It was definitely the first of three. Meetings between Linfield and Larne over the next month. Linfield were hoping it would be the first of three, as in trophies this season. Instead, it ended up being the second of two (successive County Antrim Shields for Larne) and seventh in fourteen for Linfield (County Antrim Shield Final defeats).
The venue, was Seaview. A surprise perhaps. The more obvious ones would have been The Oval or Ballymena Showgrounds. However, Ballymena Showgrounds was unavailable for this game.
Larne would have been happy with this, returning to the venue they won the trophy at last season, although they would be playing in front of a crowd this time.
Linfield had also won the County Antrim Shield at this venue, but you have to go back to 2006 for it. Their only other wins in the competition since then, in 2014 and 2017 were both in Ballymena. Perhaps they should have asked for the game to be rearranged for a date when Ballymena Showgrounds is available.
Curiously, if you include the 2017 Charity Shield, David Healy was hoping this would be the seventh different venue he has won a trophy at as Linfield Manager, joining Ballymena Showgrounds, Solitude, Windsor Park, The Oval, Coleraine Showgrounds and Mourneview Park on the list.
In terms of atmosphere, Seaview would always be the best ground in this regard, a smaller ground where fans are closer to the pitch.
Having rested players in previous rounds, Linfield went strong for the Final, meaning that David Walsh missed out in goal despite his penalty saving in the Semi-Final.
With Trai Hume now gone to Sunderland, there was an appearance at right-back for Niall Quinn. Not sure about that, he’s not a right-back, especially when Mike Newberry was on the bench. It feels like shoehorning players in instead of playing them in their proper positions.
Inside ten seconds, Linfield had conceded a corner. The next twenty seconds were a lot better, winning the ball back and going straight back on the attack.
Jamie Mulgrew ran with the ball and found space, thinking why not, his long range show as tipped over by Rohan Ferguson, although for some reason the Officials awarded a goal kick.
Linfield were hoping to replicate their fast start to last season’s Irish Cup Final.
That didn’t materialise as Larne found their way back into the game, with Chris Johns forced into a save from a low shot before a header from a set piece hit the post.
The game was now end to end. For Linfield, Jordan Stewart had a shot go just wide while Christy Manzinga while Larne had a goal disallowed.
Although, Linfield weren’t helping themselves at times with some defensive indecisiveness, especially against a side like Larne who don’t give you a minute.
Just before the hour, it looked like Linfield were going to get the breakthrough when Christy Manzinga, making a welcome return after injury, was played in to a shooting position but he scuffed his effort wide.
That was much to the relief of a Larne defender who did an airshot when trying to clear it. If he did make contact with the ball, he probably would have put it into his own net.
Even with only an hour played, it was obvious this was only going to be a 1-0 game. The question was, who was going to get it?
Larne sent on new signing Lee Bonis in search of that goal, just two days after his big money move from Portadown.
Matthew Clarke had a spectacular scissor kick go just over the bar, having had a shot blocked minutes earlier as Linfield looked for a decisive opener.
Larne replied with a shot from Lee Jarvis being saved.
With just over ten minutes to go, Larne took the lead with a header from Tomas Cosgrove. A vital lead in a game which didn’t look like it was going to provide many goals despite both teams efforts.
Ten minutes wasn’t a lot of time to hold out, but it was enough time for Linfield to get an equaliser.
David Healy responded by turning to his bench, bringing on Martin Donnelly and Ahmed Salam for Matthew Clarke and Kyle McClean, meaning that McClean wouldn’t be getting a chance to recreate his last minute heroics of the Semi-Final.
Suddenly, Larne’s players were suffering from cramp. They weren’t when it was 0-0.
Martin Donnelly had special motivation to get Linfield back into the game, as if he could, he would be winning the County Antrim Shield with a fourth different club (Crusaders 2009-2010, Cliftonville 2011-2012 and Larne 2020-2021 being the others) which I presume would be a unique record.
He was involved in Linfield’s best chance of an equaliser when he was played in, forcing Rohan Fergsuon to rush out and deny him, the ball falling to Jimmy Callacher, whose goalbound effort had to be headed off the line at the expense of a corner.
Andrew Clarke then entered the action as Linfield put on more attackers in search of an equaliser.
It was not to be, as Larne were able to hold out and win the County Antrim Shield for a second successive season.
The night got worse for Linfield as they finished the match with ten men after Jordan Stewart had to be stretchered off after a bad injury.
Thankfully, the early diagnosis isn’t as bad as feared, but he will be missing for a while.
An even game, Larne got the goal and Linfield didn’t. Linfield will and have played worse and won. Onto Saturday.
However, it was a game that emphasised the need to dip into the Transfer Market this month. An experienced striker to come off the bench and occasionally start, a defender to boost numbers and now a winger to cover for Jordan Stewart.
As disappointing as this result was, it will be forgotten about very quickly with a win over Ballymena United the following Saturday which would see Linfield open up a gap at the top of the table and then put their feet up while Cliftonville and Glentoran play each other on Sky on Monday night to keep pace.
It’s been a busy week with Matthew Clarke being given a two game ban for “Provoking the general public”. How horrific. At least he didn’t punch a corner flag. The club have appealed it so he should be able to play while that appeal is being heard.
What a slippery can of worms that has been opened. There’ll be teams going into matches in March with ten players banned if this is the benchmark.
The match against Ballymena is massive. Looking at January’s fixture list (and early February), teams in the Top 6 seem to be playing each other in every matchday. There’s the potential for a bloodbath, but also for Linfield to pull away if they keep their nerves.
Elsewhere, it has been announced that Northern Ireland will play Hungary at home in a friendly in March. More than likely giving this a miss.
It’s only a friendly and i’ve seen Hungary twice before. Not worth risking being around The Rugby Crowd (AKA, Pissed By Six Brigade) for.
I’ll hopefully be back for the Nations League games in June.
Ticket prices for the League Cup Final were also announced, although Linfield won’t be in it. Only a tenner, good to see. Hopefully, sensible pricing structures will be in place for the Irish Cup Final.
Oh, and that Linfield are in it.