CHAMPIONS 2017 – WINDSOR PARK CELEBRATIONS

With so many fans unable to get into Solitude, it was announced that if Linfield were to be successful in their pursuit of the Gibson Cup, a celebratory event would be held at Windsor Park at Saturday teamtime for fans the congratulate the team.

As soon as disembarking the bus outside Ballysillan Leisure Centre, it was straight in the car to Windsor Park. I wasn’t the only one.

For those who weren’t able to get a ticket for Solitude, it was their chance to party.

For those who were at Solitude, it was an extension of the party.

In short, we were all there to party.

The Railway Stand was used for this event, and it was full. Players were introduced to the field in numberical order (Apart from Jamie Mulgrew, who came out last with the trophy) which meant that Number 38 Paul Smyth was made to feel like a Zimbabwean athlete at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Talking of which, he could be in with a shot of a Gymnastics medal in Rio to go with his Irish League medal judging by the double somersault as he entered the pitch.

Fans got the see the team and the trophy, and got a few words from David Healy, while kids were able to pose for photos with their favourite players, and some adult did as well. Everybody who was there got something from the day.

After five years, i’d almost forgotten what title celebrations felt like. They feel good. Hopefully, same again next year.

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CLIFTONVILLE 1-3 LINFIELD 29.4.2017

With 37 out of 38 games of the Irish League season completed, there were still some things that needed to be decided.

Portadown’s relegation had been confirmed, as had Coleraine’s qualification for the UEFA Cup. We knew who would be playing in the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, but not who would be playing who. Most importantly, the league title was still up for grabs.

On thing was guaranteed, that the title would be won in North Belfast. Linfield fans were hoping that the trophy would not be staying there as their side headed to Solitude looking to win the League for the first time since 2012.

The maths was simple, all they had to do was avoid defeat. If they did lose, they would be hoping that Crusaders would fail to beat Glenavon.

You could say that the venue was apt. The last time Linfield had entered the field as League Champions was in April 2013. The fans who arrived at Solitude did so hoping that things would now go full circle.

Cliftonville fans had a sense of deja vu going into this game. They’re used to seeing the title won in the flesh. As well as their side’s successes in 2013 and 2014, Glentoran (2009), Linfield (2010, theoretically in 2011) and Crusaders (theoretically in 2015, 2016) win the league against them.

The omens were good for Linfield. I was travelling on my own (We’ve lost the three times my dad has went) and I had my lucky scarf with me. I bought it from a charity shop last November, and Linfield have won all but one of the games i’ve had it with me. That game was a draw with a last minute equaliser.

Just to be sure, I went and had lunch at the same place on Oldpark Road I had lunch in before the 3-0 Irish Cup win at Solitude last season. This was not a day to leave things to chance.

If the Irish League was a TV show, we were treated to a reintroduction of a former character ahead of the series finale, in the shape of Tommy Breslin (assisted by Peter Murray) being appointed Cliftonville interim manager for the remaining two, possibly three games of the season. Crusaders fans were hoping this would result in one final plot twist.

Paul Smyth was serving a one match ban meaning there would be one change to Linfield’s starting line-up. The general consensus was that Kirk Millar would come in and replace him. David Healy sprung a surprise by bringing in Mark Stafford, moving Mark Haughey to right-back and pushing Chris Casement to right-midfield.

It was a move designed at countering Cliftonville, though it wouldn’t be as if Chris Casement would be spending the game in his own half.

It wasn’t just Linfield’s starting eleven that raised eyebrows. The faces on Linfield’s bench were just as much of a pre-match talking point as the new faces on Cliftonville’s.

Joining Millar on the bench was Cameron Stewart, back after injury, and Gareth Deane, a rare occasion that David Healy named a goalkeeper on the bench.

The game got off to a slow start. Mark Haughey had Linfield’s first attacking moment of note when he shot from a wide position when a cross looked a better option.

Within a minute, Cliftonville won a corner. A few minutes earlier, they had a corner, and every player was tightly man marked and the best they could get was a speculative header from a wide angle that went well wide.

This time, they changed it, taking a short corner, and caught Linfield out, with Daniel Hughes finding enough space in the box to head home.

It got worse for Linfield. By this point, Crusaders were already 1-0 up against Glenavon. As things stood, the title was heading to Seaview. Linfield were Heartsing it.

It was so important for Linfield not to concede early on. Not just to stop giving Crusaders encouragement in their own fixture.

In recent years, there have been very few occasions when the team who scored first has lost. Linfield hadn’t come from behind to beat Cliftonville in the League since 2011. They hadn’t come from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville in the League since 2005. In that same time, Cliftonville only had wins at Windsor Park in 2012 and 2014 where they had come from behind.

All that Linfield could offer in response was a Matthew Clarke cross that evaded everybody. Cliftonville almost made it 2-0 when Roy Carroll had to tip around a goalbound Chris Curran shot. Linfield were playing so bad that their fans were hoping they could go in at half-time only 1-0 down.

Despite that, Linfield had one big moment in the first-half, their only moment of quality attacking play which saw Andrew Waterworth get free in the box to get on the end of a cross, only to head wide. Well wide. He really should have scored.

Linfield went in at half-time, a half which had a ridiculous lack of injury time considering how long Cliftonville took at set pieces, 1-0 down. A vast improvement was needed.

There were mixed emotions in the away end. Some felt that their side was going to blow it at the final hurdle. We all knew, that when Linfield attack a goal with their fans behind it, that anything was possible.

Linfield needed a quick response in the second-half.

Their first attack saw Niall Quinn almost get in behind Cliftonville’s defence. He caused enough panic for Cliftonville to concede a corner.

From that corner, Mark Stafford headed across goal and it fell perfectly for Andrew Waterworth to fire home from close range.

In truth, I barely saw it. All I saw was players celebrating and fans going wild and limbs all over the shop. Those really are the best goals.

