With Linfield’s season (thankfully) over, it didn’t mean my football watching for 2022-2023 was over, as I headed to Old Trafford, my second visit of the season.

As soon as the title fell out of reach, the goal was now Top 4.

That looked like being a routine exercise, until one point out of nine away to Spurs, Brighton and West Ham allowed Liverpool and Brighton to have ambitions of finishing in the Top 4.

If results away were a blot on United’s season, they made up for it at home. Unbeaten in the League since the Opening Day, United were thankful that three of their last four games, of which they only need to win three, were at home.

The first of those was against a Wolverhampton Wanderers side that had just secured safety from relegation. It would be a game without Marcus Rashford, who was missing through injury.

It was Wolves who had the first chance of the game when Craig Dawson volleyed goalwards from a low corner, going over the bar.

A few minutes later, United had the first real chance of the game when a slip by a Wolves player played in Anthony, who curled wide when trying to place the ball in, when he probably should have ran through and smashed it.

Anthony’s unwillingness to use his right foot can be a real pain in the arse at times.

At the other end, David De Gea looked shot. Wolves weren’t getting enough of a sight on goal to give United a worry. Passes were going out or to a Wolves player, meaning United were giving away cheap possession and territory.

As a result, it felt like his own team mates didn’t comfortable passing the ball to him, which was putting them at risk of losing the ball in areas where you shouldn’t be losing the ball.

Next to be frustrated was Anthony, who headed over from close range after a cross.

I was sat behind the goal at the other end. It was only when I viewed the TV replays that I realised how good a chance it was. He really should have scored. All he needed to do was to get it on target.

There wasn’t long to wait for the opening goal, just a few more minutes in fact.

Bruno Fernandes played Anthony through on goal. As it looked like he was going to score, he squared it to Anthony Martial to put the ball into the empty net to put United 1-0.

You could feel the sense of relief around Old Trafford. More dropped points in this game would leave them with no room for error in the race for Top 4.

It was a race they were helped by Newcastle United dropping points in the lunchtime kick-off, a game that was shown live in the concourses of the stand.

Someone even went to celebrate when Newcastle conceded a late equaliser, starting to clap and then realising that it was Leeds.

Even though the half was winding down, that didn’t stop United, with Martial having a shot easily saved before Bruno Fernandes fired a shot over.

A decent half for United, although the most glaring observation is that they could do with a second goal. It would just make things a lot more relaxing if they could get it.

The second-half continued in the same way as the first, with Anthony firing a low shot past the Wolvers keeper, but also just past the post.

A sloppy pass from Wolves was capitalised on by Bruno Fernandes, who cut inside but saw his low shot blocked.

It felt like it was only a matter of time before United got their second. It would be nice if it could, just to relax everybody.

Jadon Sancho looked like he was going to get it when he cut inside, fired low, Wolves keeper got a hand on it but couldn’t stop the ball, but he did enough to just tip it past the post at the expense of a corner. Flip sake.

Daniel Bentley was having one of those games in his debut in goal for Wolves.

In injury time, he was at it again, getting a strong arm to turn around a shot from Anthony.

Even though Wolves didn’t offer much of an attacking threat, you still had the fear going into the final minutes with only a 1-0 lead. Especially given the recent history of results against Wolves.

The nerves got even worse when United’s clearances weren’t getting as far away as you would hope.

Ironically, a few seconds after I was internally groaning at Luke Shaw clearing the ball with his left foot, United got a second when Alejandro Garnacho was played through and side footed it in off the post to make it 2-0.

And relax, points in the bag. Might as well enjoy the final two minutes.

Two visits to Old Trafford this season and two wins. Feel free to have a whipround for Season Ticket.

Hopefully, two more wins to secure European Cup football in 2023-2024, where United will be aiming to take the trophy from Inter Milan.

I’ll definitely be back to Old Trafford at some point in late 2023, i’ll have to work it around other trip plans, as I will probably be returning to pre Covid of two to three games a season.

Annoyingly, there was a pre-season game against Lyon announced in Edinburgh for 19th July. The previous week would have been so much handier due to being off work.

2022-2023 almost, done, just Northern Ireland v Kazakhstan on 19th June. Then a short break before Linfield’s pre-season and European games.

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Season over. Thankfully. I couldn’t be arsed with the Play-Offs. Linfield won’t be part of it.

A draw would have done, just as it was on the exact same date in 2017. It was a lot more straightforward than it was in 2017.

It might not have felt like it, but Linfield had a bit of form going into this game. Unbeaten in ten matches, eight clean sheets and a trophy in that run.

The problem was, three draws in the last four games had meant that 2nd place was still in the balance when it should have already been secured.

If Linfield were being considered a form team, Cliftonville were a form team, but not in a good way.

In their four split games, Cliftonville hadn’t won any of them and had conceded ten goals.

Going back further, they had conceded at least two goals in seven out of their last eight games and no clean sheets in ten matches.

In short, Linfield don’t concede many goals and Cliftonville concede lots of goals. Linfield, for all their goalscoring problems should be sticking a few in the back of the net and keep Cliftonville out no problem.

If only it was that simple. Let’s hope it ends up that way.

Curiously, this match kicked off two minutes early, at 5.28pm. If Linfield could get a goal inside the opening two minutes, Glentoran would already be deflated before they kicked off their own match.

Both teams went out determined to get an early goal.

In the first minute, Kirk Millar had won a corner. Daniel Finlayson looked set to get on the end of the corner, but a Cliftonville defender got there just in time. If Finlayson had got to the ball first, he was so close, a goal was certain.

From the resulting second corner, the ball went into the same area but was headed away unchallenged by a Cliftonville defender.

Having joked about it, Linfield were looking frustrated not to have taken advantage of the early start and been 1-0 up already before Glentoran kicked off.

Straight away, it was a Linfield head frustrating Cliftonville at the expense of a corner as Joe Gormley looked to get on the end of a cross.

