This was a day where everything that could have went wrong did go wrong for Linfield as a first defeat in twelve games saw them knocked off the top of the table at the end of a first week of a potentially season defining month of games.
Linfield’s starting eleven raised a few eyebrows. The absence of Christy Manzinga meant a first start for Ethan Devine after two goals in two sub appearances.
There was also a start for Jordan Stewart just weeks after there were fears he could be out for months, while a welcome return to the bench for Conor Pepper at a time when numbers in defence in Coleraine.
Despite goals in recent weeks from Ethan Devine and Chris McKee, Linfield shouldn’t be relying on youngsters to lead the attack. It was a pity that Matt Green didn’t work out as he did the job he was brought in to do (cover suspensions, cup games and come in off the bench) and scored big goals in wins over Portadown, Glentoran and Dungannon.
Curiously, I followed a Vintage Shop in Belfast and browsed through their Instagram and got a bit of a shock when I saw him posing for photos in it on the week he signed for Linfield. How random.
I took an earlier train to this game in the hope of rummaging through some charity shops in Coleraine Town Centre, In one Vintage Shop, I was quoted £4 for a Coleraine v Tottenham Hotspur programme from 1982. There were about five or six copies lying in the shop so it’s not as if they could say it is hard to find.
Unsurprisingly, I declined the offer.
Back to the game, and Linfield had a lot of the ball at the start but didn’t really do much with it, It would become a theme throughout the game.
When Coleraine got their first attack, they made the most of it, winning a soft penalty for handball when the ball was fired at Ethan Devine from close range.
The resulting penalty was fired home by Lyndon Kane to give Coleraine the lead.
Not an ideal start, but Linfield had been here before, coming from 1-0 down to win at Coleraine at the start of the previous month.
The problem for Linfield was, they were too predictable, and Coleraine, like Cliftonville on Tuesday night, knew exactly what they had to do to defend against it.
Linfield’s predictability was causing them problems at the other end of the pitch, far too often trying to play it out from the back and unable to to cope with Coleraine’s pressing. Coleraine players knew what Linfield players were going to do, and as a result, knew what they needed to do.
It clearly wasn’t working, yet Linfield persisted with it.
Even their best attacking moments were just half chances. A header from Sam Roscoe, Stephen Fallon making a run but not being able to get the ball under control and Kirk Millar having a speculative low shot easily saved.
Despite that, Linfield knew they would be attacking their own fans in the second-half. And when they do that, no matter what the score or how the game has gone, they always have a chance.
It looked like they were going to level when the ball fell perfectly to Jordan Stewart in the box, in Linfield’s first real attacking moment of note.
However, he would be denied by a Coleraine defender throwing himself at the ball at the expense of a corner.
Despite having a lot of the ball, Linfield weren’t doing a lot with it. Coleraine were holding on but not hanging on.
Unsurprisingly, David Healy turned to the bench in search of a goal, with Chris McKee coming on for Kyle McClean.
There would be an even bigger mountain to climb on 76 minutes when Matthew Shevlin was able to create space and fire home low to make it 2-0.
The move for the goal came from lost possession, the second time in a week. Same player as well.
Linfield had been here before, in 2016 and 2019, coming from 2-0 down to beat Coleraine 3-2. Maybe it was a triennial thing?
Andrew Clarke and Conor Pepper came on in search of an unlikely comeback, as several fans headed for the exit.
Due to trains between Coleraine and Belfast only being once an hour, I had no choice but to stay as i’d already missed the 4.19pm train home.
Those that did leave early missed an incident that summed up the afternoon for Linfield.
A wind assisted corner kick, not quite in the same league as Stephen Beatty v Glenavon in 1994, looked like it might be giving Linfield hope, until Gareth Deane did just enough to keep the ball out when it looked like it was going in.
Naturally, the claims from Linfield were loud. I didn’t have the best view of it in the ground but having looked at the TV footage (not the best of angles), it didn’t look in to me.
Within seconds, a quick counter-attack from Coleraine saw Jamie Glackin make it 3-0.
From 1-2 and a bit of hope to 0-3 and defeat confirmed in a matter of seconds.
Elsewhere, unsurprising news filtered through that Glentoran had beaten Warrenpoint Town at The Oval to go two points clear at the top of the table despite losing twice as many matches as Linfield.
Draws can kill you in this League. On Tuesday night, it was a draw at Cliftonville that had Linfield top of the League, but now it was the reason they trailed Glentoran who won at Solitude earlier in the month.
Or was it Glentoran’s win at home to Warrenpoint Town who got a draw at Windsor Park.
The one thing you mustn’t do is panic.
We’ve been here before. At the same time of year, in January 2020, Glentoran went top of the League, but then collapsed under the pressure. They were long out of it before Covid intervened.
Yes, they’ve win five games in a row, but all by one goal. Linfield have to be there when their luck runs out.
This was Linfield’s first defeat in 12 games after a similar unbeaten start to the season.
Back then, Cliftonville were starting to build up a lead and the season threatened to fall apart.
The following week, Linfield beat Cliftonville and went on a winning run.
We’ll need to repeat that sort of form over the coming weeks as the season enters it’s defining stage.
In November, a big game to follow-up disappointment gave Linfield a boost to go forward.
They’ll need to have a similar response in February, there’s plenty of them coming up.
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