The first weekend of March 2022 saw me visit Carrick to see Linfield win a rearranged game, then the following morning, head up Cavehill.
Then the rest of the month was Linfield matches, against Ballymena United, Crusaders, Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town.
With the match against Warrenpoint Town being a lunchtime kick-off and the weather being nice, I decided to head to Warrenpoint Beach for some photos. I also headed to Carlingford, but I didn’t get any photos there though.
The month ended with my first Northern Ireland match in over two years, the friendly at home to Hungary.
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.
No fuss, no drama, just three points. That’s all you really ask for when you go to Ballymena.
This was Linfield’s second visit to Ballymena this season.
When they last arrived in Ballymena, they were in a better position in the table but a worse run of form. Now they were on a better run of form but in a worse position in the League, mainly due to a shocking run of results inbetween.
Five wins and a draw in their last six games had seen Linfield get to a Cup Final and a Cup Semi-Final but not make much advances in the League.
Crusaders defeat to Ballymena United four days previously had given Linfield an opportunity to leapfrog Crusaders into the dizzy heights of 4th, even if it was on a temporary basis with Crusaders playing the following day.
Joel Cooper was still missing, joined by Andrew Clarke, with Chris McKee continuing up front, hoping to get off the mark this season.
In the early minutes, Chris Johns was forced into a save, albeit a comfortable save, from a header from a corner.
There was then a moment of worry when a neatly placed shot went just wide.
You really don’t want to go 1-0 down away to Ballymena due to how little time the ball stays in play. Ballboys are hard to find in that vast space behind the goals.
Linfield responded with a period of pressure, and it looked like it was going to be rewarded as Cameron Palmer lined up a shot, but it was deflected over for a corner by a Ballymena defender.
It only delayed a Linfield goal. From the resulting corner, Jimmy Callacher headed to Chris McKee to volley the ball into the net to put Linfield 1-0 up.
Linfield were now on top, but needed a second goal.
Although, as long as they didn’t do anything stupid, they should be ok.
Lost possession resulted in a Ballymena attacker getting a clear strike on goal.
He was through on goal but there were too many defenders around to have a run at goal.
A poor kickout from Chris Johns almost put Linfield in trouble, but they were able to survive that situation.
Thankfully, there wasn’t long to wait for a second goal, when Jimmy Callacher poked home from a corner.
Surprisingly, it was his first goal of the season.
You become so used to him popping up with goals, you expect him to have had a few already in the bag by mid November.
Deep down you knew, that the points were in the bag for Linfield.
Just as long as they didn’t do anything stupid.
There was never any danger of that happening. The only net that looked like being troubled was Ballymena’s
A neat attacking move saw the ball fall perfectly for Chris McKee. He got the power but not the direction as the ball went well over.
Jamie Mulgrew was then played through on goal and looked certain to score but was fouled as he looked to around the keeper, penalty given.
Despite the inevitable cries for a red card, that was never going to be the case. Mulgrew was too wide and there were enough defenders running back for it to be considered a clear goalscoring opportunity.
There was me thinking Mulgrew needs to preserve his energy, and here he is running forward like a man half his age,
Chris Shields had scored a penalty on his previous two visits to Ballymena, and was looking to complete a hat-trick.
Not this time, as his strike hit one post, then rolled across and hit the other. His first penalty miss for Linfield.
You were so used to him scoring, the crowd was already celebrating when he struck the ball, they didn’t know how to react when they realised the ball wasn’t going in.
Kyle McClean got caught out by it as he followed up, only the realise the ball had gone away from him and he wouldn’t be putting the rebound into the empty net.
It probably wasn’t a bad thing. He was due a miss, might as well have it when it doesn’t matter.
Eetu Vertainen then was unable to get on the end of an Ethane Devine cross.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but Stephen Fallon was an unused substitute. It was only when I read about it in the programme for the following Tuesday’s game.
