With Cliftonville winning the League Cup, Larne winning the County Antrim Shield, Crusaders and Ballymena United to contest the Irish Cup Final, and Glentoran winning the Top In February Cup, this was Linfield’s last chance for a trophy in 2021-2022.
It was the big one though, the one they wanted. There would be no second chance if it went wrong at home to Coleraine.
The fact the intro to this blog isn’t filled with expletives suggests that things went ok.
Injury last week against Larne meant that Jamie Mulgrew missed out and was replaced by Stephen Fallon, himself back from injury, while Chris McKee came in for Jake Hastie as Linfield brought in a second striker to try and offer more of an attacking threat than they did against Larne seven days previous.
He would be joined on the bench by Christy Manzinga, making a welcome return after injury.
Linfield had a decent start to the game, being camped in Coleraine’s final third. The plan was to get Jordan Stewart on the ball as much as possible.
Every time he got the ball, something seemed to happen for Linfield.
It was the same for Eetu Vertainen. Just four minutes in his game was over after a challenge where he landed awkwardly.
The delay to the game for treatment meant that this game and the one at The Oval would be out of sync.
Vertainen’s departure meant that Devine Time would be a bit early than usual. Christy Manzinga’s return from injury not enough for him to play over eighty minutes.
As Devine was coming on, Linfield had a corner. Surely not?
That would have been too much of a fairytale, but it did almost result in a goal for Linfield, with Chris Shields heading just over.
This game was very similar to the match against Larne, with Linfield struggling to break down a team set up to defend and hit on the break. We were even being treated to taking an age at goal kicks and pretend arguments between defenders and keeper in order to slow the game down.
The need for a goal became even more urgent as Cliftonville went 1-0 up at The Oval.
I only knew as the person in front showed me on their phone. I would have expected a roar from the North Stand when that news emerged.
As things stood, Cliftonville were champions.
Just as in the Larne game, you felt if Linfield got a goal, things would be ok, they would go on and win the game comfortably. The problem was, getting that first goal.
Ben Hall shot over as the pressure continued. Coleraine had their own attacks, but nothing that caused concern for Linfield.
With 42 minutes on the clock, Linfield got the breakthrough when Ben Hall headed home from a corner. His first goal for the club, and what a time to get it. A player who has begun to flourish after a difficult.
You could feel a weight being lifted all over Windsor Park. as things stood, Linfield were now Champions.
It was a lead, but not a win. There was still a lot of work to do.
With a few minutes left in the half, the game meandered. Having worked so hard to get the lead, Linfield were determined to make sure they went in at half-time 1-0 up.
Due to the injury to Eetu Vertainen, there was still a bit of injury time to play. I was saying to myself that there was still time for one last push to try and get a second.
And what a push, as neat passing between Niall Quinn and Chris Shields played in Chris McKee.
It was one of those that he had to hit first time, there was no opportunity to control the ball and shoot.
Hit it first time is what he did, low and hard into the back of the net to make it 2-0.
It is easy to say in retrospect, but that was the moment. That was the moment we knew Linfield had won the League. The celebrations in the stand reflected it.
Obviously I didn’t say it out loud. I’m not stupid. That would jinx it.
It was the last kick of the half, with the half-time whistle blew straight away.
You could sense the change in atmosphere. If the goal from Hall lifted a weight off everybody, this goal made it disappear completely.
David Healy only needed to say one thing at half-time – “Don’t do anything stupid”.
Suddenly, the game at The Oval, where Cliftonville led 1-0 at half-time, didn’t matter. For 42 minutes, it very much did matter.
As long as Linfield kept in control of the ball, they would keep in control of the game, and win the League.
Simple really. No drama, that’s all I ask for.
Could do with a third goal, just to be absolutely sure though.
It almost came when Jimmy Callacher got on the end of a corner but his header went wide.
The second-half was a bit of a non event. Linfield didn’t need to score, they just had to make sure they didn’t concede.
Which never looked like happening. Coleraine had a few half chances and speculative shots, but nothing that caused any concern.
In order to see out the game, Kyle McClean came on from the bench, as did Ahmed Salam later on.
Christy Manzinga, wasn’t needed.
The final whistle blew, and Linfield were Champions, four times in a row.
Twice before this century they had tried to win four in a row and fell short.
A single point did for them in 2009, so they know exactly how Cliftonville fans feel (even to the point of there being matchdays where both teams drew) and quite spectacularly getting nowhere near the title in 2013.
I’d said before this season that draws can kill you, but in the end, it was draws that did it for Linfield. They won the same amount of matches as Cliftonville, but it was Linfield drawing one more game and Cliftonville losing one more game than Linfield.
Ultimately, you could say it was the weekend (well, extending into Monday) in October when Cliftonville lost at Ballymena and Linfield got a late draw at Larne.