The resulting corner saw Colin Coates left unmarked but he completely missed the ball.

Linfield were almost 1-0 down before Glentoran kicked off.

The start of the game was too exciting for me (great if you were watching as a neutral). I’m not sure I could take another 89 minutes of this.

Linfield then won another corner. Again, Daniel Finlayson got on the end of it, but was never in a position to send the ball goalwards, the ball eventually went wide.

It was Linfield’s turn next to have a scare, as Chris Johns dropped a free-kick. Thankfully, it landed right beside Chris Shields, who booted the ball away. Just as well, with Joe Gormley loitering with intent.

Naturally, it was Linfield’s turn to have an attack next. It didn’t look like there was one coming as Joel Cooper had the ball on the touchline surrounded by Cliftonville defenders.

No bother, he just casually glided past them before pulling the ball back to Stephen Fallon to strike at goal, a strike which was blocked by a defender at the expense of a corner.

Frustration for Linfield, but the reprieve was only brief for Cliftonville, as Jimmy Callacher headed home from inside the six yard box to put Linfield 1-0 up.

He was so close and had so much of the goal to aim at, it was harder to miss.

This meant it was now four goals at Solitude for Callacher. All three previous games had brought wins for Linfield/

Pointless fact for you, but Jimmy Callacher has scored for Linfield against Cliftonville at both ends of Solitude and Windsor Park.

Linfield had so much joy in the opening minutes from set pieces in the opening minutes of the game, there was no way they weren’t going to score from one.

What it meant was that a lot of the pressure had just lifted from Linfield.

Needing a draw, they now had a lead against opposition low on confidence.

As Linfield looked for a second goal, Eetu Vertainen was frustrated as he tried to squeeze the ball through from a tight angle.

Double frustration then followed for Linfield, as a Joel Cooper shot from a wide angle was saved by the keeper’s legs. From the save, the ball fell to Kirk Millar, who cut inside and shot, which was spectacularly tipped over.

This match could have been over already at this early stage. Linfield really needed to make these chances count.

Every time that Linfield had a set piece, you felt like a goal was coming. Cliftonville just weren’t convincing when defending set pieces.

Linfield fans thought their team was going to pay for not making the most of these chances when David Parkhouse had a free header which looped goalwards past Chris Johns, who slipped. To the relief of everybody behind the goal, the ball went wide.

As the half neared it’s end, Joe Gormley nutmegged Jimmy Callacher was set to fire home to make it 1-1, before Jamie Mulgrew made a last ditch block to deny him.

A satisfactory first-half for Linfield. They were getting the result they needed. There was a sense of frustration that they didn’t have a bigger lead that could put the result beyond doubt, especially against a side lacking in confidence.

As fans were sitting about at half-time, there was a further boost for Linfield with the announcement of the half-time scores from elsewhere, with Glentoran being held 0-0 by Crusaders.

This announcement turned out to be erroneous, as it turned out that Glentoran had gone 1-0 up five minutes into injury time at the end of the first-half.

As long as Linfield did what they had to do, it didn’t matter what Glentoran did.

No matter how bad Cliftonville are playing, you always fear an onslaught at the start of the second-half, especially whenever they attack where their fans are sat.

Even more so, as they went from 0-1 to 2-1 very quickly at the start of the second-half the previous week against Crusaders.

That didn’t materialise thankfully.

The only moment of worry came when Chris Johns dropped a cross. Thankfully, at the feet of Matthew Clarke, who took no chances and put the ball out for a corner. From the resulting corner, he redeemed himself by catching the cross and relieving the pressure.

Having rode out a storm that never really happened, Linfield then had an opportunity to go 2-0 up when Eetu Vertainen was fouled in the box as he tried to create space for himself.

I was initially complaining about the Referee not playing advantage to allow Joel Cooper to hit a shot, until I realised that a penalty had been awarded to Linfield.

A penalty to Linfield means a goal these days. Chris Shields stepped up and made it 2-0.

Even someone as nervous as me knew the points, and European football, were in the bag.

Cliftonville look deflated, like a team resigned to their fate. They looked like they didn’t have the belief to come back from this. As long as Linfield didn’t do anything stupid, the game was won.

Eetu Vertainen, already on a yellow card, stretched for a tackle he didn’t need to make but thankfully pulled out in time.

Running the risk, he was replaced by Ethan Devine.

Kyle McClean also came on as a substitute, and almost added to the score with a free-kick that just went over the bar.

Linfield looked the more likely team to get the next goal, Matthew Clarke looked certain to get it when he got on the end of a cross, but was unable to replicate his headed goal at Solitude last season.

Clarke was then frustrated again when he had a shot turned around for a corner.

As time began to run out, Niall Quinn came on for Jamie Mulgrew as Linfield looked to see the game out.

Just as it looked like the game was going to meander in the final minutes, we had something of note in the shape of a red card for Cliftonville.

I’d initially thought it was a robust tackle and the red was for raising his hands to Kyle McClean. Looking back at the red card on the replays, he deserved a red card for the tackle. Two red cards in the one incident if you will, take your pick.

There was a rare appearance for Max Haygarth, coming on for Kirk Millar.

2-0, job done, and European football secured with no drama. Thank goodness for that.

Long-term readers will know my view on the European Play-Offs, they are a reward for mediocrity,

Thank goodness Linfield won’t be involved.

This win also means that Linfield also qualified for the Scottish Challenge Cup. Stranraer away please.

Or at least someone in the Central Belt.

A frustrating season. Ultimately, it was two bad runs that did for Linfield.

One point from nine available against Coleraine, Glentoran and Larne in October, and then three midweek defeats in January and February to Cliftonville, Crusaders and Glentoran.

At least the season ended strongly. Eleven unbeaten and nine clean sheets.

And a trophy. Not the one we all wanted, but a trophy.

The problem with the Euro Conference is that there is more work to do in order to reach the group stages. You can’t drop into any other competition.