It would have been nice if Linfield could have got a third goal to give them a comfortable enough margin to bring him on for the final minutes to give him some game time.
Two goals was enough.
Another win ticked off ahead of two big home games.
It’s much more fun winning in the rain than losing in the sun.
After recent bumps internationally and domestically, Linfield got themselves back on track with an emphatic win on a wet day in Ballymena.
The end result might see them lie 5th in the table, but in a position to pounce if others slip up.
With August being an emotionally and physically demanding month balancing domestic and international ambitions, a midweek without a game allowed an opportunity to clear heads and gather focus.
Europe is gone for this season, but that is the aim again, and the only way you get into Europe is through your domestic results.
With a postponement and a defeat since their last League win, Linfield had a bit of catching up to do.
They’ve been there before, in 2019.
They responded to that European exit with a clean sweep of wins in September.
Linfield went about repeating that with some decent build-up play, spending a lot of time in Ballymena’s final third, but with no real end product.
It felt like they were trying to scored the perfect goal. Taking too many touches.
Ballymena were concerned by getting the ball in by any means.
It looked like they were looking for an opportunity to shoot from long range as soon as it was possible, or to win a set piece and try and get lucky that way.
Linfield weren’t even giving them that opportunity.
One thing you don’t do at Ballymena Showgrounds is give the home side a lead to defend, especially with the vast wilderness behind the goal and lack of Ballboys.
You won’t be restarting the game for a while when you need time to be on your side.
Time was on Linfield’s side as they looked to take a lead. Joel Cooper had a shot from the edge of the box tipped over.
A neat passing move didn’t get the goal it deserved as Stephen Fallon lunged for the ball on the stretch, his effort going over.
Despite their dominance, it did look like it was going to take a moment of inspiration or a mistake for Linfield to open the scoring.
It turned out to be a mistake.
As the half neared it’s end, it was Cooper who gave Linfield the lead when a header back to Sean O’Neill was too short, Cooper finding himself through on goal, no time to think, just to put it in the net.
0-0 at half-time wouldn’t have been a disaster, you would still have been confident of Linfield winning, but this was a very welcome development.
Linfield definitely needed that goal. A second before half-time would have been just as welcome.
That was probably me being greedy, but that is Linfield delivered as injury time approached. Don’t ask, don’t get.
Stephen Fallon worked his way into a crossing position on the left hand side, hesitancy in Ballymena’s defence meant the ball fell to Kirk Millar who smashed it home.
A solid half for Linfield. No drama, just working towards getting the three points.
It was unsurprising that Ballymena would have some sort of response at the start of the second-half.
When I say “response”, it was having some of the ball in Linfield’s half though there was no real danger of a goal.
I am the sort who worries about conceding when the opposition have the ball, even if the keeper has the ball in his hands on his own goal line. A third goal would be nice just to be sure.
For some reason, I had though at some point over the last ten years, Linfield would have blown a 2-0 lead at Ballymena.
It just sounds like something that is believable. We have blown 1-0 leads a few times.
Nope, I was just worrying too much. A few scares, with 3-2 wins after being 2-0 and 3-1 up in 2014 and 2020.
There was a 2-2 draw after being 2-0 up at home in 2013. Thankfully, I missed that game due to having a weekend away in London.
It never looked like being a repeat of that at any point.
Joel Cooper was unable to get on the end of a cross as Linfield searched for a third goal.
They would soon have an opportunity for that third when a penalty was awarded for a handball.
Penalty misses, still a sore point for Linfield fans.
Not on this occasion, as Chris Shields slotted the ball home to secure the three points.
I say that with confidence at this point. Ballymena didn’t even look like getting one, nevermind three.
Soon after, another Stephen Fallon run down the left set up a goal, with Robbie McDaid getting a long awaited first goal for Linfield.
The goal got the biggest cheer of the afternoon, a bigger cheer than a goal to go 4-0 up in a routine victory usually gets. Linfield fans were with him after a difficult start.
