After five games in fourteen days over the Christmas/New Year period, a nine day break allowed Linfield to get the benefit of the Three Rs ahead of the second half of the season as they looked to win back to back titles – Rested, Refreshed and Ready.
You could add a fourth R to that list – Reds Beaten Again.
To say that the Christmas/New Year period did not go well for Linfield is a bit of an understatement, as they looked to bounce back from their Irish Cup defeat to Queen’s University, the biggest shock in Irish League Football since Liam Beckett started up an ASMR Channel.
Bizarrely, Cliftonville would have been perfect opponents for Linfield on the back of the game against Queens, having beaten twice after cup exits, in September after exiting the UEFA Cup and then in December after going out of the NIFL Cup.
Now, Linfield need to invent a cup competition that they can go out of just before they play Cliftonville in April.
Linfield’s run of results over Christmas/New Year showed how quickly fortunes can change in football. After victory at Warrenpoint, taking advantage of draws from Coleraine, Glentoran and Crusaders to pull clear at the top. The title was in the bag and the open top bus was ordered.
Three weeks later, Linfield were in crisis.
Yet on Sunday afternoon a Tweet of the recent form in the Irish League made for interesting reading. Linfield sat 4th in the Form Guide, over the last ten games, just two points behind in-form Cliftonville and only four less points than unstoppable Glentoran, both of whom only managed one more win that crisis club Linfield in that period.
There have been times in recent years where Cliftonville have went on winning runs, but that has been as a result of a generous run of games. Their current winning run of four League games saw wins over Coleraine, Crusaders and Larne, a statement of intent that they believe they can win big games.
A win over the reigning Champions, who they lost to in their last five meetings, would be the biggest statement, even though all the post match coverage would be of the continuing crisis at Windsor Park
It wasn’t quite a must win game, but it definitely was a must not lose game for Linfield. Defeat wouldn’t have been fatal to Linfield’s title hopes, but it wasn’t a conversation they wanted to be having.
Two televised games meant that this matchday would be staggered across four days.
Friday night saw Coleraine take on Crusaders on BBC Two. Whatever happened, at least one of Linfield’s rivals would be dropping points. A draw would have been perfect, but I could live with a Coleraine win if it meant Crusaders getting adrift. As it turned out, Crusaders won, but Linfield could live with it, as we could pull clear of Coleraine instead.
That defeat for Coleraine allowed Glentoran the opportunity to go top on Saturday afternoon.
If you find Saturday afternoons without a Linfield match to be unbearable, you had better get used to it, as a combination of cup exits and TV scheduling means that was the first of five Saturdays over the next eight weeks where Linfield would be inactive.
Glentoran took their opportunity to go top of the League with a 2-1 win over Warrenpoint. Just about. They were 1-0 down with 15 minutes to go when Warrenpoint’s keeper got sent-off, the third successive Saturday they’ve enjoyed a bit of luck (after goalkeeping error and then a dodgy penalty). I see those days are back.
Glentoran’s reign at the top would only last 48 hours, as the result of this match would see new leaders. Avoiding defeat would do the job for Cliftonville while only a win would do for Linfield.
Storm Brendan, it turned out, was not a Glentoran supporter. If he was, he would have got this match postponed to let them enjoy being at the top of the table for a little longer.
Other TV options on Monday fitted in nicely with this match. Getaways on BBC, which is what Linfield want to be doing in July and August, jetting off around Europe, ideally in the European Cup.
Cold Feet on ITV was what the crowd got, as they watched this match in chilly temperatures. Though, if you wanted to watch something that would make James Nesbitt grumpy, Coleraine’s defeat a few days earlier would have been a better option.
For me, this was my first night visit to Solitude. It meant a change to my pre-match superstitions.
Usually, I go to Papa Drew’s on Oldpark Road for lunch prior to a Saturday game, but it was closed. As was Cod Almighty a few shops down.
So, I had to make do with a Chinese. Not ideal. Though, if we won 10-0, it was have been Chinese all the way in future.