As it stood, Linfield would be champions, but there would be no margin for error.

A few minutes later, Waterworth got the ball in a wide position, advanced into the penalty area, creating enough space to fire home and make it 2-1. It looked like there would be a plot twist on the last day, but the twist was in Linfield’s favour.

It then looked like Waterworth was going to get a hat-trick as he set himself up to shoot from a few yards out, a foul by Chris Ramsey denied him. The referee awarded a penalty, and a red card to Ramsey.

It was Linfield’s seventh penalty in ten matches, four in the last three. Who would take it was up for debate. Logic dictated that Aaron Burns would take it having scored in his last two games. He was denied a second penalty against Coleraine due to being subbed when it was awarded.

However, Andrew Waterworth wanted a hat-trick, and nobody was going to tell him he wasn’t taking the penalty. He put the ball in the net to make it 3-1.

I thought he had panenkaed it. TV replays suggested he scuffed it. Things were going his way, he probably could have farted the ball into the net.

It was the third successive game that Linfield had a quick flurry of goals. Against Glenavon, they went from 0-0 to 3-0 in fifteen minutes. Against Coleraine, they went from 0-1 to 3-1 in seven minutes.

Against Cliftonville, it was 0-1 to 3-1 in thirteen minutes.

This is a Linfield team that gets on top and goes for it, showing no mercy to opponents and kills the game when they are on top, and doesn’t give rivals an opportunity to get back into the game.

They wanted more goals. Aaron Burns couldn’t adjust his body to score when the ball fell onto his right foot, while Chris Casement fired over from outside the box.

David Healy then turned to his bench, bringing on Cameron Stewart for Aaron Burns, his first appearance since injury in March.

It was a good day to be a Stewart in Belfast (isn’t every day?) with Liam Stewart winning a medal at the Ice Hockey World Championship at The Odyssey later that day.

It is unclear if his dad Rod stopped by at Solitude before heading to The Odyssey, having got a guided tour of the ground in 2013.

It was too early a kick-off to say that Tonight’s The Night for Linfield, but it certainly was the day, as Cliftonville never looked like scoring or making an unlikely comeback.

Kirk Millar then came on for Chris Casement while Sean Ward came on for Andrew Waterworth, who unsurprisingly got a standing ovation after Van Persieing Linfield to the title.

Waterworth was one of seven David Jeffrey signings (not including Chris Casement, who was originally signed by Jeffrey, then re-signed by Healy) in Linfield’s starting eleven.

They had all been through the lean years together.

That stat isn’t designed to take away from David Healy’s achievement. He’s taken Jeffrey’s players, he’s taken Warren Feeney’s players, and added his own, and turned them into title winners.

Much will be made of the gap Linfield closed down from mid February onwards, but it shows what Healy has added.

Linfield surrended the title too quickly and too easily in 2014 and 2015. The day the title was won, Linfield lost on those days. They didn’t push their opponents all the way.

Even when Crusaders went eight points clear in April last year, Linfield kept on winning (wining their four final games by an aggregate of 12-0) and made Crusaders have to win the title.

This year, Linfield did the same. They issued a challenge to Crusaders and never gave up. They got their reward.

Any time over the previous four seasons, Linfield would have lost this game. They would have lost at Coleraine. They would have conceded a late equaliser at home to Crusaders. They would have lost at Ballinamallard.

Not this season, not this Linfield team.

I was under the impression that any trophy presentation would take place at Windsor Park later in the day, I was caught by surprise when a podium was starting to be erected.

I thought it was just for celebration photos to get the sponsor’s logo in.

It was a nice surprise to see the Gibson Cup at Solitude, ready to be presented.

The podium almost blew over in the wind. It gave us all a laugh.

Talking about the presentation, it was great that it took place close to Linfield’s fans, meaning that fans could get close to the ceremony.

I appreciate that the arrangements were different due to being at an away ground, but a big complaint about Windsor Park presentations were that they took place in the centre circle, far away for fans to see.

Hopefully, should Linfield win the League in future and be presented with the trophy at Windsor Park, the presentation will take place closer to the stands.

Elsewhere this week, new air routes from Belfast were announced. They were mostly sunbathing places with no real football teams of note. Naples stuck out though.

Those of us of a certain age will feel a romantic nostalgia to Napoli. Maradona, Careca, that sky blue top sponsored by Mars.

Plus, there are murals of Maradona in Naples.

I’m already dreaming of a trip to Naples. I’m not booking one in the immediate future though.

These results confirmed the Semi-Finals of the European Play-Offs as Ballymena United v Dungannon Swifts and Cliftonville v Glenavon. I’m glad that Linfield aren’t taking part in this ridiculous charade.

Hopefully, natural justice will prevail, and 4th place Ballymena win in, just like 4th place Cliftonville did last year.

Ideally, either Ballymena or Dungannon for me. Mainly because they’ll play home games at Seaview, which would be convenient for me to attend if they draw a team in the 102 Club list.

These games will take place on Monday 8th May and Friday 12th May.

I can’t see why they can’t be accommodated on Sunday 7th May and/or Saturday 13th May. Weekend dates will be more convenient to fans of competing clubs, and might even attract some neutrals.

Talking of Play-Offs, Ballyclare and Institute meet to face Carrick for the last spot in next season’s top flight. I’ve no particular favour to any of the three teams regarding who goes up.

The second leg of Carrick’s game will also be on Friday 12th May. Surely it could have been on a different date from the European Play-Off in order to make it a standalone event in terms of unique media coverage.

It’s looking like Linfield will start next season in late June in the First Round of the European Cup. 26th May 2018 in Kiev if you’re optimistic and into forward planning.

Hopefully, a tie against a team from San Marino, Andorra or Malta. More than winnable.

Playing European games on Tuesday and Wednesday will also be convenient in terms of arranging Saturday friendly games inbetween, as opposed to playing on a Thursday.

