To be honest, I’ve never really rated Andalucia or Cyprus as travel destinations and let’s be honest, Luxembourg is a bit dull.
Ok, so I haven’t got over Linfield’s UEFA Cup exit to Qarabag. I was mentally planning a long weekend in Barcelona if we drew Espanyol. I was thinking of basing myself in Birmingham if we drew Wolves, and was looking at sneaking in a day trip to Oxford.
The brutal reality is that Linfield’s European adventure is over. The only way they’ll get to relive it, is to qualify for European competition to get the chance to do it all again next Summer, preferably in the European Cup.
While Linfield were away, other clubs were playing, with Linfield kicking off in 9th position, ten points off the top of the table.
There is no margin for error. They would have been boosted by the fact they were playing a team they were looking to beat for the fourth successive time, a rare run of results in recent years considering how problematic matches against Cliftonville have been this decade.
In order to facilitate this return to domestic action, it was important to get the pre-match preparation done right. I am referring to my own.
Lunch at Papa Drew’s (We always win when I go there) and then a wee browse through Iceland and then into Ballysillan Leisure Centre to pick up some free newspapers for reading while sat on the bus.
Linfield’s line-up for this game was always going to be different from the European games. One change was enforced, with Shayne Lavery missing out due to being called-up to the Northern Ireland squad, with Andrew Waterworth taking his place.
The starting eleven was similar to that which began the early games of last season, the only ones weren’t regulars this time last year being Mark Stafford and Bastien Hery.
With Jordan Stewart also not in the eighteen, I presume due to injury, it meant that Linfield were light in terms of attacking options, though it did give new signing Matthew Shevlin a first opportunity to appear in a matchday squad.
Also appearing in a matchday squad for the first time this season was Gareth Deane, returning after injury. You would assume that midweek cup ties against East Belfast and Ballinamallard United over the next few weeks will allow him to get some game time.
Linfield had a lot of the ball early on, an early cross from Chris Casement flashed across the penalty area, although Linfield’s best opportunity came when a Cliftonville defender almost flicked the ball into his own net from a Kirk Millar corner.
Despite carrying the more believable attacking threat, Linfield couldn’t make it count. If they were able to get a goal, it could give them a platform to go on and win the game.
Garry Breen got a yellow card for a tackle similar to the one that Jamie Mulgrew got sent off for at Solitude last year.
Inevitably, Cliftonville began to see more of the ball as an attacking force, the big opportunity they created was Conor McMenamin getting in behind Linfield’s defence, having to take a first time shot which he dragged wide when he perhaps should have scored.
Every time Joe Gormley got the ball, Linfield’s defence weren’t getting close enough to him, giving him too much of a sight of goal for my liking. More often than not, he didn’t take the shooting opportunity that was there, but you don’t want to encourage him.
To be honest, Linfield would have been glad to see that out and go in at half-time 0-0, a chance refresh at the break and start again.
The game was similar to the recent game between Cliftonville and Crusaders, which was 0-0 at half-time, before Crusaders won 2-0.
It wasn’t a game that Linfield could win in 45 minutes, they would have to make use of the full 90 minutes. They would have to wear Cliftonville down to get their rewards.
The half ended for Linfield with an injury scare for Jimmy Callacher, who went down after defending a corner, having to receive medical attention on the pitch as everybody else was heading to the dressing room.
It was serious enough for Darren Murphy to arrive on the scene to assess the situation. Thankfully, all he needed was a bit of strapping on his wrist, and Linfield would be glad he was able to appear for the second-half.
The early minutes of the second-half didn’t do much to alter the analysis that this was looking like a 0-0 sort of game.
Just before the hour, Linfield broke the deadlock when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a corner. He seems to enjoy playing against Cliftonville for Linfield, this being the fifth time he had scored against them, the third time at Solitude.
However, it was his first goal at Solitude at the end where Linfield fans are based, so he got to fully enjoy the moment.
There was a small element of luck to the goal for Linfield. Daniel Kearns was looking to play a pass to the right, but it was intercepted by a Cliftonville player and fell back to him, meaning the attack had to move left. The resuling play saw Linfield win the corner that brought the goal.