Despite Christmas being long gone, Linfield set up with a Christmas Tree, with a midfield three of Jamie Mulgrew, Stephen Fallon and Andrew Mitchell being a midfield set up for a battle.
For the first time in a long time, Linfield had a bench with a lot of attacking options – Andrew Waterworth, Matthew Shevlin, Kirk Millar, Daniel Kearns and Bastien Hery being on call should they be needed.
It was Cliftonville who had the first shot with a Conor McMenamin shot from outside the box that was easily saved.
Ruaidhri Donnelly then headed against the bar. However, it was the top of the bar so it looked closer than it was. However, it was worrying that Cliftonville were winning headers in Linfield’s penalty area.
Linfield’s first real spell on the ball saw them get a penalty when Liam Bagnall handled a goalward shot.
Jordan Stewart looked as though he wanted to take the penalty, but it was left to Andrew Mitchell.
I was slightly worried when he stepped up as he was due a miss. Cliftonville fans were hoping that would be the case. They would be left disappointed as Mitchell put Linfield 1-0 up.
Cliftonville had the next attacking moment when a Joe Gormley cross went tantalisingly across the six yard box, but Ryan Curran couldn’t get on the end of it.
It was Gormley who made it 1-1 when Ethan Boyle was disposed and he ran through to score, despite protests for offside from Linfield.
It was Gormley’s first goal against Linfield since since November 2018. His record against us is bizarre. He either goes ages without a goal against us or scores in successive matches, so this is a bit ominous ahead of future games.
That goal seemed to make Linfield lose their discipline and shape, running about after the ball as if somebody had thrown a toy into a Dog Pound.
They were glad to get in at half-time at 1-1, to calm themselves down and go at it at half-time.
The half-time break saw a change for Linfield, with Mark Stafford coming on for the injured Mark Haughey.
The second-half saw a lot of early pressure, which got rewarded when Mark Stafford jabbed the ball home after a flick on from Ethan Boyle.
It wasn’t what he was brought into the team to do, but just like at Dungannon last season, it was a contribution that was welcomed. Just like at Dungannon last season, it was a goal that came when Linfield really needed it.
The goal came from an outswinging corner. It’s always good to have a bit of variety at corners instead of always going for an inswinger. That was probably due to them always being taking by a right sided player. It has been a bit surprising that neither Matthew Clarke or Joel Cooper have taken corners in the absence of Niall Quinn.
You got the feel that if Linfield made it 3-1, that would be the points in the bag.
It looked like they were going to get it when Shayne Lavery burst clear after a defensive mistake, only to be denied by a save from Richard Brush, with the rebound going out for a corner after the ball went to wide to stick the rebound in.
Joe Gormley then left the pitch to ironic cheers from Linfield fans, as he made way for Michael McCrudden to make his debut for the club. It turned out that Gormley was injured, as it seemed odd that he would be substituted when they needed a goal most.
Linfield turned to their bench and freshened things up with a like for like change up front, with Kirk Millar coming on for Jordan Stewart.
Despite the narrow lead, Linfield were mostly comfortable and never really troubled in defence.
Jamie Mulgrew was having what I thought would be described as a silent influence on the game, the sort that goes unnoticed. However, a quick browse through Social Media proved me to be wrong, the general consensus that this was his best performance in a long time.
Every time Cliftonville got near or over the halfway line, they were usually to get the ball off Jamie Mulgrew within the next five seconds. Thou shalt not pass.
Not tonight lads, you’re not getting near our goal.
Despite holding out for most of the second-half at 2-1, it was only natural that Cliftonville would have more of the ball in the final minutes, as they had the greater need.
And so it proved, as Linfield had to survive a flurry of corners.
And penalty shouts. Well, you know what I mean. I’ve been to Solitude enough times to know that Cliftonville fans claim for everything when they attack their fans, it still makes you nervous.