My Linfield watching is over for 2022-2023, but not my football watching. Still two more games to go, a trip to Old Trafford for Manchester United v Wolves and then Northern Ireland v Kazakhstan in June.

And then 2023-2024 gets up and running a matter of a few days later.

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This wasn’t a match or that deserved anything as dramatic as a last minute, but thankfully it came for Linfield, being on the right side of a late goal this week. The result means that Europe is tantalisingly close for Linfield, but not quite job done. Still two more points to get.

An injury to Joel Cooper meant that he missed out, with Eetu Vertainen coming in.

Sat in the stand, ready for the start of the game, I was up on my feet, as there was a change in ends, with Linfield unusually attacking their own fans in the first-half instead of the second-half.

Linfield had a decent enough start, albeit having more of the ball rather than creating any clear opportunities.

The first real moment of note for Linfield came when Matthew Clarke fired the ball across goal, but nobody could get on the end of it.

Chris Shields then took possession, ran with it, and as nobody was bothering to tackle him, decided to have a go for goal. His effort was saved by Gareth Deane, with a Coleraine defender getting to the rebound before Kirk Millar.

Millar was then frustrated when he received the ball in space, but his low effort went just wide.

Matthew Clarke was next to be frustrated after Eetu Vertainen made space for himself in the box with some neat footwork and pulled it back to Matthew Clarke who fired over under pressure from Coleraine defenders.

A half where Linfield were the better team, but you couldn’t say it was outright dominance, far from it.

It was the same old story, a lot of the ball but you never felt that a goal was imminent.

That continued into the second-half. It was hard to see where a Linfield goal was going to come.

Eventually, Coleraine came into it, with Chris Johns being forced into making the best save of the match tipping over a shot from Andy Scott who had cut inside.

Having already lost Chris McKee to injury, replaced by Ethan Devine, Linfield made a double substitution with Kyle Lafferty and Jamie Mulgew coming on for Stephen Fallon.

There would soon be another injury blow for Linfield, with Kirk Millar being forced off.

Logically, Max Haygarth would have been a like for like option but David Healy sprung a surprise by bringing on Niall Quinn.

Turns out I know nothing about football as it was a change which brought rewards for Linfield within minutes.

Kyle Lafferty burst down the right win and crossed for Kyle McClean. Back to goal, instead of trying to make space to go for goal, McClean spotted Niall Quinn free and teed him up, Quinn finishing low to put 1-0 up.

Just as Linfield were contemplating a third successive draw, now they were looking at a win which puts them five clear with two games to go in the race for Europe.

They still had to see the game out, which they did without any scares.

It completed a remarkable run against Coleraine where they went a whole season (five games) without conceding a goal against them. Six games in a row if you include last season.

One ground they will (hopefully) be visiting next season will be Lakeland Park to take on Loughgall, who won promotion.

Hopefully, Linfield can get the points on the board to visit some European grounds at the start of next season.

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In a match moved for Biden, it was a case of Bye Then for Linfield’s title challenge. Not mathematically, but as good as.

Ten points behind with four to play, there was no margin for error for Linfield.

Starting the split five points behind Larne, the first change in points difference had to be in Linfield’s favour. It went to Larne.

This two points thrown away, and not because of the way they were lost.

Even if the title is lost, Europe could have been as good as secured with three points here if results went their way the following Saturday.

Linfield made a good start to this game, showing more of an attacking threat than they did in the opening minute than they did in the previous match against Crusaders. Although, that was quite a low bar.

Kirk Millar was found in plenty of space out wide and his first time cross was backheeled goalwards by Chris McKee like Lee Sharpe v Barcelona in 1994. although with not the save outcome, this one being saved by Glentoran’s keeper.

Linfield’s next attack came down the left, with Matthew Clarke bursting into the box to win a corner.

That corner was cleared for another corner, which resulted in a goalmouth scramble. Linfield needed to make this pressure count.

Linfield’s good start dropped off, but Glentoran didn’t really offer much in response other than speculative long range shots.

Although, speculative long range shots have provided them with reward against Linfield already this season.

Glentoran were also getting a lot of joy from pressing Linfield were trying to play it out from the back. Annoyingly, Glentoran’s defenders weren’t under the same pressure when they were trying to play it out from the back. South Standers weren’t slow in registering their protest at this.

It was becoming obvious that this is a game where the first goal would be key. With so few clear cut chances for either team, Linfield had to make the most of those that came their way.

They were almost gifted one when Kirk Millar intercepted a pass and as soon as he got the ball, Chris McKee was in position for a through ball, where he would expect to be getting a shot on goal.

The pass was overhit and went straight through to Glentoran’s keeper.

Millar made better use of a ball falling his way a few minutes later when a cross landed at him but his goalbound shot was blocked by a Glentoran defender at the expense of a corner.

That corner was only a brief respite for Glentoran as Sam Roscoe headed home from the corner to put Linfield 1-0 up.

The goal came from a period of pressure which also saw Stephen Fallon have a shot saved.

Finally, after their decent start in the opening minutes wasn’t capitalised on, Linfield had taken control of the game.

Now they needed to kick on in the second-half.

That didn’t quite happen, as neither side really created a clear goalscoring opportunity of note.

Linfield turned to their bench, making like for like substitutions with Kyle McClean and Kyle Lafferty coming on for Stephen Fallon and Chris McKee.

No issue with McKee coming off, but Eetu Vertainen was the obvious substitution ahead of Kyle Lafferty if Linfield were going to bring on a striker for the final stage of the game.

As the final minutes approached, Linfield were coasting, content to hold on, to see the game out rather than kill it off.

A dangerous tactic. It brought back memories of late equalisers conceded at home to Glentoran.

Linfield were inviting trouble. Glentoran were having too much of the ball. Even though they weren’t doing much with it, they were having far too much of it. Linfield needed to make the ball do the work and take control of the game and make sure they see out the final minutes.

