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.
A game that Linfield could, and should have won, they ended up hanging on in stoppage time.
In the end, they gained a point on morning leaders Glentoran. The problem is, when you’re chasing five teams, it’s not good enough as it was ultimately two points dropped on Larne and Crusaders.
Injury to Kirk Millar meant that Linfield would be forced into a change from Saturday’s team.
Instead of the change at half time where Eetu Vertainen came on for him, it was Chris Shields who came in.
Disappointing, seeing how effective Vertainen’s introduction against Portadown was. Linfield carried far more attacking threat with him on the pitch.
Another case of trying not to lose against a Top 6 team when Linfield need to go on a winning run.
Linfield had a lot of the ball in the early minutes of the game, but it was nowhere near to Cliftonville’s penalty area to do any real damage.
Sam Roscoe had to get in the way to block a long range shot from Ronan Doherty.
That was all Cliftonville were offering, restricted to long range shots.
Linfield found out the hard way against Glentoran a few weeks previously that all it needs is for one of them to hit someone, get lucky, and then you’re in trouble.
In truth, there were no clear opportunities for either side. Not one where you though the attacker should have scored or the keeper has made a great save.
Linfield’s next attacking moment came when Joel Cooper made space for himself on the edge of the box but fired over.
A pass to Cameron Palmer, who was free on the right, was probably a better option, but when you’re on the run of goalscoring form he is on, he has every right to go for goal.
There was more agony for Linfield as a header from Andrew Clarke hit the post.
I had a perfect view of it. The ball headed towards the goal in slow motion, I was getting ready to celebrate, only to see it hit the post.
Chris Shields got booked and then walked a tightrope after a foul.
Not for me, but you have to be extra careful.
Having been the better team and with the game in the balance, a red card was the last thing Linfield needed.
Cliftonville were restricted to long range shots but could not be discounted, with the few decent attempts on goal being from Linfield players. This match was there for the taking.
It was unsurprising that Cliftonville would show more of an attacking threat in the opening minutes of the second-half, with a few crosses that caused worry for Linfield’s defence.
Rory Hale then had a shot deflected wide for a corner.
By this point, I had moved to a seat at the other end of the pitch and thought it was going in.
TV replays showed there was never a danger of it going in.
That is just my natural reaction when the opposition have the ball, that a goal is just seconds away.
Linfield then had their best chance of the game, when a quick counter saw Cooper and Andrew Clarke poetically set up Matthew Clarke but his shot went over, when low and across the keeper would have resulted in a goal.
I could see some of Linfield’s subs warming up in front of me, head in hands. They knew it was a big chance.
Eetu Vertainen was especially frustrated. He was probably right. It might have been 1-0 to Linfield if he was the one being played in.
More frustration followed when Cameron Palmer had a shot from the edge of the box go just wide.
Linfield really needed to start making this pressure count.
More importantly, where were the subs?
A few fresh legs could have made the difference.
The players that were on the pitch were still creating chances though.
A cross from Chris Shields after a bit of faffing about at a free-kick looked like it was going to be headed in by Jimmy Callacher, but he was beaten to it by a Cliftonville defender, although a goal kick was given.
The ball was just not going into the back of the net.
Eventually, the subs bench was utilised, with Eetu Vertainen coming on for Robbie McDaid and Ethan Devine coming on for Cameron Palmer.
In my opinion, Andrew Clarke should have been one of the players making way. No slight on his performance, but he wasn’t what was needed.
Jimmy Callacher was what was needed for Linfield at the other end as he got in the way to block a cross that looked set to be diverted in if he wasn’t there.
Having been doing the basics all night, Chris Johns was called upon in injury time when a quick Cliftonville counter attack saw Ryan Curran put through, but Johns was quick out, made himself big and made the save.
By some quirk or coincidence, he had to do the same in October last season late in the game when the sides drew at Windsor Park.
It was Cliftonville’s first real big moment of the game as an attacking force. It almost won it for them.
From the resulting clearance, Cliftonville won the ball back and Curran had another go, controlling the ball and firing it low goalwards, but it went wide.