Although, it’s worth pointing out, that Linfield have played eight games against teams better than what they face domestically.
There had been no faulting his performances, workrate or effort so far.
Now the first goal has come, hopefully, more will follow.
McDaid and Linfield both kickstarting their 2022-2023 season in style.
A special mention for Stephen Fallon’s two assists as well.
There was another similar incident while it was 0-0 that didn’t result in a goal.
Unsurprisingly, the game meandered with the result beyond doubt.
Linfield took the opportunity to make some changes and brought on a lot of strikers.
Their presence didn’t result in a fifth goal that would have added some extra gloss to an already impressive afternoon.
One real attacking moment for each side, with Jimmy Callacher blocking a shot and Chris McKee being denied.
It was a weekend where there were no shock results.
The table is already taking shape with the Top 6 pulling away from the rest, so far beating the Bottom 6.
Well, with one exception. Fuck sake Linfield.
Although, I don’t think Linfield will be the only Top 6 team to slip up against Carrick this season.
An enjoyable away trip for Linfield. They’d better get used to them.
This was the second of three in a row. Then after the home match against Glenavon, was scheduled to be five in a row, but a rescheduled home match against Larne just announced breaks that up slightly.
One away trip i’m planning is Moyola Park in the League Cup. I’m looking forward to it, i’ve never been there.
Unfortunately, I won’t be going to Buckie Thistle away as i’ve already purchased a ticket for Northern Ireland v Kosovo the same day.
Even without that, it’s not the easiest place in Scotland to get to.
It is a tie we should be winning though.
No trip to Florence though in midweek to follow this.
It was hoped that December’s football watching would begin at Lansdowne Road, but I had to make do with Coleraine Showgrounds. It doesn’t really matter where you watch your football as long as you’re watching Linfield win.
Although, Linfield did undo that with a draw at home to Warrenpoint Town the following Saturday.
And then, they made up for it by beating Larne away for the first time since 2008, and then beat Ballymena United to go top for the first time all season.
Before undoing that by drawing at home to Glentoran on Boxing Day.
At this time of year, it’s all about results. If the result at Carrick glossed over the performance, there was no faulting this performance with ten men at a ground where they had lost on their last two visits.
The starting eleven was much changed, although I assume it was due to injury with no place for Kirk Millar, Conor Pepper or Jake Hastie in the matchday squad.
That meant a return to the starting eleven for Niall Quinn, but still 3-5-2 as Linfield have gone from no left-backs to no right-backs.
Mike Newberry was back on the bench which was welcome, even if he wasn’t fit to start.
There was also a return for Chris Johns in nets.
Not much happened in the opening minutes of the game as both teams were working their way into the game.
Ballymena offered a bicycle kick from Leroy Millar while Linfield’s response was an effort from Christy Manzinga which just wide of the post.
Hitting the ball just wide of the post wasn’t recommended at this venue with no stands or Ballboys behind the goal, meaning that Sean O’Neill would be popping off to Fairhill Shopping Centre to retrieve the ball.
Of course, not a word from the Referee.
Christy Manzinga was getting involved in personal battles with Ballymena players, who were targeting him.
It looked like Linfield might take the lead when Chris Shields got on the end of a header, but the ball went over.
Stephen Fallon went close when he got on the end of a cross but his effort went over.
Eventually, the opener came, and it was in bizarre fashion.
A free-kick from Kyle McClean evaded everybody, and ended up being put into the back of the net by a Ballymena defender. It was a most welcome gift.
If you can’t be good, be lucky.
Now that they had the lead, Linfield were looking to kill the game off.
It looked like that was going to come when Christy Manzinga was played in but his low shot was saved by Sean O’Neill.
That would prove to be Manzinga’s last involvement in the game, as he would be sent-off for tangling with and raising an arm at a Ballymena defender. No action was taken against the Ballymena player having him in a headlock.