Joel Cooper was forced off with an injury, replaced by Niall Quinn as injury time approached.

The goal we all feared came at the end of the first of four minutes of stoppage time when Bobby Burns stretched to finish after running on to a header.

It was such a bad goal to concede. A ball hoofed forward, failure to win a header and a failure to follow the run. It was another example of poor substitutions, in this case one not made. It was beyond obvious that Cameron Palmer should have been brought on for the final minutes to introduce some fresh legs in midfield.

Even though it extended Larne’s lead at the top by a further two points, it didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of the title race. A win against Crusaders two days after this would have done the job no matter what the score was. It just meant they had the comfort that they could afford a draw.

A draw was what Linfield could do without. As the game was about to restart, they had the look of a team that was reluctantly accepting a draw rather than a team looking to resecure the lead in the three minutes that still remained ………..

With thirty seconds remaining, Linfield got an attacking free-kick that could be played into the box. Kyle Lafferty was flagged offside as the ball went out for a goal kick. That summed everything up.

Two dropped points. The title was as good as Larne’s before this match. If you can’t win the League, at least get into Europe. Linfield remain in pole position for it, but it could have been wrapped up with two to play.

I really cannot be arsed with the European Play-Offs. Let’s hope this was the last Linfield home match (at Windsor Park or wherever) this season.

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Linfield did their best to pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement by blowing the title with a 0-0 draw at home to Crusaders just as they did a few days after it was signed.

At least in 1998, they created enough chances and could feel aggrieved about the result. Not so much in this game.

Just need Wes Lamont to come out of retirement for Coleraine to seal the deal.

Having cut Larne’s lead at the top to five points in the last matchday, they were feeling confident of a remarkable title win.

All they had to do was win their final five games and they needed just one result to go their way. It has happened before, in 2017.

As fans left Dungannon a few weeks previously, there was a sense of frustration that Larne weren’t Linfield’s first opponents after the split. It turned out to be a sense of relief after these ninety minutes.

Linfield’s starting eleven was unchanged from their 5-0 win at Dungannon. Not that unsurprising.

The substitutes bench raised a few eyebrows, with a welcome return for Stephen Fallon.

There wasn’t a lot of attacking options though. The most obvious ones if needed would be Andrew Clarke, Max Haygarth and a welcome return after injury for Eetu Vertainen.

Linfield had two headed chances in the early stages of the game.

Sam Roscoe headed just wide from a corner while Jimmy Callacher headed over from a free-kick just a few yards out.

My initial reaction was that it was a bad miss. In truth, it wasn’t as easy a chance as it looked.

It was one of those where you had to stick a head on it, there was no time to set yourself up, he just had to stick his head on it.

If there was anyone on a blue shirt you would want on the end of a cross, it would have been Jimmy Callacher.

Those two chances would suggest that it was a bright and positive start from Linfield. It was anything but.

It was mostly even, but Linfield were slow and lethargic, creating very little in open play.

What made it worse, was that there was two weeks preparation for this game.

The previous three games had seen a trophy, a goal difference boost of twelve and, most importantly, Larne’s gap at the top reduced.

News travels fast. If Linfield could get an early goal while Larne were drawing 0-0, everybody at Inver Park would have known about it.

Linfield were dealt a blow when Jamie Mulgrew went off injured, with Kyle McClean coming on to replace.

Even though Stephen Fallon was available, he was never going to come on at this early stage. If you’re going to play him for 70 minutes, you might as well start him.

Crusaders had the first real effort on goal of note when a free-kick from Jordan Forsythe hit the bar.

It was obvious that this was a game where the first goal would be vital.

You felt if Linfield got it, they would comfortably go on and win the game.

If Crusaders got it, you honestly couldn’t saw with any confidence that Linfield could come back to even got a draw. Not the way the game had been going.

Linfield hadn’t created anything of note in open play.

In fact, the one big chance they had was gifted to them by a defensive mix-up, but when Joel Cooper got the ball out wide, he was unable to get himself into a position to either cross or shoot.

0-0 at half-time in a game that Linfield needed to win. Even more so as the half-time scores announced saw Larne leading 2-0 against Glentoran.

Normally, news of Glentoran trailing at half-time would raise a cheer, but not tonight.

Linfield needed to vastly improve in the second-half.

That response didn’t exactly appear in the opening minutes of the second-half. There was no improvement. It was still lethargic from Linfield.

Thankfully, Crusaders didn’t punish Linfield for that, being mostly restricted to long range shots.

It just needed one of them to get lucky though.

Linfield thought they had gotten lucky when Kyle McClean finished from close range but Ethan Devine was judged to be offside in the build-up as he headed .

There wasn’t much celebrations as the flag went up straight away.

The replay of it is hard to tell.

It was becoming obvious with each passing minute that Eeru Vertainen would soon be entering the pitch.

You had the feeling he was being kept until the hour or if Crusaders went 1-0 up, whichever came first.

Turns out that feeling was wrong, his appearance was to come just after the hour, as part of a double substitution which saw Stephen Fallon return from injury. Ironically, his last appearance was a 0-0 draw at home to Crusaders in November.

The changes didn’t have an immediate impact.

Linfield’s best chance came when Sam Roscoe headed against the angle of post and bar from a free-kick. That was one each in terms of woodwork related frustration.

That looked like being Roscoe’s last major involvement in the game as he was set to be substituted for Andrew Clarke. A last minute signal from Daniel Finlayson that he was struggling with injury soon changed that, and it was he who made way instead.

Although, this changed seemed to confuse the person in charge of the LED Board, who signalled for Finlayson to replace Roscoe.

That change meant Chris Shields coming back into defence to accommodate Clarke in midfield.

Linfield’s formation was now basically bodies. As many in the box as possible. The problem was, getting that right pass. No point in having bodies if you can’t get the ball to them.

It was disappointing not to see Max Haygarth come on. It might have worked, it more than likely wouldn’t have, but Linfield just needed something different. They were too predictable and easy to play against.