Pre-season friendlies can wait, 2016-2017 is still ongoing.

It’s already been good. It could end up great.

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COLERAINE 1-5 LINFIELD 22.4.2017

Good things come to those who wait. For Linfield fans, it was a first win against Coleraine this season. It could lead to something bigger that Linfield fans have been waiting a bit longer for. I can’t even say it for fear of jinxing it.

As with most of the season, Linfield simply had to win and hope. There was no margin for error. Defeat today could have seen Crusaders declared Champions.

Linfield began like a team determined to get three points, Paul Smyth getting free of his man in the opening minute but his cross evaded everyone.

Linfield piled pressure on Coleraine’s goal in the opening minutes, and looked to have been rewarded when Andrew Waterworth scored from close ranger after Coleraine keeper Chris Johns dropped a shot.

Celebrations were cut short when the goal was disallowed for a foul. The keeper only had one hand on the ball and Waterworth was entitled to go for it. It was a soft decision and an incorrect one.

Even though they didn’t get the goal they wanted, Linfield were able to shut out Coleraine, limiting them to speculative long range shots.

After a dry period as an attacking force, Linfield ended the half as they started it, by piling pressure on Coleraine’s goal.

Aaron Burns headed over from close range from a corner, before he tried to recreate Alessandro Del Piero’s goal against Germany in the 2006 World Cup, except that he fired well wide.

Some neat passing play saw Andrew Waterworth fire just wide, while Aaron Burns volley over from the edge of the box. It was not his day so far.

Linfield had endured a frustrating half. As they headed to the dressing room, news was filtering through that Ballymena and Crusaders were also drawing 0-0 at half-time.

Linfield were making the chances, they just needed to start taking them.

The first goal of the day came in the opening minutes of the second-half, but for Coleraine, when James McLaughlin headed home from a corner, the third time he had scored against Linfield this season.

As things stood, Crusaders were one goal away from the title. Questions were being asked of Linfield, they had no choice but to answer them.

Linfield fans got behind their team, urging their team on.

As players waited in the penalty area after some build-up play, Linfield fans were screaming for a cross into the box. Aaron Burns played the cross in, and it went straight in. It will look good on TV, but it was a fluke, not that Linfield fans cared. You do have to appreciate the irony of him scoring when he didn’t mean to, after enduring a frustrating first-half when he was trying to give Linfield the lead.

The game was back to square one, and Linfield were in to mood to charge to victory.

Paul Smyth was leading that charge, and was denied a penalty when his heels were clipped from behind. A few minutes later, Smyth got on the end of a cross from the left that was just asking to be scored to put Linfield 2-1 up.

With the score at Ballymena still 0-0, Linfield were top of the league as it stood, and their fans begand chanting “WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE!!!”

Not me. We’d been through this the last two games. I didn’t want to tempt fate.

Smyth did eventually get his penalty, which was converted by Aaron Burns. From 1-0 down to 3-1 up in the space of ten minutes. The pressure was now all on Crusaders.

At 3-1 up, it was time to do nothing silly, just see the game out and don’t even give Coleraine the encouragement of a comeback.

Coleraine were shut out, as all of Linfield’s fans attention turned to Ballymena.

The news came through that Ballymena had went 1-0 up. The celebrations in the Linfield end got louder.

There was even more celebrations when a cross from the left went to Andrew Waterworth with an open net. He didn’t make perfect contact with it. There was a look of horror on his face as he readied himself for the ball coming off the post. That then turned to relief and celebration as it was now 4-1. It was most definitely Linfield’s day.

With the game won, David Healy looked to his subs bench. Mark Stafford came on for Mark Haughey and Kirk Millar came on for Aaron Burns. They were the obvious and most sensible substitutions as Burns and Haughey were a yellow card away from missing the Irish Cup Final.

Jamie Mulgrew then made way for Sean Ward. Just a precaution, with Mulgrew going off injured on Tuesday night.

It would have been nice to see teenage striker Ryan Strain get some game time, but protecting those most at risk from suspension or injury was the bigger priority.

A handball gave Linfield a second penalty. With Aaron Burns now off the pitch, it fell on Paul Smyth to take it.

His shot was saved but Coleraine couldn’t clear it, and Andrew Waterworth headed home from a resulting cross to make it 5-1.

The news from Ballymena just got better, with the hosts going 2-0 up. Linfield fans could now relax and party, which they did in the final minutes of the game, by chanting the name of former manger David Jeffrey in gratitude, before doing the same of David Healy.

The final whistle blew and some people were on the pitch, they think it’s all over. The way this season has gone, the title race definitely isn’t.

Next weekend for Linfield, is a trip to Solitude. It’ll be my first this season having not gone to the midweek game in October.

Cliftonville might have lost four games in a row and have been generally rotten since Christmas, next Saturday’s game is anything but a guaranteed three points.

Having seen Crusaders win the League at Solitude in the past two seasons, and then be guests at Glentoran (2009) and Linfield (2010) title parties in recent years, Cliftonville fans will be sick of the sight of teams winning the League against them.

They also know that 4th will secure home advantage if they make the UEFA Cup Play-Off Final.

To use a Boxing analogy, Cliftonville will (metaphorically) throw a lot of punches early on. Linfield have the capabilities of withstanding them and throwing a few KOs of their own.

There is a slight margin for error in that a draw will do the job for us. We simply have to go for the win and not leave it to chance.

Elsewhere, in England, Leyton Orient got relegated from the Football League. It was only just over three years ago I went to see them when I was in London for a weekend. They were chasing promotion to The Championship. Before you say anything, I didn’t jinx them.

For Linfield, it comes down to the final game at Solitude with Linfield fans getting behind their team, those in the away end more vocal than those Linfield fans who will be paying into the home end.

I almsot envy them, as they’ll miss out on the pre-match ritual of Linfield fans waiting for buses.