Despite the provocation, he needs to do better and not engage in personal battles and be wound up by opposition players. Just stick the ball in the back of the net. That’ll shut them up.
As this was his second straight red card of the season, I presume that will be at least a four match ban, meaning he will miss the first Post-Split game, potentially against Cliftonville or Glentoran.
Of more immediate concern, was that Linfield were now up against it in a tricky game, having just got themselves in front.
The one consolation was, that it was close to half-time, meaning there wasn’t long for Linfield to see out and have a chance to regroup.
That wasn’t how the game went, as the final minutes of the half saw Linfield camped in Ballymena’s half, with a succession of corners that caused worry for Ballymena.
Because of the circumstances, and the importance of winning this game with the title race so tight and the two teams below playing each other, Linfield needed a big second-half. Certainly far better than the second-half at Carrick a few days earlier.
An improvement was what we got from Linfield, making the most of the ball when they had it, working themselves further and further up the pitch, and working the opportunities for themselves.
There was very few wasted passes.
If you walked into the ground at half-time, and somebody said to you “It’s 1-0 to Linfield and there’s been a red card”, you would have assumed it was for Ballymena. They couldn’t get the ball no matter how much they ran to get it.
Linfield were also making the most of their set pieces. There was a notable improvement. Though they didn’t score from one in the second-half, they were all beating their man, causing Ballymena problems and keeping the move alive.
Most importantly, Ballymena weren’t getting a sniff at the other end, reduced to speculative long range shots.
Despite that, Linfield still needed a second goal, just to be safe.
Although, they didn’t need to score, just not concede.
As well as controlling the ball when it was in play, they were controlling the ball when it was out of play, dictating the pace of the game.
By this point, the Referee decided he was going to address the matter of timewasting, having ignored it by Ballymena players in the first-half when the score was 0-0.
All we ask for is some consistency. That is all.
With just over ten minutes to go, Linfield got an opportunity to put the game beyond doubt.
Jamie Mulgrew worked space for himself out wide. His cross was blocked by a Ballymena defender. There were screams for penalty for a handball, not for me, but the ball fell for Mulgrew who charged at goal before being brought down.
Absolutely no doubt about this one, a clear penalty.
The responsibility fell to Chris Shields, who has a perfect record from penalties, which is always a worry. You fear he will miss one eventually.
This was one that could not be afforded to be missed. My pessimism was misplaced. He made no mistake to make it 2-0.
You could sense the atmosphere changing, the tension had gone, Linfield fans were now singing and rejoicing, belting out “We are top of the League” without fear of contradiction at full-time.
The job wasn’t totally done. It had only been a few weeks since Ballymena came from a similar deficit at a similar stage of the game to get a point against Cliftonville.
As Linfield continued to restrict Ballymena’s sights on goal, there was never any danger of that happening.
The performance with ten men was even more impressive due to the lack of subs. In truth, making a change would have been making a change for the sake of making a change.
Eventually, there were a few substitutions, as Linfield looked to rest a few legs due to the next game being three days away.
Special mention for Stephen Fallon, who appeared to be everywhere. Not even joking, I swear he played a fifty yard pass to himself.
Linfield were able to see the game out with no drama. This is not the time of year for drama, it’s the time of year for results, not drama.
Talking of results, elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Glentoran 1-0.
A draw would have been perfect, but as long as Linfield won, they could have taken a positive from a winner.
That positive being that they’ve extended their lead at the top from goal difference to a whopping one point, with Glentoran a further two behind.
There wasn’t much time to revel or celebrate this result, as Crusaders would be heading to Windsor Park in just three days time.
After a brief dalliance with Harland and Wolff Welders (It was their new ground that did it and nothing more) last weekend, it was back to Windsor Park for my first visit of 2022 to see Linfield take on Ballymena United there for the second time in just under a month.
That last meeting, in the week leading up to Christmas, offered Linfield the chance to go top for the first time this season.