There was still time for one more chance for Linfield, in injury time. Kirk Millar managed to cut inside and find space but his shot hit his own player.

That was only ever going to be the only conclusion to that situation. It was one of those nights.

Except, you couldn’t say it was “One of those nights”. Linfield didn’t do enough to justifiably have such a grumble.

There was never a moment in the game where you thought a Linfield goal was imminent. That was the problem.

Linfield should have been going at Crusaders from the start, taking the initiative and laying down the gauntlet. They should have been playing like a team battling for the title.

Even when news filtered through that Larne were 2-0 up, the mission was now keeping in touch rather than cutting the gap. You can’t cut the gap if you don’t keep in touch. There would still be four more matches left to cut the gap.

It’s strange for a team that are the top scorers in the League to complain about a lack of goals. The problem is, the goals haven’t come when they’ve been needed.

The biggest stat to back this up is that Linfield have drawn 0-0 with four of the other five clubs in the Top Six.

And the one they haven’t had one against are next at Windsor Park.

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The first home match of Michael O’Neill’s first spell as Northern Ireland manager was a defeat to a Nordic nation, and things (eventually) got better. You might as well try to stay positive.

It was a defeat that wasn’t terminal, but it leaves Northern Ireland with a lot of work to do, even at this early stage of the campaign. They were already needing this group to become a bloodbath, even more now.

There was already a sign of that in the early kick-off when Kazakhstan secured a shock 3-2 win over Denmark.

Ideally, Denmark run away with the group, San Marino get the wooden spoon, and Northern Ireland being part of four teams battling for that second place. One of those teams getting points against Denmark was not in the plan.

Playing San Marino first was ideal, get eased in and some points on the board early on. If they could get another three, they would pull clear of one of their main rivals and sit top going into the June Double Header.

Northern Ireland had the first big attacking moment of the game when Dion Charles snuck the ball to Jordan Thompson on the byline in the penalty area, but his ball across goal was cleared by a Finland defender. If the ball had fallen to a Northern Ireland player, it would have been 1-0.

Dion Charles would be involved in Northern Ireland’s next moment of frustration, again from another pull back.

Conor Bradley pulled the ball back to him but his first time shot under pressure went well over the bar. If he had hit the target, it would have been 1-0 to Northern Ireland.

Despite Northern Ireland’s positive start, it was Finland who took the lead when a cross found it’s way to Benjamin Kallman, who made no mistake from a few yards out.

The goal stunned Windsor Park. This was not what any of the home fans had in mind when they entered the stadium.

As the first-half neared it’s end, Northern Ireland got that one big chance they craved when Dion Charles was played in behind Finland’s defence, but his first time shot was saved by Finland’s keeper, who made himself big.

Even though Finland’s keeper did well, it was a chance that Charles should have scored.

Northern Ireland had already found out by this point a harsh lesson why you need to make the most of what chances you create. This was extra curricular learning now by this point.

As the half-time whistle blew, it also meant that in my fifth game since moving to the Railway Stand, I had yet to witness a Northern Ireland goal there.

No need to panic though, Northern Ireland had created chances, they needed to start taking them.

They would be attacking The Kop in the second-half, hoping to secure a come from behind win for the second home match in a row.

Northern Ireland made an attacking change in the opening minutes of the second-half, but it was forced through injury, as Josh Magennis came on for Daniel Ballard.

It looked to be a subsitution that would pay near instant dividends when Conor Bradley headed to set up Magennis twelve yards out, but he volleyed over. Another chance gone.

Just after the hour, Windsor Park erupted in celebration when Dion Charles finished from close range after a set piece, but the joy was short lived when the goal was disallowed for handball.

There was a brief moment if hope as the goal went to a check, but the way the evening had been going so far, the only outcome was to be a disallowed goal.

Finland were just as wasteful at the other end, with Robert Ivanov firing over after a free-kick was saved by Peacock-Farrell.

At this late stage, going 2-0 down would have out the game beyond Northern Ireland

You would happily take a point now at this stage.

Even when Finland’s keeper let a cross under his body (think Zubizarreta v Nigeria at France 98) the ball wouldn’t fall Northern Ireland’s way, going out for a corner rather than rolling into the net.

That would be it for Northern Ireland, as Finland held out for a 1-0 win.

Perhaps not that surprising. This fixture has a sense of symmetry about it.

The meetings in qualifying for Mexico 86 and Euro 2000 were all home wins. Finland then won a friendly at Windsor Park before Northern Ireland won a friendly in Finland. A further friendly draw was followed by a win and a draw for Northern Ireland in Euro 2016 Qualifying.

That meant Northern Ireland led the head to heads by one, it just felt inevitable that Finland would level it up during Euro 2024 Qualifying.

It was a defeat that was hard to take as Northern Ireland didn’t deserve to lose. Especially as this is a game that would have been marked as vital to get three points in.

Not just in terms of facing one of the main group rivals, but to have a winning start two games in and lay down a marker to the group rivals, leaving them playing catch-up.

As you watched the final minutes when Finland had men behind the ball, it was hard to see where a Northern Ireland goal was coming from.

Finland weren’t going to make a mistake, and Northern Ireland didn’t have anyone on the pitch who could make something happen. Just getting the ball and making something happen. Scaring the life out of opposition defenders.

You felt that if a Northern Ireland player ran with the ball, they would lose it within seconds.

That made the decision to leave out Paul Smyth even more baffling.

Yes, he plays in League Two, but he’s too good for that League. He’ll be playing at a higher level next season, with or without Leyton Orient.

I know you’ll all cry club bias, but he offers something different, and that is what Northern Ireland needed.

Even at this early stage, the June double header with Denmark and Kazakhstan are massive. We don’t have a Play-Off spot to fall back on. It’s all or nothing. At least four points is an absolute must.