When you are sat at the opposite end, your view can be a bit deceiving. I thought it was going in, but in truth, there was never a danger of it.
Suddenly, Linfield were hanging on for a point in a game they could easily have been comfortably ahead in.
Hang on they did. It didn’t quite feel like a defeat, but it felt like something not good.
A point gained on the morning leaders, but they weren’t the night time leaders, overtaken by Larne.
Another draw against Cliftonville, six out of the last seven (although two of those were won on penalties by Linfield)
It continued a worrying trend against fellow Top 6 teams, two points from five games, and they were both 0-0 draws.
This game was there for the winning.
Too defensive and too scared.
You make your own luck in football, but Linfield aren’t doing enough to help themselves.
It wasn’t the worst 0-0 draw in history, and it wasn’t the worst result in the world. For one team, it will turn out to be a good draw. For another, it will be a bad draw. Linfield and Cliftonville will have to wait three weeks to find out which.
With the title race so tight, both Linfield and Cliftonville went on a winning run to pull away from Glentoran during March, the Glens starting the day four and five points behind Cliftonville and Linfield respectively.
Both sides were wary that a draw could potentially let Glentoran back into the title race.
However, as players were warming up, they were greeted with the news that Glentoran had lost 4-0 to Crusaders, meaning that victory would allow them to pull clear of not one, but two rivals
Even though they were playing at home, Cliftonville were still needing to get familiarised to their surroundings as this was their first home match since 4th March, and first home League match since 26th February.
There were a couple of players who played in both matches still involved, Jimmy Callacher (that match was his first start for Linfield) and Jamie Mulgrew for Linfield and Joe Gormley for Cliftonville. Niall Quinn didn’t play in that match but was a sub in this match. Martin Donnelly played for Cliftonville that day but was not involved for Linfield.
Curiously, this fixture has seemed to sync up with Everton facing Manchester United.
Saturday 23rd April in 2011 and 2016 saw wins for United and Linfield, while the opening weekend of October 2021 saw both games finish 1-1.
If you’re superstitious, Everton’s 1-0 win at lunchtime, will have made for a nervous afternoon, as if the afternoon wasn’t nervous enough already.
Linfield’s starting eleven showed four defender. Yes, 3-5-2 had been abandoned. There was no Jordan Stewart or Ethan Devine despite their goals at Warrenpoint last time out, but there was a (perhaps surprising) return for Christy Manzinga even though Linfield scored ten goals in the three games he missed through suspension.
In the early stages, Cliftonville were focusing on getting the ball out their left and it was working. They were having a lot of good build-up play and getting some speculative shots.
Even though they were speculative shots, it only takes one to get lucky.
Linfield were able to ride that out. It was inevitable given the table and the venue that Cliftonville would go for it from the start.
As they grew into the game, they had to make an early change when Stephen Fallon was injured. There are worse options to have on the bench than Jamie Mulgrew.
It looked like Linfield were going to make the vital breakthrough when some one touch passing split Cliftonville open with Christy Manzinga through on goal. Even though he was under pressure from a defender and Cliftonville’s keeper was rushing out, you were expecting him to score.
Unfortunately, Luke McNicholas was able to make himself big and make the save.
Chris McKee had two chances to score, first with a shot in the box that went over and then a header that was straight at Luke McNicholas.
Joe Gormley thought he was going to score when he got a clear view of goal, but the ball wouldn’t would sit right for him, having to strike towards goal which was straight at Chris Johns.
0-0 at half-time. Neither side playing great, neither side playing bad. The game was there to be won and both sides felt they could win, especially as they’d be attacking their own fans.
Joe Gormley would find himself frustrated twice in the early stages of the second-half. First when a lazy clearance fell perfectly for him but he fired over when you were expecting him to score. Then the ball fell to him in the box but Chris Johns made himself big to deny him.
With the game so balanced, it was time for Jordan Stewart, who came on for Chris McKee.
It was Christy Manzinga who had Linfield’s next big chance but he fired wide from a wide angle.
Jordan Stewart worked himself some space out wide and his cross eventually went just wide.
