After winning the County Antrim Shield on Tuesday, it was back to the League for Linfield as they travelled to Taylor’s Avenue to take on Carrick Rangers as they aim to keep up the pressure on Crusaders in the title race.
It wasn’t just Carrick that Linfield were up against, it was also the elements, as a constant wind caused problems for Linfield when they attacked into it, causing passes to be either overhit or underhit. Linfield’s players weren’t quite mastering conditions. Niall Quinn was denied an opportunity to set himself up for a shot when the ball held up in the air just as he was setting himself up.
The early minutes was all Linfield pressure. At the same time, it felt like it was a matter of time before Linfield scored, and it felt like a goal would never come, as both Jimmy Callacher and Niall Quinn had close range efforts saved. Quinn’s effort came after a Cameron Stewart shot was saved.
Carrick also had a couple of breaks which caused Linfield’s defence and keeper to have to be on alert.
Already a difficult afternoon because of the weather, it was important for Linfield not to concede during Carrick’s rare attacks. It was already a difficult afternoon, giving Carrick something to hold on to would have made it even more difficult.
Brian Neeson’s save filled afternoon was about to come to a premature end due to injury. With no goalkeeper on the bench, Mark Surgenor went into goals.
Linfield fans knew better than most that an outfield player having to go into goals doesn’t always result in a heavy defeat. Linfield still had to create the chances to score past him.
Those chances didn’t come as Carrick’s defence held firm, as the first-half looked set to end goalless, a first-half which mirrored my only previous visit to Carrick, in August 2015, where Linfield won 3-0 but took a long time to get the breakthrough.
As first-half injury time approached, Linfield got their best opportunity when a penalty was awarded after a Niall Quinn shot was blocked by a Carrick defender’s hand.
Penalties against Carrick have proved problematic in the past two seasons with Aaron Burns (October 2015), Andrew Waterworth (December 2015) and Ross Gaynor (September 2016) all having penalties saved by Brian Neeson.
Neeson wasn’t on the pitch to try and get a quadruple. This penalty incident was to be dominated by men who weren’t on the pitch. As on Tuesday night, with Ross Gaynor and Aaron Burns not on the pitch, it was left to Stephen Lowry to take the kick for Linfield.
Quite how it will be decided who takes the penalty if Linfield are awarded one when all three are on the pitch is anyone’s guess.
Like on Tuesday, Lowry sent the keeper the wrong way, but going to the keeper’s left this time.
It wouldn’t have been a disaster for Linfield to go in 0-0 at half-time, but going in 1-0 was a lot better. It could even have been 2-0, but Cameron Stewart’s headed chance went just wide.
The second-half got off to a slow start. Stephen Lowry had a long range shot go over, while a volley from the edge of the box went just wide.
Mark Stafford had a flick which hit the post while Niall Quinn also hit the post. Even when Mark Surgenor flapped at a cross from Matthew Clarke, he managed to get away with it.
If you were doing text commentary of this match, you could have just cut and pasted the phrase “Linfield should be 2-0 up, ……”
As each minute passed with the score at 1-0, you began to get that horrible feeling that Linfield would be made to pay for their missed chances. Even though Carrick didn’t look like scoring, when there’s only one goal in it, you always have a chance.
You could just see it, a cross that would normally have gone over gets held up in the wind and falls straight to a Carrick player to score.
David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Paul Smyth as he continues his recovery from injury.
Linfield fans horrible premonition almost came through when Roy Carroll had to save a long range shot after a Carrick break.
Linfield tried for the second goal that would make the final minutes more relaxing. Andrew Waterworth thought he was going to get it as he lined up a shot, only for a Carrick defender to get in and block.
Eventually, Linfield got the second goal. Appropriately, it came after two glorious missed chances, Mark Stafford having a header saved and then Cameron Stewart hitting the woodwork from that rebound before Paul Smyth eventually finished.
That was the game won, and some supporters headed for the exits just as injury time started, content that Linfield had the job done.
Without playing fantastic, Linfield were deserved winners. The elements could have been a leveller. Linfield made sure that it wasn’t.
A curious fact was that this was Linfield’s ninth successive away win. Ten if you change the stat to “Games away from Windsor Park” to include neutral matches. The good news is, there are two successive away games coming up after next weekend. The even better news for those who want to save on petrol, is that they are both in Belfast.
Next Friday is a home match against Portadown. Even though Linfield have lost Friday night games to Portadown in the last two years, a third is unthinkable. It’s a game we should be winning and winning comfortably. Wed need to finish a bit better than we did today though.
Between now and the split, Linfield will only face one team in the top half of the table. This represents an excellent opportunity to get points and momentum ahead of the split.
Unfortunately, the gap at the top remains seven points. That might seem like a lot but Crusaders can still be overtaken. They’re more disappointed when we win than we are when they do.
Cliftonville lost today, meaning that Linfield now have a nine point lead from 3rd place, now freeing them to concentrate on overtaking Crusaders, and not have to worry about dropping into 3rd.
While at Taylor’s Avenue, I got a ticket for next weekend’s League Cup Final, meaning I have football matches on Friday and Saturday. It could have been some fun if I had decided to head over for Man United’s UEFA Cup tie against St Etienne on Thursday as well.
Carrick will have a break from League duty next weekend as both clubs try to amass as many points between now and the end of the season for differing reasons. Carrick for the right to be hosting Linfield in the League next season, and Linfield to be able to travel to various grounds as champions.