It wasn’t a total write-off of a weekend, as I won a place at a Q and A event at JD Sports the night before with Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas. I even managed to get my Euro 2016 programme signed by them.

Hopefully, in 2031, i’ll be getting my Euro 2024 programme signed by a couple of Northern Ireland players who played in it.

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Northern Ireland v Finland 2015


If seven was the number last week, five was the number this week.

Five goals, five games to go, and the gap at the top reduced to five points.

There was one change to Linfield’s starting eleven, with Ethan Devine coming in for Kyle Lafferty.

Linfield’s substitutes bench had some unfamiliar names on it.

Rhys Annett, recently signed from Dundela, and 15 year old Braiden Graham were the names looking to make their debuts.

The start to the match was mostly even. Dungannon had the first strike on goal just over a minute in, when Ben Cushnie dragged a shot just wide of the post.

As well as creating chances for themselves, you felt that Dungannon might accidentally create some chances for Linfield with the way they were passing it out from the back.

Linfield didn’t need any assistance from Dungannon to take the lead, they did it themselves.

The ball made it’s way to Chris McKee after a Dungannon defender challenged Ethan Devine, and he made no mistake from close range despite being under pressure from another Dungannon defender.

A good start but the points were far from in the bag, Dungannon weren’t going to give it up. More goals were needed from Linfield.

It almost came when Ethan Devine volleyed on the stretch, but the ball went agonisingly just wide of the post.

The move deserved a goal, but it wasn’t to be.

That frustration was forgotten within a minute when Devine was played in by Kirk Millar, and he made no mistake, smashing the ball through the goalkeepers legs to make it 2-0.

Not quite points in the bag, but a commanding lead.

It was going to take a spectacular comeback or capitulation for Linfield not to leave Stangmore Park with three points.

Dungannon responded with a cross/shot easily held by Chris Johns, before he was forced into a save with his legs, as Linfield were having to work to make sure they went in at half-time 2-0 up.

Which is what they did.

A satisfactory half for Linfield. A two goal lead without being dominant. Dungannon had shown enough in the first-half that they weren’t going down without a fight. Linfield needed to start the second-half strongly, and ideally get a third which would kill the game off.

To say they made sure of the points in the opening minutes of the second-half would be a bit of an understatement.

Joel Cooper got the ball out wide on the right, and drilled the ball low into the back of the net, to the shock of a lot of people.

It wasn’t quite a cross, it wasn’t quite a shot. Whatever it was, it ended up in the back of the net, and surely secured the points for Linfield.

What it also meant was that they could rest players and give others minutes, which was handy even if the next match is two weeks away.

Remember in 2020 when Linfield scored within seconds of the game restarting after conceding a goal against Dungannon?

Well, this time, they scored within seconds of the game restarting against Dungannon, except it was after one of their own goals.

An attempted interception fell perfectly to Ethan Devine who once again finished, firing through the goalkeeper to make it 4-0.

Just as you were about to say “My word, this is a jolly good start to the second-half from Linfield”, it got even better.

Kirk Millar picked up possession, cut inside and fired home from outside the box. It was the second successive season that he had scored a long range strike at Stangmore Park.

Having kicked off 2-0 up, within five minutes they were 5-0 up. If Linfield kept this ratio up, they would win this 29-0.

That would be a nice boost to the goal difference.

In all seriousness, this and the win against Newry had wiped out Larne’s advantage over Linfield in this regard, and the combination of results where the title would be decided by this would only see Linfield get a further boost.

Jimmy Callacher had a chance to make it six when a flick on from a corner fell to him, but he got his feet all wrong and the ball went well wide.

Thankfully, it wasn’t costly.

Kirk Millar was next to be frustrated as he was played in but his effort hit the post.

With the points long in the bag, Linfield made some substitutions. One of those coming on was 15 year old Braiden Graham.

Jamie Mulgrew was in his third season as a Linfield player when he was born.

Even though he now wasn’t many saves to make, Chris Johns was still keeping himself busy stopping soft throw-ins and corners being conceded. He was desperate for a sixth successive clean sheet.

He would be leaving the pitch with a clean sheet, as it finished 5-0.

The following day, Larne drew 0-0 away to Coleraine, meaning their lead at the top was cut to five points. Things just got interesting.

Five wins for Linfield and they need Larne to fail to win just one match.

Easier said than done.

The following day, the post split fixtures were announced.

Frustratingly for Linfield, they have to play three more matches before facing Larne.

Ideally, that would have been the first game, to try and get the points to cut that lead and really put the pressure on.

We’ve had 33 games to try and get to the top of the table.

There’s still 5 games to try and fix it.

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It’s been a topsy-turvey season but at least it will be one that will have at least some silverware in the shape of the Bet McLean Cup.

For Coleraine, this was their third successive Final spread across four years due to the competition not taking place in 2020-2021.

Having won the competition in 2019 after an eleven year drought, Linfield weren’t in the mood to have a similar drought.

Kyle Lafferty was ineligible for this competition, so Chris McKee came into the starting eleven.

Linfield had more of the attacking play in the opening minutes of the game.

The best moment came from a run by Joel Cooper, working space for himself close to the byline but his cross was too close to Gareth Deane.

A good statement of intent though. If Cooper can get into the form we know he can get into, there was the potential for goals from Linfield.

Cooper would be frustrated soon after when his shot from outside the box went just wide.

Having survived Linfield being camped in their half, Coleraine began to have a bit of the ball in Linfield’s half.

There was a moment of worry for Linfield when Stephen O’Donnell headed towards goal, but the ball looped onto the roof of the net.

Coleraine fans were prematurely celebrating when Dean Jarvis headed wide at the far post.

I’m not even sure why they were celebrating, the ball didn’t even go goalwards. It hit an advertising hoarding and then rolled into the netting.

It was blatantly obvious what happened. I know that Coleraine fans would have had a relatively obstructed view of the incident, but it’s not as if it hit the side netting.

