tackle on Jimmy Callacher.
Both players left the field in a stretcher.
The Referee took his red card out but then out it back in his pocket as he had to deal with players squaring up to each other. It looked like McMenamin was going to get a sympathy decision, but once the dust settled, a red card was brandished.
As a result of the tackle, Jimmy Callacher had to be replaced by Sam Roscoe,
There were further injury woes for Linfield when Christy Manzinga went off injured, replaced by Ahmed Salam, with Jordan Stewart moving up front.
That moved almost paid off when the ball fell to Jordan Stewart with his back to goal but his hooked shot went just over.
Linfield were left to rue those missed opportunities when Jay Donnelly headed home from a free-kick to put Glentoran level.
Suddenly, Linfield were sparked back into life. Too late, you could say.
Kyle McClean had a shot saved, as did Mike Newberry.
As the game went into eight minutes of injury time, mainly due to the stoppage over the red card incident., Ahmed Salam had a shot go just over while Cameron Palmer had a shot tipped over.
The pressure continued from Linfield, corners only being cleared to Linfield players, the attacks continuing but Glentoran were able to hold out.
There was still time for one last Linfield chance as Aaron McCarey dropped a cross but was able to gather on the line with Linfield players breathing down on him.
The Kop and South Stand screamed for a goal, but not the Railway Stand as they had a clear view that the ball hadn’t crossed the line.
It was to be the last act of a game where Linfield were left to rue missed chances and one failure to defend a set piece.
Injuries to Billy Chadwick and Matt Green necessitated it, but this game was a reminder that Linfield need to purchase a striker in January.
Scoring a goal hasn’t been a problem. Scoring goals has. As good as Linfield’s defensive record has been this season, we can’t keep relying on keeping a clean sheet in order to win. There was no way Glentoran would have come back if the game went to 2-0.
Linfield were once again haunted by the Ghosts Of Boxing Days Past.
Despite the disappointing result, there is a lot to be positive about, top of the League with only one defeat after a hefty turnover of players, and have beaten every team in the League.
We’ll play worse than this and win. Time to move on and prepare for the next game.
Elsewhere in the League, Cliftonville and Crusaders were inactive but Larne won and Coleraine lost.
What that means in terms of the League table below Cliftonville is that Larne are eight points off the top. Not in the mix but not totally out of it.
Bizarrely, Crusaders can go five points off the top if they win their games in hand. If they do, you would have to say they are in the title race.
Coleraine appear to have capitulated and are now trying to stay in the Top 6 instead of winning the title.
So, is it a three team title race or a four team title race?
Who cares as long as they are all chasing Linfield.
Up next, or at least scheduled to be up next is a trip to Dungannon Swifts.
I say scheduled as Dungannon Swifts match against Warrenpoint Town on Boxing Day was postponed due to Covid Protocols, although i’m not sure which team was unable to fulfil the fixture.
As I said earlier, points on the board are better than games in hand, especially with very few free midweeks (County Antrim Shield Final and two midweek fixture lists) in January and early February.
Also, Harland and Wolff Welders are away on New Year’s Day, so I won’t have that to fill in my free Saturday.
Let’s be positive that there will be a game at Stangmore Park on Saturday. Oh, and that Linfield will win it.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Cliftonville face a tricky trip to Glenavon although I would expect them to sneak a win.
Glentoran are at home to Larne and it kicks off after Linfield’s match. That is Saturday’s teamtalk sorted. Get the points on the board and sit back while two rivals slug it out.
A draw would be nice but I could live with a Larne win.
On Christmas Day, Linfield Swifts lost in the Steel and Sons Cup Final. In the end, I decided not to go.
Due to the way the calendar falls, next year’s final will be on Christmas Eve.
I’ll be tempted to go to that.
It will be six days after the World Cup Final, meaning that the Sunday 18th December 2022 edition of Sunday Life will preview Steel and Sons Cup Final and the World Cup Final.
That is my football watching for 2021 over.
Not quite at the levels of 2019 but a lot better than 2020.
Let’s hope our society stops being thick as shit and spreading disease, meaning football fans have to be punished because people can’t behave themselves in Tesco.