Hopefully, at 4.45pm, it will be buses waiting for Linfield fans. We’re hoping to stay behind after the game to have a party.

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LINFIELD 3-0 GLENAVON 18.4.2017

There were low levels of excitement in the second-half at Windsor Park on Tuesday night, but that wasn’t a bad thing, as Linfield had the game wrapped up at half-time. At this time of year, it’s all about results, not excitement. Linfield are getting the results. Unfortunately, so are Crusaders.

Glenavon started the game strongly and it was Linfield were looked nervous, struggling to clear crosses and putting themselves under unnecessary pressure. The bets that Glenavon could offer during this time was a free-kick straight at Roy Carroll.

Linfield then got a grip of the game and started creating chances. Paul Smyth had a shot saved from a wide angle, while Jamie Mulgrew burst into Glenavon’s penalty area and saw his shot saved, Glenavon being able to clear from the rebound.

It was a night when the first goal would be vital. If Glenavon had got it, there would still be every chance Linfield could still come back to win, but it would have been a long and uncomfortable evening. If Linfield had got it, Glenavon’s early confidence would have been dented, and Linfield could charge forward and take advantage of it.

Just before the half hour, Linfield were gifted the opportunity to take the lead when a stray backpass played Andrew Waterworth through on goal, he rounded the keeper and was brought down. A penalty was awarded, but only a yellow card.

You could see it now. Tuffey saves the penalty and has the game of his life in a 0-0 draw.

Aaron Burns was now on penalty duty and made no mistake from the spot.

Just as they finished celebrating that goal, Linfield fans were celebrating another goal, this time across the city at Seaview as Coleraine took a 1-0 lead against Crusaders.

And just as Linfield fans had finished celebrating that goal, they were celebrating another goal from their own team as Mark Haughey headed home to make it 2-0.

Linfield weren’t happy with that, and wanted a third before half-time, and began to put more pressure on Glenavon’s goal.

That third goal came in the final minutes of the half when a flick on played in Paul Smyth clean through, and he made no mistake.

It was all going well for Linfield. At Windsor Park at least. By this point, Crusaders had already gone into a 2-1 lead.

Linfield made a sloppy start to the second-half, but the best Glenavon could offer was a long range shot over the bar.

At half-time, Sean Ward came on for Jamie Mulgrew while Mark Stafford came on for Mark Haughey in the early minutes of the second-half.

I’m not sure how serious their injuries are, but David Healy wasn’t taking any chances and rightly so. There’s no point risking players when you’re 3-0 up, especially when there are capable and direct replacements on the bench.

Linfield’s final sub in the final minutes was Kirk Millar for Aaron Burns. I would have brought on teenage striker Ryan Strain just to give him some game time.

Having been denied by a foul from Jonathan Tuffey, Andrew Waterworth was determined to get on the scoresheet. He burst through Glenavon’s defence but his shot was saved. He then beat Tuffey with a later shot but a defender on the line denied him this time.

In the end, Linfield had to settle for 3-0. A lack of extra goals didn’t matter for Linfield. If the League is to be decided on goal difference, Linfield’s advantage is too much for Crusaders to turnaround in one match.

At the final whistle, Linfield players did a lap of honour, as it was the last home game of the season.

Unfortunately, Crusaders got a 3-2 win against Coleraine, maintaining their lead at the top to one point. Despite that, it is still all to play for.

Linfield fans will be hoping that they can repeat what Cliftonville did in 2014 and storm to the title in the Split. There is the fear that it could be a repeat of 2009 when they missed out on the title by a point.

The other result in the Top Six saw Ballymena United beat Cliftonville 4-1. Seeing Ballymena get a confidence boosting win ahead of their match against Crusaders on Saturday is no bad thing.

In the bottom half, Portadown’s relegation was confirmed, meaning that Linfield won’t drop costly points against Portadown on a Friday night in February 2018.

After the game, I spent an hour queuing for tickets for Linfield’s final game of the season at Solitude next Saturday. The queue was so slow moving, I was worried about not making kick-off for that match.

It’s an occupational hazard of being a football supporter is that you can buy a ticket to a match expecting it to be a match with it all to play for, only to find there is nothing to play for.

That will be the case if Linfield lose at Coleraine on Saturday and Crusaders win at Ballymena.

Linfield fans remain hopeful that Crusaders will slip up. There are only so many times a team can get away with coming from behind.

All that matters is that Linfield get the three points to take the title race to the last day.

It would be nice if Linfield could enter the pitch at Solitude on the last day as league leaders. All we want, is for them to leave the pitch that day as Champions.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 16.8.1986

With a new national team manager appointed and the league season due to Start, the cover of this edition of Shoot doesn’t just focus on Scotland, but a Welshman bound for Italy – Ian Rush, who has just signed for Juventus.

As you open the magazine, there is a double page feature from Shoot columnist Bryan Robson, with his hopes for Manchester United in 1986-1987, with him expecting Gordon Strachan, one of Scotland’s stars at the World Cup, to continue his return to form.

Strachan’s future international caps would be coming under the recently appointed Andy Roxburgh, an internal appointment having been Director of Coaching, beat off competition from Jim McLean and Billy McNeill for the role, with the man who appointed him, SFA President David Will, describing him as “knowing more than Alex Ferguson”

Shoot’s editorial focuses on Billy Bingham preparing to agree to become manager of Saudi Arabian club Al Nasser while managing Northern Ireland as well, and that he could struggle taking on the two roles at the same time.

In news, Jesper Olsen is set to leave Manchester United, with PSV Eidnhoven his most likely destination, while across Manchester, City manager Billy McNeill wasn’t too unhappy at missing out on the Scotland job, as he and his family were settled in the North-West of England.

One Scotsman who could be on the move was Paul Sturrock of Dundee United, with Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson looking to sign him

Northern Ireland’s champions Linfield are celebrating their centenary with a friendly against Brazilian side Flamengo, with Zico and Socrates both guaranteed to be playing.