Stood centrally behind the goal, I could see it was going just wide. Those to the left and right of me were excitedly and prematurely getting ready to celebrate a goal.
One last substitution window for Linfield, and on came Ethan Devine with Linfield fans hoping he could provide some late heroics for the third time in four games.
With three substitutes available during this window, I would have hoped to have seen Jake Hastie come on, considering he has four assists in his last three appearances.
Cliftonville didn’t have too many clear chances but they are one of those teams and Solitude is one of those grounds where you just have a fear the ball will end up in the net as soon as they get into the final third.
If they could. More often than not, Cliftonville players were finding themselves getting tackled by Chris Shields if they even thought about running towards Linfield’s goal.
As the game looked like heading towards a 0-0 draw, Linfield got one last opportunity with a free-kick on the edge of Cliftonville’s penalty area in a central position.
Jordan Stewart lined up to take the kick and Solitude held it’s breath.
His free-kick went just wide of the post, and the final whistle blew, a 0-0 draw. Both sides pulling clear of Glentoran but not the two (Cliftonville) or four (Linfield) point lead that either side wanted to finish the day with.
Up next for Linfield is a home match against Glentoran and a great opportunity to put pressure on Cliftonville as they play first over this weekend. The only time it will happen in the split as both sides will be playing simultaneously during the last three matchdays.
Get at them from the start and there’s no reason why Linfield can’t win.
As a side note, a win would (barring a freak goal difference swing) secure European football, albeit not knowing what competition they’ll be playing in.
Talking of European football at Windsor Park, and Belfast has bid to host the 2023 European Conference Final.
It would be great to see, but i’m not too confident, as hosting the 2021 European Super Cup Final, Dublin hosting the 2024 UEFA Cup Final and Wembley hosting Finals and club and international level might work against the bid. Even if it is unsuccessful, let’s hope they try again, it is a game worth getting.
Even though neither city had bid for it, it would be great if Brighton or Edinburgh hosted the Final one year.
Talking, of Edinburgh, i’ll be heading there at the start of May to base myself there for a break to Central Scotland.
The post-split fixtures for the weekend i’m there are: Celtic v Hearts (I was really hoping Hearts would be at home as I haven’t been to Tynecastle since 2015), Hibs v Aberdeen and Livingston v St Johnstone.
Although, there may be Lower League Promotion Play-Offs for Partick Thistle, Queen’s Park and Edinburgh City.
Let’s hope there are no European Play-Offs for Linfield, but a straight ticket into the European Cup.
Well it keeps Cliftonville at arms length, five points away. The problem is, there are three teams in the title race, and one of them got a little bit closer to Linfield after they suffered their first cut of the Irish League Winter Bloodbath.
That last line might sound harsh, but draws can kill you. If Linfield had been able to get a goal and turn a 0-0 into a 1-0 at Glenavon and Portadown, they would be five points clear. Seven points would be the lead if they killed off Warrenpoint Town when 1-0 up in December. And don’t even start me on Boxing Day.
It was a point though that keeps Linfield on top with an outright lead. We won’t find out until May if it was one gained or two dropped.
Twenty-three and a bit years after an 11am kick-off with age restrictions on getting tickets, Linfield fans were able to make their way to Solitude like a normal League game. All it took was a Global Pandemic.
To be honest, if the old arrangements were in place, I would have given this game a miss. Can’t say I would have been keen to sit on a stationary bus for ages while waiting to be transported to Solitude.
In a strange way, I do miss my quirky little pre-match wait. Sitting about having a leisurely read of Shankill Extra picked up in Ballysillan Lesure Centre and having a browse through Iceland and having lunch in my lucky cafe.
After years of being dropped off outside the ground by bus, there was one obvious question I had never considered, where on earth is the away end? Such a simple question, but what is the name of the street? I’ve never had to know before.
I’m quite glad I don’t go to Solitude every week going by the endless rows of pre-match cars trying to get parked.
When you want to go somewhere, you end up using the strangest things as landmarks. For me, it was Centra. Don’t go right there, that’s for home fans, take the second next right.