Or maybe it was Boxing Day when Linfield drew at home to Glentoran but Cliftonville lost to Crusaders when they played each other the following week.
Amazing to think that game looks like the one that did it, when compared to Cliftonville losing at home to the same opposition just over two weeks later.
At the time, it looked like those four points were going to send the Gibson Cup to East Belfast, but they ended up having to settle for the Top In February Cup.
In retrospect, the game that won it for Linfield was the game at home to Cliftonville in November.
To give a bit of background, Linfield had hit a bump for the first time domestically, losing their unbeaten League start at Crusaders, which was preceded by a League Cup exit at Ballymena and two dropped points at Portadown.
At that time, they had a game in hand on Cliftonville, but Cliftonville were getting the points.
Those points had given them a (deceptive) six point lead. The season was threatening to go away from Linfield.
Defeat would have seen Cliftonville potentially run off into the distance, even a draw would have been a big challenge to overcome them.
Linfield turned up with their best performance of the season so far, got a deserved win, and reeled Cliftonville back in, kept the pressure on them, ultimately doing enough to finish a point ahead.
Not letting teams get too far away was something Linfield had to do in response to defeat at The Oval in February, not letting Glentoran get too comfortable with their three point lead, setting down the challenge to them, only to watch them capitulate.
A three point deficit became a five point lead within six games. It would be twelve by the end of the season.
The most damming thing you can say about Glentoran is that Linfield and Cliftonville won one match in four going into the last game, and still pulled further away from Glentoran.
Crusaders were a strange team, games in hand did for them. If they had played them and got the points on the board, they could have put pressure on those above them.
That’s why it was so important for Linfield to keep getting the points in the bag while they were playing catch-up with the fixture list prior to Christmas.
Due to points accumulated in 2019, Linfield need to make the most of it in terms of ranking and co-efficient in Europe. That is why it is so important to keep qualifying for Europe, especially the European Cup.
This would be a fantastic opportunity to progress in Europe and really have a go at it, even if it means dropping into the later Qualifying Stages of the Euro Conference 2023 Final was potentially at Windsor Park too, successful bid permitting.
However, they lost out to Prague.
Not surprising, due to hosting the 2021 European Super Cup Final, and London and Dublin hosting club and national finals so close together. It could be a case of waiting a few years.
As is custom these days, players left the pitch while a podium was being erected. For many, this would be their first chance to see Linfield lift silverware in the flesh since 2019 due to the 2020 title win taking place before a training session at Midgley Park while last season’s Irish Cup Final and title lift at Solitude were played in front of reduced crowds.
I had to make do with BBC Two for the game at Solitude.
The players walked out in numerical order. Apart from Chris Shields who slide onto the pitch head first.
Having gone into the season with a bit of worry due to the turnover of players, this current squad stepped and made themselves hard to beat, only losing three games, the lowest title winning total since Crusaders in 2018.
You may have seen a stat doing the rounds on Social Media and in the Sunday Life that Linfield didn’t trail at home during the season.
I was aware of this stat a few weeks before the season ended but decided not to post it to avoid jinxing it, with two home games remaining.
The Irish League season wasn’t over, with Relegation, Irish Cup Final and European places to be decided.
I would have been excited by Annagh United being promoted, a new ground to visit, but they lost to Portadown.
Long term readers will know my position on the European Play-Offs. Nothing but a reward of mediocrity.
Pains me to say it, but natural justice would have been Glentoran winning it, as the team who should have qualified through the League.
Funny that they didn’t though. and the manner in which they didn’t win it.
Ballymena winning the Irish Cup would have been great as it would have resulted in at least two ot Glentoran, Crusaders and Larne missing out on Europe.
No harm in seeing rivals weakened.
Sometimes it’s not about who you want to win, but who you want to lose.
Newry City eventually secured their promotion, so there’s be visits there next season. Hopefully on a Saturday (both games in 2018-2019) were midweek and, without being greedy, in August, at teatime. Make a day of it and go to Carlingford beforehand.
That was me domestically for 2021-2022, a trip to Scotland followed the weekend after, and then two Northern Ireland matches in June.
My options for a game at that weekend were: Celtic v Hearts, Rangers v Dundee United, Hibs v Aberdeen, Livingston v Dundee, Dunfermline v Queen’s Park, Bonnyrigg Rose v Cowedenbeath or a Rugby match between Edinburgh and Wasps.
Click across the next few blogs to see who I went to.
2022-2023 will see a World Cup on at the same time as Irish League matches. That will be odd.
With the World Cup Final being scheduled for Sunday 18th December, that means that day’s edition of Sunday Life will preview the World Cup Final and the Steel and Sons Cup Final.
Which will be held on Saturday 24th December 2022. Might go along to that.
Complain all you want about Linfield driving you nuts and messing with your emotions.
You’ll miss it for the next three months.