Meanwhile, England’s top flight clubs have examined the practicalities of a breakaway Super League, with representatives running up an expense bill of £32,000

It’s a new era in Scotland with the top flight now comprising of 12 clubs, and Rangers have a new manager in Graeme Souness, beginning the season away to Hibs.

There was a double page spread with the fixture lists for England’s top four divisions.

One player determined for make a good start in that new season was Graham Roberts, who wasn’t selected for the World Cup, blaming himself for that, but he did get to face England’s nemesis Diego Maradona, as he had played in Ossie Ardiles Testimonial in May.

With players such as Warren Aspinall and Mike Newell joining top flight clubs, Wigan Athletic get a feature, looking at their reputation as a breeding ground for tomorrow’s stars.

A current star is Ian Rush, who has signed for Juventus, but will play for Liverpool for a season before heading to Turin in 1987. In the feature, Shoot looks at the fortunes of players who have previously moved between British clubs and Italian clubs.

In letters, one person wants Bryan Robson replaced in the England team by Steve Hodge, one person hates Denmark’s kit and a Scottish reader is unsure that Andy Roxburgh should have got the job as national team manager.

With Wimbledon about to begin their first season in top flight football 9 years after being elected to the Football League, with Shoot looking at what challenges face clubs looking to enter the Football League, as 1986-1987 was the first season to have promotion and relegation to and from the 4th Division.

Beside it, Shoot has a feature on World Cup stars moving outside their native countries to head to Mainland Europe on their back of their World Cup performances.

Also on the move was Alan Mullery, who had returned to Brighton for a second spell as manager, and gets a full page feature.

Someone who was on the move for the first time was Paul Power, who signed for Everton after 11 years at Manchester City.

The PFA have set up a working group amongst clubs in the North-West of England to try and make football more family friendly.

In adverts, Puma have brought out a new Kenny Dalglish branded boot.

BALLYMENA UNITED 0-2 LINFIELD 15.4.2017

The only two teams to win a trophy this season (Sorry Glenavon fans, i’m not counting your Charity Shield win) went head to head at Ballymena Showgrounds with both eyeing up further glory this season. For Ballymena, not a trophy, but Play-Off glory that would secure them UEFA Cup football next season. Linfield arrived in search of glory in both League and Cup. They left still in contention for the title but still trailing Crusaders by a point.

Whilst having my lunch, I spotted both Jimmy Boyce and Donald Duck in close proximity. It suggested it was going to be a strange day. It was anything but for Linfield.

Linfield issued a statement of intent in the first minute, going straight on the attack resulting in a Stephen Lowry shot going over.

Ballymena’s only attack of note in the opening minutes resulted in a shot which was casually shepherded out by Linfield’s defence and keeper. They were certainly more relaxed and confident about it than the fans in the stand were.

Linfield then took control of the game and it was no surprise when Jimmy Callacher headed home from close range from a Niall Quinn cross after Quinn’s free-kick was blocked.

At this time of year, scores in one match can affect another match (QPR downing tools on the last day of the 2011-2012 season once they knew Bolton had failed to win being a prime example).

Linfield were first to score today and led the as it stands table with Crusaders drawing 0-0.

Soon after, Stephen Lowry spotted Ballymena keeper Tim Allen off his line and went for a spectacular free-kick from his own half. It was going wide but it concerned Allen enough to make a save and put it out for a corner.

Aaron Burns hit the side netting from a wide angle as the chances piled up.

Andrew Waterworth had a left foot shot saved after being played in while Jamie Mulgrew had a shot just over and as the half neared it’s end, Stephen Lowry fired just over.

At this time of year, scores in other matches can make it look like the strangest things are being cheered. At one point, it looked like Linfield fans were overcelebrating the winning of a throw in. What it was, was that Cliftonville had equalised against Crusaders. Linfield fans began chanting “WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE!!”, mainly because as it stood, they were.

Linfield fans were celebrating again in the early minutes of the second-half, but not because of their own team. Incredibly, Cliftonville led Crusaders 2-1.

Despite the help from elsewhere, Linfield needed to help themselves an went about getting a second goal.

Paul Smyth seemed to be involved in everything. Firstly, having a header saved before a run almost resulted in a second goal but he shot went agonisingly wide.

He was then booked trying to win the ball back after his cross was blocked. Incredibly, far worse Ballymena fouls afterwards, most notably from Jim Ervin, were not getting the same result. The standard was set by Arnold Hunter, it was not being followed.

Despite nullifying Ballymena’s attacking threat, Linfield couldn’t afford to relax while the score was still 1-0. Niall Quinn and Andrew Waterworth were both denied trying to get that clinching goal, which eventually came on 88 minutes with a low Andrew Waterworth shot.

Linfield fans could relax, safe in the knowledge that the three points were secured.

Unfortunately by this point, Crusaders were 3-2 up at Solitude. The manipulation of the fixture list to give Crusaders an easier game after the trip to Windsor Park had worked, though they made hard work of it.

Up next, is a full Easter Tuesday fixture list, with Linfield at home to Glenavon, while Crusaders will face in-form Coleraine, a game that Crusaders should have played today.

Coleraine drew today but their unbeaten run continues. They know that a win on Tuesday will secure 3rd place for them and European football next season. Hopefully, they get that win.

Linfield just have to keep winning and keep winning. They just need one result to go their way. It wasn’t today. There are still three more opportunities.

Something I forgot to post last week was that St James Park in Newcastle will host the 2019 European Cup Final. That’s the Rugby one.

Very tempting. It will probably be on the last weekend of the Premier League season, so there’s the possibility of a double header that weekend with a football match. Newcastle will obviously be away, but Sunderland or Middlesbrough might be at home, dependent on them winning promotion in 2018 obviously. Let’s face it, they’re both gone this season.