That flurry of corners and possession would bring one big chance for Cliftonville, when a cross set up Aaron Donnelly perfectly for a header, but he made no contact with the ball.
Rohan Ferguson looked well positioned if he did, but Donnelly should have been asking the question.
As the ball went out, the clock hit 94 minutes. That was it, the game was gone. Rohan Ferguson completed the formalities, the final whistle blowing as soon as he took his goal kick.
At 2-1, Cliftonville looked short of ideas and self belief against a team they have struggled against in recent years. It was like watching this fixture between 2012 and 2016, but with the roles reversed.
If you like stats, here’s some for you.
This was Linfield’s 4th win in their last 5 games at Solitude, the other being a draw.
Since Cliftonville’s last title in 2014, Linfield have played 13 games at Solitude, winning 7 drawing 4 and losing just 2.
This was Linfield 6th successive League win over Cliftonville.
Most importantly, this was a result that saw Linfield go top of the League on goal difference ahead of Glentoran and Cliftonville.
If the result against Queen’s taught us anything, is that you can’t take any win for granted. However, upcoming games give Linfield an opportunity to go on a winning run and build momentum, putting pressure on the teams below us, as five of the next six games are against teams in the bottom half.
I didn’t want to say it at the time, but I was hoping that the free weekend in February could be used for a friendly away to a League Of Ireland side. No footballing value to it, I just wanted the prospect of a trip away somewhere to cheer me up.
Cork possibly, so I could lay flowers at the site where Billy Murphy fell and died and his brains were coming out of his mouth.
Derry City had similar ideas, with one paper running a story about a possible friendly between the sides after Declan Devine said they were trying to face an Irish League side that weekend.
It’s hardly an earth shattering revelation that League Of Ireland sides monitor the Irish Cup to see who is free in early February.
Such a game wouldn’t have been that appealing to me. I don’t usually bother with home friendlies, and I’ve already been to The Brandywell this season, so as a trip it didn’t offer me somewhere I hadn’t been before. As it turned out, Portadown got that honour.
As it turned out, Linfield are using that free Saturday to play midweek games around it. They’ve been a bit crafty about it. Other clubs have been happy to manipulate the fixture list for their own agendas, so why not Linfield?
We’ll be facing Larne on the back of games against Crusaders and Glentoran and just before their Irish Cup tie, which is what their season is about now. If they are the slightest bit tired or off focus, we must capitalise on it.
The following Tuesday, is Dungannon at home, with Dungannon coming off the back of an Irish Cup tie against Newry, which let’s be honest, has extra-time and penalties written all over it.
Midweek football is going to be quite frequent for me during January, as next week I head to Manchester to see United take on Burnley.
While i’m there on the Tuesday, Salford City face Accrington Stanley in the EFL Trophy, and FC United face Sheffield in the Integro Cup, the Northern Premier League’s version of the League Cup. Might take in one of those games.
Talking of football trips, the League Of Ireland First Division fixture list was announced and Bray won’t playing at home when i’m staying there during Euro 2020. I’ll have to make do with a Dublin game on the Monday night.
St Patrick’s Athletic v Cork is looking likely as Richmond Park is easier to get to, although it is tempting to get one last game at Dalymount Park, although I thought that when I visited it in 2016.
Coincidentally, government funding was announced this week for that redevelopment. I didn’t realise they had to wait for the Northern Ireland Assembly to get back together to release funding.
You’d think there was an election in the Republic of Ireland next month.
I’m still looking for somewhere to go over the July Holidays. I spent a miserable Sunday night looking for somewhere to go and got nothing. Estonia might night be happening.
Waterford might, it is very tempting. They play at home over that weekend too, against Cork. I know, what is it with this urge to see Cork City?
More immediate, is Linfield v Dungannon Swifts on Saturday, as part of a busy day where i’ll be going to see Badly Drawn Boy in the evening.
Hoping that the Linfield match can be described as Something To Talk About rather than a Silent Sigh or Pissing In The Wind.