Bizarre. So bizarre, that Linfield fans hesitated before the inevitible taunts about the premature celebrations.

When they eventually did, they let Coleraine fans know about it.

Chris Johns was then forced into a save from a low effort from Lee Lynch. It didn’t feel that a Coleraine goal was imminent, but they were having far too many sights of Linfield’s goals. Linfield just had to make sure they saw this out.

Even at this early stage, it was looking like a game where the first goal would be crucial. Linfield had to make sure that Coleraine didn’t get it.

Jimmy Callacher was next to deny Coleraine, sticking a leg out to block a Coleraine shot, although it might have been going wide.

0-0 at half-time, but it wasn’t a bad 0-0. Coleraine had the slightly better attacking moments but it was mostly even.

As stated earlier, it was looking like a game that would only finish 1-0.

After a goalless first-half, there wasn’t long to wait for a goal in the second-half, and it came for Linfield.

Jamie Mulgrew snapped up a loose ball and played a first time cross to Chris McKee, whose simple pass played in Joel Cooper to fire home.

It was one of those where you knew it was going to be a goal as soon as the ball went to him.

Initially, I thought it was Joel Cooper passing to Chris McKee.

McKee was in the sort of position that Cooper usually occupies, and Cooper made the sort of run that McKee would make.

It did strike me as odd that Cooper was celebrating so much for an assist.

As the hour approached, Linfield got a penalty when Chris McKee was fouled as he looked to get on the end of a rogue backheader.

From where I was sat, it looked unclear. When you see the replays, it was a clear penalty.

If the first-half suggested that this was a game that was only going to have one goal in it, then there would be no way back for Coleraine if Linfield got to 2-0.

When someone as nervous and conservative as me says it is game over at 2-0, then it was definitely game over.

Chris Shields made no mistake, slotting home to make it 2-0.

But wait, Coleraine know better than anybody that 2-0 isn’t a definitive lead in the League Cup Final. They found that out the hard way last season when they lost 4-3 to Cliftonville after being 2-0 up.

Just when everything was going perfectly for Linfield, they suffered a blow when Eetu Vertainen pulled up chasing after a pass and had to be substituted.

Instead of a like for like substitution, Kyle McClean came on for him, to add an extra body into midfield. Linfield didn’t need to score, they just had to not concede two.

The next change was another striker leaving, but this time it was a like for like change, with Ethan Devine coming for Chris McKee. No late heroics required this time, and hopefully they wouldn’t be needed as the game progressed.

Coleraine’s best attacking moment in response to Linfield’s two goals was a free header from Matthew Shevlin on 86 minutes just over six yards out, which went over. He really should have scored.

If that had went in, there would have still been enough time for them to try and take the game to extra-time.

Coleraine simply had to make the most of whatever chances came their way, They were never going to get another one that glaring in the time that remained.

And so it proved, as Linfield comfortably held on to get the win, and land the League Cup for the first time since 2019.

Maybe not the number one ambition for the season, but if you win something you’ve only managed to win once in fifteen years, you’ll happily take it.

After an even first-half, it was obvious that this was a game where the first goal was vital. Once Linfield got it, there was only going to be one winner.

This meant that Linfield had kept four clean sheets in a row. Add in a trophy, that sounds like momentum, especially with two winnable games coming up to the split.

Adding a second to the cabinet might seem like a long shot, but if you keep winning, who knows where it can lead.

In the week after this game, there was the shock news that it was revealed that Ross Larkin’s absence has been due to a Brain Tumour. Thankfully, it appears that he is on the mend.

When the news was announced on Thursday, it was probably too late to arrange something for the upcoming Saturday game. Hopefully, with two home games to come in the split, there will be some sort of collection for an associated charity at one of those games.

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2019 NIFL Cup Final


If this was to be the last time Linfield fans see their side play a League match at Windsor Park for a while, they signed off with a vital win in a must-win game. Well, they’re all must-win at this time of year.

In a season that has been so unpredictable, it might seem a bit bold, but this might have been the defeat that saw Coleraine become the biggest victims of the February Irish League Bloodbath.

Matthew Clarke, Daniel Finlayson and Kyle Lafferty came into Linfield’s starting eleven for a game which saw Coleraine have a lot of the ball but Linfield were better with it when they had it, although neither side created a clear opportunity.

Around the quarter hour, Linfield were given an opportunity to have their first clear opportunity of the game when they were awarded a penalty for a handball.

It was such an obvious decision, you were wondering if it actually happened. I’m not sure what the Coleraine defender was doing, the ball was so low.

The Linesman was right beside it an flagged immediately. Penalty to Linfield.

You know what that means, a goal for Chris Shields, which is what happened. A vital goal in a vital game.

Boosted by this goal, Linfield had a spell on top that they needed to make the most of.

Daniel Finlayson had a header go wide which was Linfield’s best moment during this spell of pressure.

Coleraine were getting a lot of joy out wide and firing in crosses. A lot of crosses. Luckily for Linfield, they had nobody on the end of them.

Andy Scott decided he fancied getting on the end of one, but his effort from close range was turned away by Chris Johns as the half neared it’s end.

As Linfield sat in the Changing Room plotting how to improve on their one goal lead, it would turn out that Chris Shields wouldn’t be the only one taking a penalty in front of The Kop.

A man from Preston on his Stag Weekend provided the half-time entertainment by taking a penalty. It wouldn’t be simple for him. He was spun around a few times before taking his shot.

If you care, he scored.

It would have been embarrassing if he had scored and Chris Shields had missed.

Linfield began the second-half with a period of pressure on the Coleraine goal.

That pressure was rewarded with a goal within five minutes when Eetu Vertainen finished from close range after a Matthew Clarke header was saved but landed perfectly for him.

I know I reel off cliches about needing another goal and all that, but deep down you knew that the points were in the bag as long as Linfield didn’t do anything stupid.