The street in question is Cliftonville Drive, although a more appropriate name would be Cliftonville Park as that’s where Players and Officials go to park their cars. Might write a letter to Belfast City Council suggesting a change.
As Linfield were making their way into Solitude, they were digesting some interesting some interesting team news, with a start for Chris McKee and a place on the bench for Jordan Stewart just two weeks after getting a bad injury in the County Antrim Shield Final.
However, the bench was once again imbalanced with a lack of defenders. One day, Linfield will play a match with a fully balanced bench.
Linfield made a decent start to this game, and looked to get a perfect opportunity to make the most of it when Chris McKee went down in the box. No penalty was given despite screams from Linfield fans, although TV replays proved it to be a correct decision.
Despite having a lot of the ball, Linfield weren’t really doing much with it, not enough to break through Cliftonville’s defence.
After riding out Linfield’s start, Cliftonville came into the game, and took the lead just before the quarter hour when Linfield couldn’t clear the ball despite numerous attempts, and the ball fell perfectly for Jamie McDonagh to fire home low.
No need to panic, still plenty of time to go and there were goals in this Linfield team, but this was a bit of a pain in the arse.
Despite the fact there were goals on this Linfield team, they needed to do more with the ball, especially when set pieces weren’t being utilised.
Christy Manzina was looking lost and isolated every time he got the ball.
However, Linfield had 45 minutes attacking their own fans, and anything can happen in that situation.
A repeat of the last time they were 1-0 down at Solitude at half-time, in April 2017 would have been nice.
Commeth the hour, commeth the man, as Matthew Clarke headed home from a Mike Newberry cross, just seconds after I was moaning at him for standing out the right and getting in Jamie Mulgrew and Kirk Millar’s way as they were trying to work an opening. What do I know?
I even managed to get the goalscorer wrong, as I thought it was Jimmy Callacher at first.
In my defence, my view was such that I could only make out someone with a 6 on their back heading the ball into the back of the net, I naturally assumed it was Jimmy Callacher.
I was actually now hoping that Clarke had been given a three match ban for “Provocation of the General Public” on Boxing Day, just to laugh at the outrage of him scoring in a game he shouldn’t have been playing in.
Now Linfield had the momentum and had to make the most of it, push on and win the game. Just don’t do anything stu ………… oh for fu …….
Within minutes, Cliftonville were back in front, and it was a goal of Linfield’s own doing.
A stray pass from Mike Newberry, under no pressure, went straight to a Cliftonville player and one pass played in Jamie McDonagh through on goal, albeit a bit wide, but he had enough room to fire the ball low across Chris Johns and into the back of the net.
Having climbed back level, Linfield were now having to do it all again. An apt analogy considering there is a point in Cavehill where you can see Windsor Park and Solitude at the same time. You think you’re near the top but you realise there is still a long way to go.
Instead of looking to push on and win the game, Linfield were now looking to get back level again.
If the first scenario was calling for Jordan Stewart, the second most definitely was, even at this early stage.
There would be a wait for that, with Ethan Devine and Cameron Palmer entering the pitch first, before Stewart eventually joined the action.
It looked like Linfield were going to get a second equaliser with another Matthew Clarke header but an absolutely outstanding outstretched arm from Cliftonville’s keeper.
Eventually, Linfield got the goal they craved when a cross from Matthew Clarke was headed home by Ethan Devine to make it 2-2.
There was still enough time for Linfield to go on and win it, but not a lot of it to equalise if they repeated what they did after their first equaliser.
Thankfully, they didn’t do that, but they couldn’t get a goal at the other end to secure a dramatic comeback win.
Elsewhere, Glentoran secured a late win over Coleraine. If that game had finished a draw, you would have taken this as a good result. That late goal made it a bit deflating, even though Linfield were a point better off in terms of the gap at the top of the table than they were at the start of the month.
At least Linfield had managed to address goalscoring issues, scoring two or more in successive games for the first time since early December.
Pity about the two soft goals conceded, especially the second.
If Linfield had kept it 1-1, they might have went on and won the game. If they made it 2-2 earlier, they might have went on and won the game.