Especially tempting, as I haven’t been to Newcastle since 1994, and I really want to visit Back Page Football.

One cup final more immediately on the horizon is this year’s Irish Cup Final. You’ve probably seen the media controversy about ticket prices.

People are right to be outraged. There is no justification for £20 tickets. A lot of people will be lost in the crowd. An absolutely ludicrous decision.

The worst thing was the short lead time between the announcement and the tickets going on sale, meaning there was no time to remedy it. I despair at some of the decision making by those in charge of football here sometimes.

There are three metaphorical cup finals before the literal cup final at the start of May.

Four wins means we’ll get something out of this season. It might even be two things.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 20.10.1979

Allan Hunter and Mick Mills of Ipswich Town, dressed in their respective national kits, are the cover stars of this edition of Shoot. That can only mean one thing, England are playing Northern Ireland. It’s not a Home International game, but on a continent wide scale, a European Championsip Qualifier at Windsor Park.

Mills and Hunter get a joint interview in Shoot’s preview.

Shoot do a feature on soldiers in Belfast who’ll be guarding the England team.

The feature reveals that, despite a lot of them being football fanatics, they’re not allowed to attend Irish League games when in civilian clothes due to security fears.

As well as England and Northern Ireland, there are also previews of Republic Of Ireland, Wales and Scotland’s European Championship Qualifiers.

Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson expressed his frustration at a League Cup defeat away to Arbroath. Fortunately for them, a comfortable first leg win saw them go through.

As well as winning the European Cup on the field, Nottingham Forest were celebrating after being voted European Team Of The Year by France Football magazine.

Wolves get a profile by Shoot, with the headline “Wolves Are Biting Again”, and so it briefly proved, as they won the League Cup that season. The rest of the decade wasn’t as good for Wolves.

In Northern Ireland, Portadown defender Herbie Pearson fears his career could be over, while QPR saw off competition from Manchester United and Everton to sign Northern Ireland Schoolboy international Alan McDonald, while Bobby Carlisle has signed for Newry Town, who have ambitions of joining Northern Ireland’s top flight.

Gordon McQueen uses his column to describe Scotland’s European Championship Qualifier against Austria as “Win or bust”

The draw for the 1982 World Cup is coming up soon, and Shoot previews this and how it will be decided, as this is the first 24 team World Cup. Shoot writes that there is a possibility of two UK teams being paired together, and so it proved, when Scotland and Northern Ireland were paired in the same group.

In ads, Phil Neal is advertising Gola.

Derek Johnstone uses his column to deny he had a punch-up with Scotland manager Ally McLeod.

Meanwhile, teenage defender Tommy Caton is juggling playing for Manchester City with his studies. He is interviewed by Shoot and says he is yet to face his biggest footballing examination, a match against Joe Jordan.

LINFIELD 1-0 CRUSADERS 8.4.2017

Football is all about taking our opportunities. When Linfield fell into decline in 2012, Cliftonville took advantage and won two successive titles. When Cliftonville fell into decline in 2014, Crusaders took advantage and won two successive titles. Now Linfield are hoping to take advantage of an opportunity that’s come their way, to reduce Crusaders lead at the top of the League to one point after being nine points behind in mid February.

Matches between Linfield and Crusaders could be reflected in the Pet Shop Boys song of the same name. Linfield had the brains, Crusaders had the brawn. Dropped points against the other ten clubs, especially at home, meant that Linfield didn’t yet have the look. The look of Champions that is.

Today was a must win for Linfield. A draw would have been inconvenient but the situation could have been retrieved. Defeat was unthinkable, it woudl have meant game over for Linfield, just as it did on this weekend last year.

Football is a numbers game, and there were three numbers that mattered. Four for Linfield (number of successive wins over Crusaders) and three for Crusaders (successive titles). Linfield fans were hoping the main number at 5pm would be one (number of points Linfield were off the top of the League)

Seven was a number that Linfield fans were not prepared to entertain.

Already a rare occurrence in 2017, today was Linfield’s last Saturday 3pm home game of the season. Fans arriving at Windsor Park this afternoon were hoping that the next Saturday 3pm game at Windsor Park in August would see them enter the field as Champions.

As I did my usual pre-match routine of watching the warm-ups from the Viewing Lounge, the most obvious observation was that there is a new TV in there. Hopefully that’s a permanent arrangement and not just to show the Grand National.

Getting a winner in the 5.15 at Aintree would have been a nice bonus for those watching who had a bet on, the real winner we all wanted was in the 3.00 at Windsor.

The first talking point of the afternoon came an hour before kick-off when the teamsheets were submitted, with both teams missing a key player – Mark Stafford for Linfield and Jordan Owens for Crusaders.

Crusaders loss was bigger than Linfield’s. Linfield had options to replace Stafford. Crusaders didn’t have options to replace Owens.

It was Chris Casement who got the nod ahead of Sean Ward. I would have went with Ward, who was the only defensive player on an attacking bench which included Ross Gaynor, Kirk Millar, Josh Carson and teenager Ryan Strain.

As he took his place on the bench, Strain was perhaps dreaming of a Federico Macheda style dramatic introduction to this season’s title race.

Crusaders had the better of the early moments, with Paul Heatley causing problems for Linfield in wide positions. While Linfield may not have been able to stop him getting crosses in, they were able to stop Crusaders when the crosses came in.

Linfield then got a grip and took control of the game, getting a lot of joy down their left hand side with Matthew Clarke and Niall Quinn combining to good effect.

Crusaders were taking advantage of the unwritten rule that no yellow cards are allowed in the first fifteen minutes, tactically fouling at will safe in the knowledge there would be no repercussions.

It was a foul not given that was the first talking point of the onfield action when Andrew Waterworth dispossessed Billy Joe Burns and went down under a challenge. It was untidy from Burns, but not enough to be a foul. If Waterworth had been able to get through on goal, he would surely have scored with Sean O’Neill out of position having anticipated a backpass from Burns.