Going into this game, Coleraine had drawn with Glentoran, exited the Irish Cup on penalties to Cliftonville and then lost to Crusaders in recent weeks. It looked like Coleraine were a team that had “Hit the wall” and Linfield were ready to take advantage.

The destination of the three points could have been put beyond all doubt when Joel Cooper set up Daniel Finlayson from six yards out but he hit the bar. He really should have scored.

As the hour approached, Chris McKee came on for Eetu Vertainen.

Even though there wouldn’t be another match for ten days, it still cause a bit of concern as it was too early to give him a rest and too early to be tactical, especially when you are winning the game.

It was Jamie Mulgrew who almost extended Linfield’s lead with a shot that narrowly missed the target.

Linfield were managing to keep Coleraine at bay but they couldn’t afford to get complacent.

A header that went well wide of the post was the best that Coleraine could offer.

As the minutes ticked by, they looked less and less like getting a goal back that could make things uncomfortable for Linfield.

Max Haygarth and Cameron Palmer came on from the bench for Jamie Mulgrew and Joel Cooper.

Mulgrew was doing well to still be standing after being on the end of some robust challenges. Just a normal game for him.

As it turned out, Linfield won the game 2-0.

Elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Glentoran and Crusaders were held to a draw at Ballymena.

There is a bit of a gap opening up at the top but Linfield are hanging on in there.

Up next, after a ten day break due to being out of the Irish Cup is a trip to Larne.

Under usual circumstances, four points from two visits to Larne, like last season would be a decent return, but they really need to take six because of the gap and the lack of games left.

I have a suspicion that Cliftonville and Glentoran fans might be secretly cheering on Linfield in that match.

Defeat can’t even be thought about.

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It was a win, but it was a tough watch. That’s all that matters, especially when there were two meetings between Top 6 teams and coming off defeat at The Oval. To say that Linfield will have to play a bit better in upcoming matches is generous. They will have to play a lot better.

Following defeat at The Oval, there were a lot of changes for Linfield, with welcome returns in defence for Jimmy Callacher and Ben Hall, with a first start for Ryan McKay and Max Haygarth being brought in on the other side.

Sat in position ready for the game to start, the Referee signalled for the teams to switch sides, meaning I had to get up and powerwalk to the other end.

The same thing happened when Carrick were at Windsor Park in December, and I got into my seat just in time to see Eetu Vertainen put Linfield 1-0 up.

I would miss a dramatic start again, of sorts, as I took my new seat just in time to see Robbie McDaid receiving treatment. Hearing the screams as he received treatment, it became obvious that a substitution was imminent.

So it proved, as Chris McKee came on, hoping to carry on from his performance against Cliftonville the previous week.

McKee had Linfield’s first big chance of the game when he controlled a through ball but his right foot saved by Ross Glendenning.

He would have been better smashing it with his left foot, but the way the ball was bobbling about, he was glad just to get any sort of shot on goal.

Ryan McKay would be next to be frustrated when he was played in but his left foot shot was saved at point blank by Ross Glendenning.

This was the sort of game where it was obvious that Linfield needed to get a lead as soon as possible. The longer it stayed 0-0, the more the frustration would set in.

Just like Robbie McDaid, Ryan McKay’s afternoon would end prematurely through injury, Joel Cooper replacing him.

Not wanting to miss out, Carrick even had a player go off injured.

It all added to the stop-start nature of the game. Carrick were skilled in winning cheap free-kicks. It felt at times, like a Linfield just had to look at a Carrick player to concede a free-kick.

In the few actual game time there was, Linfield weren’t really offering much. No urgency on the ball, if they managed not to lose it, as most of the time, first touches were just giving the ball to Carrick.

It soon became obvious that the first goal of this game was going to be key. If Linfield had got it, especially when McKee and McKay were denied, it could have been the springboard for a comfortable afternoon.

If Carrick got it, that didn’t bear thinking about. You just didn’t feel that Linfield had it in them to come back.

Unsurprisingly, with all the injuries, we had ten minutes of injury time at the end of the first-half. Linfield’s previous half of football only had ten seconds.

Ten minutes felt like a punishment for the crowd. Ten more minutes to wait before doing what they do at half-time.

Nothing of note happened during these ten minutes. Barely anything of note happened in the forty-five that preceded it.

Linfield responded with a double substitution, Ethan Devine and Kirk Millar coming on for Andrew Clarke and Max Haygarth.

It had to get better from Linfield. It didn’t. The expected response from a half-time rollicking didn’t materialise.

Eventually, Joel Cooper had an attempt on goal but was frustrated when he created space for himself but his low shot was easily saved.

Cooper would be making an impact on the game soon afterwards, setting up Eetu Vertainen to fire home to put Linfield 1-0 up.

The way the game had been going, everybody expected the pass to Vertainen to bobble, or for his shot to go well over the bar. It was one of those games.

As mentioned earlier, the first goal was going to be so important in this game. Thankfully, Linfield had it.

Chris Shields would be frustrated as his shot flashed just wide.

With only a one goal lead, this was looking like “One of those games”. You know what I mean. Late Carrick equaliser, too little time for Linfield to reply. This was something we could really do without.

Kyle McClean came on as a substitute for Eetu Vertainen. Not a change I would have made but what do I know, it paid dividends within a few minutes.

Linfield had a free-kick in a shooting position. Many had expected Ethan Devine to hit it, having scored one against Larne in October.

It was McClean who hit it, into the back of the net to secure the points.

For the first time all afternoon, the locals could relax.

After that, the game meandered as it finished 2-0 to Linfield.

Results elsewhere weren’t kind.

The draws that were hoped for didn’t materialise, with home wins for Crusaders and Larne.

Famous last words, but Coleraine look like they might be the first victims of the February Bloodbath.

There’s a danger that Larne might start to run away with it.

That’s why winning by any means is so important, the keep the pressure on Larne and Cliftonville and to stay ahead of Crusaders and Glentoran.

To keep on winning, it’s going to have to be a lot lot better.

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