CLIFTONVILLE 3-2 LINFIELD 30.9.2017

I thought the days of Linfield blowing two goal leads against Cliftonville were over. Seemingly not, as they made a worrying return today at Solitude.

Linfield went into today’s game boosted by Glenavon’s draw on Friday night against Dungannon, where they could have went top with a win, the draw only putting them into third, one point behind Linfield.

Last weekend, Linfield pulled the gap to Coleraine to one point, today represented a chance to put pressure on Coleraine, and move seven points clear of Crusaders before they travel to The Oval on Monday night.

This was a return to the venue that Linfield won the title at last season. Linfield fans arriving will have been glad to have seen the hat-trick hero that day Andrew Waterworth out on the pitch, albeit only taking part in the warm-up as he continues his recovery from injury.

It was a slow start by Linfield, Cliftonville having a lot of possession but not doing a lot with it. That said, they had two situations where Mark Stafford was forced to take no chances and put the ball out for a corner.

The closest they came was from a quick counter-attack after a misplaced Linfield pass which saw Joe Gormley get enough space to shoot from the edge of the box, going just wide.

On 15 minutes, Linfield took the lead with their first attack of the game, Chris Casement found enough space after taking a throw in to cross for Aaron Burns to finish, in a repeat of his goal against Warrenpoint Town last week.

Having done nothing of note and then potting up with a goal, it was perhaps an apt goalscorer for Linfield, a thirs in four games for him.

Cliftonville’s defence had failed it’s first examination.

We were then treated to yellow card inconsistency from the referee, with three of Linfield’s midfield – Kirk Millar, Robert Garrett and Jamie Mulgrew walking on a yellow card tightrope, while Cliftonville players were being given final warnings for similar (and in some cases, worse) fouls.

Joe Gormley sliced a shot over, before getting in behind Linfield’s defence, only to be denied by a save from birthday boy (40 today) Roy Carroll.

In first-half injury time, Chris Casement had a free-kick go just wide as Linfield aimed to go in 2-0 up. They had to make do with 1-0. They should have been thankful for it.

It was a performance similar to their last visit to Solitude, although this time, they had a 1-0 lead this time.

Louis Rooney was replaced at half-time by teenage striker Ryan Strain. I can only presume it was due to an injury. Rooney didn’t have the best performance in the first-half, but he wasn’t bad enough to be taken off at half-time.

Strain was a busy player but suffered from isolation in a 4-5-1 instead of being part or a duo.

Joe Gormley soon had another shot that was easily saved by Roy Carroll. Linfield were still giving Cliftonville far too much encouragement.

Just before the hour, another susbtitution for Linfield, with Stephen Lowry coming on or Jordan Stewart. Too early to be so defensive, albeit there being an obvious benefit of having a centre midfielder not on a yellow card out there.

Midway through the second-half, Aaron Burns got enough space in the box with the ball, only to be fouled.

I shouted for a free-kick (in my defence, the line markings at Solitude aren’t the clearest) but TV replays proved it to be a penalty.

As well as Cliftonville had played, you felt a second goal for Linfield would kill the game.

Aaron Burns finished it, just about, as Cliftonville’s keeper got a hand on it, to make it 2-0 for Linfield.

Despite that setback, Cliftonville were straight on the attack, trying to get back into the game. It was soon clear that Linfield might need a third just to be sure of the three points.

David Healy then turned to his bench, bringing on Andrew Mitchell for Kirk Millar. Another defensive minded sub when the obvious player to bring on was Ross Clarke.

You don’t have to fill the pitch with defensive players to defend a lead, as Healy struggles to fit four centre midfielders into his team.

On 80 minutes, Cliftonville got back into the game when Chris Curran fired home from outside the box. The last ten minutes were more nervous than they should have been.

Strangely, despite all their possession and chances (all bar one of Carroll’s saves were ones you would expect him to make), Cliftonville had never looked like scoring, with Linfield doing a lot of clearing and blocking but doing enough to get rid of the danger.

On 85 minutes, Jay Donnelly got enough space in the box to head home. You could see his run a mile off (literally, from the away end at the other end of the pitch) but nobody on the pitch did. It was now two dropped points.

Cliftonville went in search of a winner and were denied by a Mark Stafford header on the line.

The resulting corner wasn’t cleared properly by Linfield, a cross being headed home by Garry Breen to win it for Cliftonville.

Linfield responded by going forward in search for a third goal, something they should have done ten or twenty minutes earlier. It was too little too late. They never looked like scoring once they went behind, as Linfield paid the price for being too defensive, and throwing the points away against a team who were there for the taking.

It was a game Linfield should have seen out. Curiously, it was another defeat against a team beginning with C. The last League defeat against a team who didn’t start with C was against Portadown in February 2016.

They’d better remedy that soon, as their next two League games are against teams beginning with C.

Elsewhere today, Coleraine won at Ballymena to open up a four point lead at the top of the table, the first time this season they’ve had what you would consider to be a significant lead.