Burns losing the ball was one of many nervous moments from Crusaders defenders both one and off the ball. There was a mistake in them, Linfield had to pressure them and pounce.

It was Linfield though who had the next moment of defensive nervousness in the game when Declan Caddell got a free header from a corner, but it was saved by Roy Carroll.

Linfield recovered from that and took control of the game, a lucky bounce looked like it was going to set up Niall Quinn, but a Crusaders defender just got there before him.

Despite their nervous, Crusaders defenders were getting the bounces and second balls go in their favour,

On 20 minutes, Linfield got the breakthrough. It was no surprise that it came from a cross from the left, which fell to Aaron Burns. I thought he had missed the opportunity having not taken a first time shot, but he managed to drag the ball back with three defenders around him and guide the ball home with his left foot.

I didn’t realise how good a goal it was until watching the TV footage after the game. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that if Lionel Messi scored it, Social Media would go into meltdown.

Crusaders were forced into an early substitution when Philip Lowry went off injured to be replaced by speculative shot king David Cushley.

Cushley only scores one in every one hundred shots. The worry for Linfield was that he hadn’t scored in ninety shots. His first shot of the game was a free-kick that was easily blocked by Linfield’s wall.

The pressure on Crusaders goal continued, Andrew Waterworth hitting the post from a first-time shot after a cross came in, while a Paul Smyth cross agonisingly missed everyone.

Linfield were piling on the pressure, having a flurry of corners. With no Coates or Owens, Crusaders looked vulnerable at set pieces. The lucky bounce, just seemed to fall in Crusaders favour.

Chris Casement had a free-kick saved while Jimmy Callacher could’t get enough power on a header to score after Crusaders struggled with yet another set piece as Linfield looked to get a 2-0 lead to take to the dressing room at half-time.

Linfield started the second-half in search of a second goal that would kill the game.

Crusaders might have been able to come back from 2-0 down with a half-time rollicking, it was never going to happen with the second-half ongoing. A second goal would certainly have made the final moments relaxing for Linfield. We should know by now that title run-ins are rarely relaxing.

Andrew Waterworth hit a post, his effort would have been disallowed for offside, while Niall Quinn had a low shot deflected wide, before Aaron Burns had a header saved from inside the six yard box.

On 75 minutes, it looked like Linfield were going to be made to pay for not getting that second goal when a Jimmy Callacher miskick fell to Paul Heatley, but Roy Carroll came out to deny him.

Many in the South Stand hoped that was Crusaders moment. Just as many feared there was still enough time for Crusaders to have another moment.

It was surprising that David Healy didn’t turn to his subs bench. Perhaps not that surprising, considering that there was nobody playing bad enough to be taken off.

The most obvious change was to bring on Kirk Millar to hit Crusaders with pace for the final moments.

Eventually, his hand was forced by injuries, with Sean Ward coming on for Chris Casement and Kirk Millar coming on for Paul Smyth.

Linfield began to sit back and allow Crusaders to have too much of the ball. Despite Crusaders not doing much with it, it was still far too nervous for Linfield fans liking.

Aaron Burns almost made it 2-0 in stoppage down from a cross. When the ball was in mid air, it looked like being a repeat of Niall Quinn’s goal against Crusaders last month, but the ball wouldn’t fall for him as nicely.

Instead, he had to control and hit, with O’Neill saving, but at the expense of a corner. Stephen Lowry sat with his head in his hands. Bit of an overreaction, as Linfield had the lead and the ball.

Linfield were able to hold out and win 1-0, the gap at the top of the table now one point in Crusaders favour.

Next weekend, Crusaders travel to Solitude to face Cliftonville. If the fixtures formula was followed correctly, Crusaders would be at home to Coleraine.

Given the choice, who would you rather the play?

The team on an unbeaten run, in the Cup Final and favourites to secure 3rd and automatic European football?

Or the team who are demoralised, out of sorts and on a bad run of form, resigned to the UEFA Cup Play-Offs?

It all looks a bit suspicious to me, as everybody knew that Coleraine were going to be Team 3 in the split and not Cliftonville, yet the fixture list was confirmed before the pre-split positions were confirmed.

That’s a lucky break for Crusaders as I don’t expect Cliftonville to put up much of a fight at Solitude next weekend. It’ll be a nice bonus for Crusaders to get back on a winning track after two successive defeats.

Up next for Linfield is Ballymena, who appear to be suffering from a dose of Cliftonvilleitis by suffering a dip in form since an Irish Cup exit, them too resigned to the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.

It’s a must-win game for Linfield. They all are.

Unfortunately for Linfield, Crusaders still have a hand on the trophy. It’s a very sweaty hand hanging on desperately.

Linfield just have to keep winning and hoping. What we are hoping or is a lot less than it was in mid February.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 10.4.1982

It’s the FA Cup Semi-Finals, and this is reflected on the cover with a player from each competing club – Leicester City, Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion – are featured.

As you open the magazine, there is a double page spread on the two games, with a player from each club giving their thoughts ahead of their game.

In news, Bobby Charlton was complimentary about Wigan Athletic, stating they had the potential to become a top flight club. They eventually would be, 23 years later.

After having their most successful season in the top flight, Brighton players are bringing out a pop record called “In Brighton”, described by captain Steve Foster as “It’s got a pop disco sound and it’s very complimentary about the team”

Talking of pop records, Northern Ireland have done one as well for the World Cup with former Eurovision winner Dana. It got better for the squad. As well as getting to do a record with Dana, they got a £77,000 bonus between them.

It’s all change at Everton with manager Howard Kendall placing his emphasis on young players, including goalkeeper Neville Southall, who he compared to Peter Shilton.

In competitions, you can win a trip to the World Cup Final in Madrid.

