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.