Three weeks later, Linfield were still top, but they had the opportunity to extend their lead and have a bit of breathing space, albeit deceptively and temporary due to the match between Cliftonville and Glentoran being put back to Monday night for broadcast on Sky Sports.
As a result, this game was massive for Linfield, an opportunity to put pressure on their two biggest rivals. As long as Linfield won, it didn’t matter what the result at Solitude ends up.
A draw would be perfect, but you could live with one side winning as a gap would start to emerge with the team that loses.
Of course, all of this dependent on Linfield winning this game first of course.
Two changes out wide for Linfield with Ahmed Salam and Martin Donnelly coming in for Jordan Stewart and Kirk Millar as Linfield continued with 4-3-3/4-5-1 rather than 4-2-3-1.
There were striking options on the bench, but not a lot of experience, with Ethan Devine, who scored on his debut in the Irish Cup the previous week being joined by Andrew Clarke and new loan signing Chris McKee.
Linfield started the game camped in Ballymena’s half, the best opportunity coming when Stephen Fallon was able to cut in and curl wide off a defender.
Thankfully, there wasn’t long to wait for a breakthrough, just after the quarter hour.
Who do you think scored it?
Of course, it was Christy Manzinga.
His original shot was blocked but Ballymena couldn’t clear it, falling for a Linfield player every time, before Niall Quinn teed up Manzinga to fire home from outside the box, nonchalantly celebrating with a non celebration celebration, because it was almost a mundane goal by his standards.
A vital goal, to get an early breakthrough against traditionally stubborn opponents. Now Linfield had to kick on.
They almost did that when Manzinga was played through on goal, in a move similar to his goal against Warrenpoint Town in December.
To the shock of everybody in Windsor Park, this move didn’t result in a goal, as Ballymena’s keeper was able to get a hand on the ball as Manzinga looked to round him.
The resulting incident saw a free-kick to Linfield after the ball fell to a Linfield player outside the box, who was fouled as he looked to shoot. Ballymena’s keeper was forced into a save from the resulting free-kick from Martin Donnelly.
A satisfactory half from Linfield, the only problem was not getting a second goal, especially with drawn home games after going 1-0 up against Warrenpoint Town and Glentoran still a recent memory.
Getting a second goal as been problematic for Linfield in recent weeks, apart from against Dungannon Swifts and Oxford Sunnyside. They have been the only games since the trip to Coleraine in early December where Linfield have scored two or more.
Christy Manzinga then made space for himself before shooting over, before a bizarre incident where a cross was set up perfectly for him to volley home. only for him to fire the ball across the penalty, to the bemusement of all in Windsor Park.
In search of a second goal, David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Kirk Millar and Chris McKee, a debut for McKee, for Salam and Donnelly.
It looked like McKee and Millar had built up an understanding while warming up, basically an arrangement where McKee gives the ball to Millar and then demands the ball back straight away.
I know i’ve been bemoaning the lack of an experienced striker, but I was impressed with McKee’s appearance on Saturday. He made good runs, made himself available and wasn’t afraid when he had the ball.
It looked like he was going to mark his debut with a goal when he got on the end of a cross but headed over from close range.
As the game entered it’s final stages, Linfield looked like they were going to get over the line despite the lack of a second goal.
That almost proved costly with 92 minutes on the clock when Niall Quinn had to get his body in the way of a goalbound Ballymena shot from just over six yards out, with Kirk Millar also having to help out from the follow-up.
Eventually, Jamie Mulgrew was able to run away with the ball before being fouled, with just fifty seconds left on the clock.
Linfield were able to see out those fifty seconds and get the three points.
Elsewhere, Larne surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Dungannon Swifts, while Crusaders were able to keep in touch with a 1-0 win at Warrenpoint Town.
You could probably rule Larne out of the title race. It might seem premature, but it’s hard to make a case as to why they are in it
Up next, is a home match against Glenavon. Hopefully, they’ll be going into that game with a couple of results going in their favour on Friday night.