It was the same competition, same venue and the same opponents as the last time Linfield won a trophy in 2014, David Jeffrey’s last as Linfield manager. If you believe in things going full circle, you could say that the Post Jeffrey Era ended, and the David Healy Era truly began. That will be for future historians to decide.
It could be Linfield’s only trophy this season, it could be the first of two. It could even be the first of three. That outcome will decided over the next three months.
The final of the County Antrim Shield isn’t a new experience for Linfield fans, it was the seventh time in nine years they had reached the final of the competition. Mostly, they hadn’t been positive experiences though, only celebrating a win in 2013-2014, their first since 2005-2006, and having to watch opponents lift the trophy in 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2012-2013 and 2015-2016.
There were two names that stood out in the pre-match teamsheets. Colin Coates back for Crusaders after injury and Gareth Deane in goals for Linfield, taking some pundits in the media by surprise (though, there were people sitting behind me in the first-half who were shocked to see Roy Carroll not playing).
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to see Deane on the pitch, as he had played in every round of the competition so far.
The occasion wouldn’t have overawed him, having played in last season’s Irish Cup Final, and been thrown in against Cliftonville at The Oval, and played at The Oval during the run-in at the end of last season. Despite his lack of games of Linfield, he doesn’t lack big match experience.
Crusaders had the first attack of the game, snuffed out by Matthew Clarke in the full-back position.
Linfield then took control of the game, as Crusaders couldn’t defend a free-kick and had to concede a corner. They couldn’t defend that corner and had to concede another corner.
It was third time lucky for Linfield as Cameron Stewart headed home from the corner. Three was very much the magic number, as the player wearing 3 scored for the third successive match.
Before anyone complains about a Forward wearing 3, we had a Defender wearing 11 for years. Linfield don’t do numerical convention.
It was a unique achievement for Stewart, having scored in the Steel and Sons Cup Final on Christmas Eve, meaning he had scored in both of the County Antrim FA’s showpiece finals in the same season.
I have a lot of useless football stats in my head, but I don’t know if he is the first player to achieve this in the same season or even in a career. Feel free to leave a comment if you know.
Stewart almost had a second soon after but he couldn’t get his head onto a cross. Paul Heatly hit a shot wide at the near post but it was a rare Crusaders attack in the opening minutes.
Kirk Millar had a goalward shot blocked after a corner was cleared before Mark Stafford soon afterwards bundled the ball into the net from close range after a corner to make it 2-0.
It was a pefect start for Linfield. Jamie Mulgrew was running the show. Crusaders players couldn’t even get close to him to cyncially foul him and get a final final final final warning from the referee.
Andrew Waterworth was played through but couldn’t get a clear strike at goal, eventually firing over.
2-0 down, Crusaders responded in the way they know best, with thuggery. Paul “not that kind of player” Heatley got sent-off for elbowing Mark Stafford.
It was his second red card against Linfield, having been sent-off when the sides met at Seaview in April 2014. It would have been his third red card against Linfield if the referee had done his job properly in the final minutes of the League match at Windsor Park in October after his excuse of a tackle on Andrew Waterworth. I’m sure there’s more lucky escapes that i’ve missed.
Things were going perfectly for Linfield. Almost too perfectly.
It looked like Crusaders would be going down to nine men when Howard Beverland grabbed Cameron Stewart after an aerial tussle. The referee booked both players under the “I haven’t a clue so i’ll just book both of them rule”.
Beverland chanced his arm by dragging down Cameron Stewart as he looked to head goalwards. No free-kick was awarded, and within seconds, a long hoof upfield saw Jordan Owens head home.
As good a header as it was, it was unstoppable – going in from the moment it left his left, Jimmy Callacher shouldn’t have been beaten to the ball so easily.
Instead of having a free-kick in an attacking position and facing nine men, Linfield were now pulled back to 2-1.
Linfield had a few wobbly moments after that goal, but there was never a moment when Crusaders looked like equalising.
Defenders didn’t help themselves by passing it back to Gareth Deane’s weaker left foot (after passing it back to Ross Glendenning’s weaker right foot when he was playing for the club – they’ll get it right some day) which resulted in cheap throw-ins being conceded. It was especially dangerous on a pitch as bumpy as the Ballymena Showgrounds was.
Michael Carvill almost made history by being sent-off in two County Antrim Shield Finals, but the referee bottled it after his late challenge on Matthew Clarke when he was already on a yellow card.
Jordan Owens hitting the side-netting was the best moment Crusaders had in the final moments of the first-half. Linfield were more than happy to go in at half-time 2-1 up and have a chance to clear their heads. If they kept their heads in the second-half, they secure the win.
Naturally, Crusaders went out at the start of the second-half in search of an equaliser. They had a lot of the ball, but the best they could offer was a speculative long range shot from David Cushley. This was one of the ninety-nine out of a hundred that fly over the bar.
Jamie Mulgrew also fired over as he ran goalwards, continuing where he left off in the first-half. Andrew Waterworth and Cameron Stewart both had chances to kill off the game as Linfield searched for that third goal that would clinch the game.
They had a glorious chance when Sean O’Neill misjudged the ball as he tried to shepherd it out for a goal kick, pulling back Andrew Waterworth as he tried to put the ball in the net, before Howard Beverland lunged in an fouled him. Take your pick as to which foul the penalty was awarded for.
And yet, there was still no second yellow card for Beverland. If you’re partial to a bet, stick some money on Michael Carvill or Howard Beverland to score the winner for Crusaders on Saturday. Free money.
With Ross Gaynor and Aaron Burns not on the pitch, all eyes were on who would take the penalty for Linfield. It was Stephen Lowry, who made no mistake, to make it 3-1.
That was it, game won for Linfield. Crusaders barely looked like scoring at 2-1, they were never going to come back at 3-1.
Things got even better for Linfield, with Paul Smyth now being introduced from the bench after missing two months through injury, and he picked up where he left off, running at Crusaders defence, causing them panic. Just like Jamie Mulgrew, they couldn’t get close enough to kick him.
Before the final whistle, there was still time for one more act of thuggery, as Jordan Owens barged Jimmy Callacher from the touchline onto the tarmac at the side of the pitch. There’s nothing Crusaders players specialise in more than a barge on the touchline designed to cause injury.
During the final minutes, Linfield continued to attack as they sought a 4-1 lead that would not have flattered them.
Linfield sent out a message to the rest of the league. Not about their own capabilities, but that Crusaders can be beaten if you stand up to them. Crusaders seven point lead has been partly due to too many teams not believing that they can beat them.
That attempt to overtake them will continue at Carrick on Saturday. Hopefully, another road trip as productive as the ones to Dungannon, Drumahoe and Ballymena over the past ten days.