Phil Thompson uses his column to bemoan the standard of refereeing in Liverpool’s European Cup exit against CSKA Sofia, claiming they were robbed. Down to the Semi-Final stage, Thompson predicts that the final will be between Aston Villa and Bayern Munich,

There is a full page feature on club football in the USA.

There is a poster of Pat Jennings for a series called “World Cup Stars To Watch”. Jennings was rumoured to be attracting attention from clubs in North America. Not content with heading to Spain that summer, Jennings was also looking at trying to play in the 1986 World Cup.

In Scotland, the Scottish Cup is also at the Semi-Final stage, with both games being previewed. Danny McGrain’s column discusses a recent 5-0 win for Celtic against Rangers, but it wasn’t their Ibrox rivals they faced, it was a Hong Kong team with the same name, during a mid season break for Celtic.

Staying in Scotland, one of those Semi-Finalists, Forfar Athletic get previewed. Airdrie have tried a novel way to improve morale, by getting a comedian, Hector Nicol to entertain his team before matches. Nicol’s humour was described by Shoot as “Making Billy Connolly look like a choirboy”

With the World Cup approaching, Cameroon get a double page feature, with an interview with Francois Doumbe Lea and a profile of their manager, Branko Zutic.

Manchester City manager John Bond uses his column to clarify rumours about his son Kevin’s future, stating that he was staying at Maine Road.

In adverts, there is an advert for Panini’s World Cup sticker book, which is going to be free in Shoot in the coming weeks.

Going to the World Cup is Jim McLean, as part of Scotland’s backroom team. He combine that with his role as Dundee United manager, and Director at Tannadice, a role he has recently accepted.

1981-1982 was the first season of 3 points for a win in England, and Ray Wilkins uses his column to declare it a success, though admitting he’s not a fan of it.

In international news, El Salvador will only be taking 18 players to the World Cup due to costs, while Felix Magath faces a race against time to be fit for the World Cup due to injury, with the story accompanied by a picture of him being visited in hospital by Horst Hrubesch, Ernst Happel and Gunter Netzer.

In adverts, you could buy pyjamas in the colours of your favourite team’s kit – as long as you supported England, Northern Ireland or Argentina. There were also various club team options not pictured.

Gary Shaw uses his column to describe the European Cup Semi-Final draw against Anderlecht as “Ideal” as it avoided a trip behind the Iron Curtain (CSKA Sofia) and the favourites (Bayern Munich)

Shaw also comments on team-mate Allan Evans getting a Scotland recall, stating that playing against Dynamo Kiev in the previous round could be helpful for Scotland’s group game against the Soviet Union, as most of their squad is made up of Dynamo players.

He signs off by wishing Tottenham Hotspur good luck in their European Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final against Barcelona.

Villa and Spurs ties are previewed from the Spanish and Belgian viewpoints, with West Ham’s Francois Van Der Elst stating that the winners of Aston Villa v Anderlecht will go on to win the trophy.

The magazine ends with an interview with Martin Buchan, who states he is not planning to leave Manchester United, despite losing the captaincy.

DUNGANNON SWIFTS 0-1 LINFIELD 1.4.2017

Football is all about improvements, and doing better than you had previously. Last season, Linfield were Runners-Up in three competitions.

This season, they’ve already won one of those competitions, the County Antrim Shield, and kicked-off at Mourneview Park still in contention to win the other two trophies that eluded them last season. That was still the case when they left the pitch today.

For the record, we’ve just accepted that we’re never going to win the League Cup ever again and will be out of the competition by October each season.

Linfield got a lot of joy attacking down the left hand side in the first-half, with one cross agonisingly missing everyone in the box, while another resulted in an Andrew Waterworth cros that was deflected behind for a corner. It looked like being only a matter of time until Linfield scored.

Dungannon were able to ride out that storm and came more into the game, their bets opportunity coming when Dougie Wilson headed over for a corner.

Neither side had a shot on goal of note in a goalless first-half.

This wasn’t a new situation for Linfield, having faield to scored a first-half goal in any of the previous rounds in this season’s Irish Cup.

Linfield started the second-half better and had a glorious opportunity to take the lead when a penalty was awarded for a foul on Jamie Mulgrew.

Having scored four penalties out of four in recent weeks, Stephen Lowry was due a miss, and so it proved when Andy Coleman saved his shot, and Lowry and Andrew Waterworth managed to miss the rebound between them.

Dungannon fans would have had some justification in believing this was the sort of thing that happens when it is your day.

Paul Smyth and Niall Quinn were next to be frustrated as Coleman saved left foot shots from both of them, while Aaron Burns had a goal disallowed for a foul.

It was the sort of game that could only finish 1-0. The longer it stayed 0-0, the more you got that feeling.

David Healy turned to his bench by bringing on Kirk Millar for Niall Quinn.

You also got the feeling that Dungannon were going to get a moment. That came when Peter McMahon burst through and had a deflected shot look set to go in, only for Roy Carroll to pull off a dramatic save.

As extra-time loomed, a cross found Stephen Lowry, who found just enough space to place the ball home from inside the six yard box. Linfield had the lead in a game that looked destined to finish 1-0.

Dungannon never looked like equalising. In fact, Linfield almost got a second on the break when a Paul Smyth shot went just wide, as they saw out the game to set up a Final against Coleraine on May 6th. Hopefully, a repeat of 1982 and 2008 rather than a repeat of 1975 and 1977.

Elsehwere in football this week, Edinburgh City have announced that they will be playing at Ainslie Park, home of Spartans for the next three seasons while Meadowbank Stadium is redeveloped.

I’m curious to see what Meadowbank Stadium will look like. At the moment, it always seemed like a grim place to watch football, which is why never gave Edinburgh City any consideration when I visit Edinburgh every August.

Edinburgh in August can wait, it’s all about next week and Crusaders at home.

The games can’t come soon enough.

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