Crusaders didn’t play today, as they play Glentoran on Monday night on Sky Sports. I’m hoping for a draw in that game. I might watch it, but there is a documentary about Paddington Station on Five at the same time.

Next Saturday, sees the top four inactive as Linfield (and Glenavon as a result, as they were due at Windsor Park) and Crusaders in Scottish Challenge Cup action, while Coleraine’s match against Ballinamallard has been postponed due to international call-ups.

That last one is a stroke of luck, as it denies Coleraine the chance to open up a seven point lead at the top of the table before Linfield visit on October 14th.

That is followed by a free Saturday as the home match against Crusaders has been put back to Monday 23rd to be broadcast on Sky Sports.

Now would be a good time to remedy the problem of playing against teams beginning with C ahead of the games against Oleraine and Rusaders.

Before then, is two cup games, against Ballinamallard in the League Cup and Dundee United in the Scottish Challenge Cup, both away.

I won’t be at Ballinamallard or Dundee. I would have loved to have gone to Dundee but the flights back on the Sunday are just too expensive. Oh well, I guess Stranraer away in the next round will make up for it (positive thinking)

Since the last blog I wrote, Windsor Park was in the running to host the 2019 European Super Cup Final. It didn’t win. it was awarded to Besiktas ground. Booo.

Talking of European hosting and all that, Cardiff has entered the running to host finals games due to problems with the new stadium in Brussels. One to keep an eye on for me, even though I have an eye on going to games in Dublin and Glasgow.

And that neatly links into the new competition set up by UEFA called the UEFA Nations League, due to take place in 2018-2019.

It sounds like UEFA had a pot party and somebody went “Wouldn’t it be like, cool man, is, like there was a League for international teams?”

Northern Ireland look set to be in League B, AKA The Championship.

Call me a cynic, but I can’t see this having a long term future, especially with the calendar having to be rearranged due to the 2022 World Cup being held in Winter.

It looks like something to fill up the summer calendar in the years when there isn’t a World Cup, European Championship or Confederations Cup.

The game against Crusaders being moved for Sky means the County Antrim Shield match against Ards has been put back to Monday 30th, meaning we play them twice in forty-eight hours.

It means i’ve gone from missing it due to going to OMD to missing it to going to Liam Gallagher.

A few weeks back, Sunday Life doorstepped a Celtic fan from Portadown who tried to attack a PSG player a few weeks back.

Like with the Linfield fan in July, that behaviour is out of order and not in any public interest. Report on his charge, report on his sentencing and punishment, but there’s no need to harrass someone going about their business.

Back to today, a setback but not a disaster, but improvements must be made, and that would have been the way even if we won.

However, win the next two games, the worst that will happen will be that we are one point behind Coleraine and four behind Crusaders and all will be well.

We hope.

Photo Album

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : NI FOOTBALL – WINTER 2008

David Healy is the cover star as he gives an interview to NI Football during the Winter of 2008.

In news, Martin Donnelly of Crusaders wins Player Of The Month, Roy Coyle celebrated his retirement at a dinner attended by Howard Kendall, and Brendan Rodgers has just been appointed manager of Watford.

Elsewhere in news, David Healy has just launched his own DVD.

Keith Gillespie gets interviewed having just joined Charlton Athletic on loan from Sheffield United.

Also getting a profile is Jonny Evans, having just broken into the Manchester Untied team in the early months of 2008-2009.

Glentoran had just reached the final of the Setanta Cup, losing narrowly to Cork City, 2-1, and this match gets a full page review.

David Healy gets a double page interview, revealing that Jonny Evans could be Norther Ireland’s key player during World Cup Qualification.

Healy’s strike partner at international Kyle Lafferty gets profiled, after enduring a difficult opening months to his career at Rangers.

Another player getting profiled at a new club is George McCartney, although he is in his second spell at Sunderland.

Steven Robinson has just announced his retirement aged 33, and is profile after taking a job with the IFA coaching underage teams.

There is a profile of another 33 year old making his mark in coaching, recently appointed Coleraine manager David Platt.

There is a full page profile of Linfield player Paul Munster, who has returned to Northern Ireland after spending time playing in Sweden, Czech Republic and Canada.

There is a double page profile on the comparisons between set-ups in the Irish League and League Of Ireland.

At Junior Level, there are club profiles of Killymoon Rangers, Lurgan Celtic and Newington.

Staying in North Belfast, there is a feature on Cliftonville, who have just won the County Antrim Shield.

 

MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : TOTAL FOOTBALL – SUMMER 2004

Three models in the kits of England, Northern Ireland and Wales is the cover image of Total Football, with all three home nations in the same World Cup Qualifying Group starting in a few months.

In news, the Northern Ireland team have announced a kit supplier deal with Umbro, and a sponsorship deal with Nationwide.

There is a profile of new Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez and the impact he has already had in his first three games in charge.

There is a profile of Irish League referee Andi Regan, as she gets ready to head to Greece to officiate at the Olympic Games football tournament.

