2022 began with a trip to Dungannon on New Year’s Day to see Linfield win 6-1 at Stangmore Park.
On the Bank Holiday Monday that followed, I could have had a lie-in, but I decided to head up Cavehill instead.
I then visited a new football stadium for the first time, very exciting, going to see Harland and Wolff Welders take on Annagh United at Blanchflower Park, which had opened a few months earlier, this was my first chance to visit this ground.
The rest of the month, was Linfield matches, against Larne, Ballymena United, Glenavon, Cliftonville and Coleraine.
Regular readers will know I love visiting football grounds, especially ones i’ve never been to. Over the past two years, I haven’t had a chance to because of you know what limiting my travel opportunities.
So, when the opportunity to visit a newly built football ground, and all I had to do was travel across Belfast, came up, it was too good to be true.
It was an opportunity I thought i’d never have. Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.
You see, every time I had a free Saturday since it opened in October due to Linfield’s match being moved for live broadcast, Harland and Wolff Welders were always playing away from home. So frustrating.
Of course, Linfield were playing at the same time, but with a match against Oxford Sunnyside expected to be a non event (It was, eventually, after a lot of toiling), I could be forgiven for making the most of Harland and Wolff Welders getting a home draw in the 5th Round of the Irish Cup.
I was planning to get the train over but just as I was leaving the house my dad was passing and offered me a lift. Would have been rude not to take it up. He didn’t actually go into the game, but gave the new ground his approval from the outside.
It had a lot of bicycle parking spaces, which gets a thumbs up from me.
There are also a lot of car parking spaces available for fans attending, which is handy as there isn’t a lot of on street parking.
If you are so inclined, there is a bar at the back of the main stand behind the goal. There is another bar for Sponsors and Directors known as the Fred Magee Lounge, but the signage may need an update as, as of last week, he is now known as Fred Magee MBE.
One big stand for sitting if you wish, two smaller ones and one terraced stand as well as plenty of standing area along the side of the pitch, it’s a decent ground for Irish League football. The spatiousness (is that even a word?) will come in handy if Linfield ever make a competitive visit there.
Highlight of the day was walking past Glenn Ferguson, who was watching the game.
In the build-up to their opening game at Blanchflower Park, the club released a video showing off the facilities.
The visitors were Annagh United, best known for beating a Glentoran side featuring Nacho Novo in the League Cup in 2016, a result which saw the end of Alan Kernaghan’s reign at The Oval.
It’s not cup shocks against Glentoran that Annagh want, it’s League matches against them, which could be a possibility next season, with Annagh currently 3rd, six points behind leaders Newry City with a game in hand, and Harland and Wolff Welders a further six points behind in 6th.
No chance of a giantkilling here, mainly due to both teams being in the same division and relatively close to each other.
Naturally, there would be some relatively familiar names in both teams. Michael McLellan, briefly of Linfield in 2016, Darren Murray, of various clubs, Scott Davidson, who scored in the 2011 League Cup Final for Distillery and Ben McAuley, formerly of Ballymena United lining up for Welders. Annagh had Niall Henderson, an Irish Cup winner with Glentoran in 2015 lining up for them.
The first-half was mostly even, defences on top.
Of what chances there were, Welders keeper had to stretch to tip a shot over while Darren Murray headed just wide from a cross.
It was hard to see where a goal was coming from, then out of nowhere, Ruari McDonald flicked home a cross to put Annagh 1-0 up.
And then, almost another goal, as Darren Murray headed off the post immediately, agonisingly close to an equaliser.
1-0 down at half-time, Welders came out intent on equalising and had to wait until just before the hour when Michael McLellan got in behind Annagh’s defence, turning inside his man to create a shooting opportunity for himself and then firing the ball home to make it 1-1.
A game that had been even so far was now turning in Harland and Wolff’s favour, as they put pressure on Annagh’s goal. The best effort was a goalbound shot being cleared off the line.
Crosses were particularly problematic for Annagh, often evading the keeper and defender but unfortunately for The Welders, their attackers were never able to get a clear header to score, often going agonisingly wide.
With the weather getting a bit chilly, I was hoping for this game to be settled inside 90 minutes. Can’t say I was looking forward to extra-time.
The plot twist, was that the goal came against the run of play to Annagh, when a cross fell perfectly for Niall Henderson to set himself up to smash home from close range and win the game.
Even though there was still some time left for an equaliser, you just felt it wouldn’t come, and so it proved as Annagh made it through to the next round.
Their prize, an away tie against Dungannon Swifts.
Linfield meanwhile, were eventually winning 4-0 against Oxford Sunnyside, with a debut goal for Ethan Devine, just signed from Knockbreda.
I don’t know much about him, but i’d be hoping for a more experienced striker to be signed alongside him for the run-in. Still, good to see him and Andrew Clarke getting on the scoresheet.
One more defender to bolster numbers would be needed now that Trai Hume has moved to Sunderland.
A great move for him, though Sunderland signing Northern Ireland players leaves me conflicted as I am enjoying them languishing in the lower leagues.
He brings the ex Linfield contingent on Wearside to two alongside Carl Winchester. It would have been three if Conor McLaughlin hadn’t left in the Summer.
Linfield’s prize is a trip to Larne, meaning they will face Larne twice and Glentoran in the space of seven days. Bring it on.
It is being rumoured of a UK and Ireland bid for Euro 2028. I don’t know why England doesn’t just bid on it’s own. Still, at least it will fill up some pages on slow news day with reports of a 700,000 capacity stadium to be built in Belfast in order to host Slovenia v North Macedonia.
So, overall, it was great to be groundhopping again, it is a perfect ground for Irish League football, something for everybody depending on how you like to watch football. I would be very excited if Linfield were to play a competitive game here at some point in the future.
Definitely on my pre-season wishlist, though obviously not taking over my top two of Bray and Stranraer away.