Cliftonville’s instant response was a Joe Gormley header from a free-kick that was easily saved by Rohan Ferguson. That was all they offered in the minutes following the goal.
Stephen Fallon replaced Bastien Hery a few minutes after he was booked. In a fixture which has seen a lot of red cards for both teams in recent years, David Healy knew he could potentially be targeted and took evasive action.
Rory Donnelly had a shot over the bar as Cliftonville chased an equaliser. Their best opportunity came when a cross from Chris Curran went behind Ryan Curran, who could only scoop it into the hands of Rohan Ferguson.
Andrew Waterworth was substituted for Matthew Shevlin a few minutes after Cliftonville fans and players were screaming for a red card after a collision with Richard Brush. It never was.
Cliftoville fans were claiming for everything in the final minutes, such was their desperation. “Andbawl, Andbawl, Andbawl” should become their club anthem.
The chance for Ryan Curran aside, Cliftonville weren’t able to produce much from open play. As long as Linfield didn’t concede any soft or stupid set pieces, they would see them game out.
Matthew Shevlin didn’t do too bad on his debut. One chance passed him by when he couldn’t control the ball to get the shooting position he wanted.
He had one chance in injury time as he burst away on the counter attack. Had the option to pass or shoot, he crossed to Kirk Millar, whose close range shot was superbly saved by Richard Brush, who made himself big.
Linfield could really have done with a second goal to make the final minutes more relaxing, but it wasn’t costly, as they held out for a 1-0 win to lift them up to the heady heights of 8th.
It was also the first domestic clean sheet of the season. A good habit to start.
Elsewhere, there were no real surprises in other results. It’s too early to panic about the gap to the top. It’s important to note that three of Crusaders opening six games have been against the bottom three.
If Linfield had reached the Group Stages of the UEFA Cup, the club would have had to play matches on a Sunday. Jim Allister was horrified by that prospect. I’m sure there would have also been negative points to this.
The first point is, it has already happened. Linfield’s Women’s Team played a Sunday match a few weeks back, and have played previously on a Sunday, while the Men’s Team played a match on a Sunday in 2016.
I prefer Saturday games, and this wouldn’t have been a permanent move, only facilitated by having to play matches on the previous Thursday.
The important thing is, the only people whose opinion matters is Linfield fans and Linfield fans only.
Maybe next year, we’ll be playing Thursday night games between September and December.
Postponing games in August is a one-off due to the nature of the matches, but it wouldn’t be sustainable to do it six times between September and December.
They might not say it publicly, but I think NIFL were glad that Linfield lost to Qarabag, as it eases some fixture scheduling dilemmas.
Something that hasn’t been noted about Linfield’s run in Europe has been the Co-Efficient points generated. It might take a few years to reap the rewards due to the way UEFA’s cycles work. It could end up potentially resulting in being seeded in the European Cup.
If Linfield had reached the Group Stages of the UEFA Cup, there would be no free midweek to play the NIFL Cup match against Ballinamallard (originally scheduled for Tuesday 27th August) until October.
Despite Linfield not reaching the Group Stages of the UEFA Cup, i’ll still be taking in a game at that stage of the competition as I’ve booked to see Manchester United take on Partizan Belgrade in October.
I’d hoped to make a long weekend as United are at home to Brighton the Sunday after, but the hotels that weekend were over £100 a night.
One time I did a Thursday-Sunday double header with United in 2016, I went to see Bury on my free Saturday, and it is sad to hear of their demise.
I’m needing some travel inspiration as i’m using up Annual Leave. Looking for somewhere from Belfast either Monday-Wednesday or Wednesday-Friday. The options from Belfast for Mainland Europe are shite, Vilnius is looking tempting though.
I know I think it every year, but this might be the year I finally decide to do a day trip to Dublin to take in the FAI Cup Final.
Outgoings from Windsor Park included Lorcan Forde, who has gone to Warrenpoint on loan, which will be a benefit to him to get games and fitness.
It’s a busy week at Windsor Park with three matches in six days. Linfield host Glentoran looking to rack up the points to continue their climb up the table. The highest they can get to next Saturday (if other results go their way) is 7th.
One step at a time.