Having just made his debut for Southampton, Alan Blayney gets profiled where he reveals he had spent a period of time training with Glentoran the previous year after suffering from homesickness.

Another player leaving Glentoran for full-time football in England was Andy Smith, who had just signed for Preston North End, and he gets a full page profile.

The models in the cover make a reappearance as they review the new kits of both local and national sides.

Getting ready for a second season of top flight football, Ballymena United manager Kenny Shiels gets interviewed.

Over the page is an interview with Loughgall manager Jim Gardiner, as the club gets ready for their first season of top flight football.

In news, Linfield have announced a shirt sponsorship deal with Umbro to run alongside their kit supplier deal.

Linfield are one of three clubs, the others being Glentoran and Portadown, whose upcoming European ties get previewed in a double page feature.

There is a double page feature with new Cliftonville manager Liam Beckett as he gets to grips with the job at Solitude.

The magazine ends with a preview of the Milk Cup.

PHOTO OF THE SEASON : 2016-2017

So, the 2016-2017 season is over for me. I hope you’ve enjoyed my photographic look back at the season just gone.

I’ve selected some of my favourites, so feel free to vote for the one you like the best.

POLSKA

Taken back in June 2016 at Northern Ireland v Poland, I like the composition, how everyone is fixated on the action at the other end of the pitch, and the colour co-ordination of both sets of fans.



WILGAR

Taken at a pre-season game between Linfield and Dundela, it captures the joys of going to football matches in pre-season, sunshine and relaxation ahead of the hard slog ahead.



SEAVIEW

I like the framing of this, as the crowd is in position, awaiting kick-off in a big match.



CELEBRATION

Linfield fans celebrating Jimmy Callacher’s winner against Glentoran in October. I just like this for some reason other than the obvious.

PALMERSTON

There’s just something about the architecture of old football grounds that does it for me. This is out of use turnstiles at Palmerston Park, home of Queen of the South.

APPEAL

Linfield fans appeal in unison, all making the same hand gestures, for a goal to be allowed. The goal was disallowed for a foul.



ELF

Taken at the Steel and Sons Cup Final. Some people like getting dressed up for Christmas.

GAYNOR

I like the composition of this, from Ross Gaynor’s posture, to substitutes chatting to each other while the game goes on.

UNITED

I like the composition of this, all eyes fixated on the penalty area and the incoming corner.

SPOT THE BALL

I like the composition of this shot, it looks like a Spot The Ball image, except that the ball is in the shot, with two players getting ready for an aerial tussle.



COLERAINE

I love the framing and seeing players in the background running to join the celebrations.

WATERWORTH

Celebrations after Andrew Waterworth’s second goal against Cliftonville, capturing the joy of the event and the achievement just about to happen.

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : APRIL

April’s football watching began in Lurgan on the first day of the month, heading to Mourneview Park to see Linfield beat Dungannon Swifts 1-0 in a Irish Cup Semi-Final.

The following week, was another 1-0 win for Linfield, this time at Windsor Park in a key title decider against Crusaders.

Easter arrived in the middle of the month, and a double header of wins for Linfield, against Ballymena United and Glenavon.

The following Saturday, I headed Coleraine to see Linfield win 5-1 and go top of the League for the first time all season, with just one game to go.

That game was at Solitude, which Linfield won, and I captured the post match celebrations, as well as the celebrations later that day at Windsor Park.

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

Ballymena United v Linfield

Linfield v Glenavon

Coleraine v Linfield

Cliftonville v Linfield

Cliftonville v Linfield Photo Album

Windsor Park Title Celebrations

Windsor Park Title Celebrations Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : MARCH

March’s football watching began for me at Seaview, watching Linfield put Crusaders out of the Irish Cup.

There was a bit of a wait until my next match of the month as Linfield’s home match against Cliftonville was put back to the Monday night for live TV coverage.

I was back at Windsor Park the following Saturday, as Ards were the visitors.

The month ended with two games in the one weekend – Linfield’s long trip to Ballinamallard, and Norway’s even longer trip to Northern Ireland for a World Cup Qualifier.

Crusaders v Linfield

Linfield v Cliftonville

Linfield v Ards

Ballinamallard United v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Norway

Northern Ireland v Norway Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : NOVEMBER

November got off to a dramatic start, as I headed to Mourneview Park to see nine man Linfield come from 2-0 down to get a late draw against Glenavon.

I was back on the road a few days later to Ballymena to see Linfield record a 4-1 in win.

Up next was a trip to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland record a 4-0 win over Azerbaijan, before continuing Linfield’s road trip with a 4-0 over Dungannon Swifts before a midweek date at Windsor Park for Northern Ireland’s last game of 2016, a 3-0 friendly defeat against Croatia.

I was back at Windsor Park for Linfield’s only home game of the month, a 2-1 defeat to Cliftonville.

The following weekend, I went to see my first and second games at Old Trafford with Jose Mourinho as United manager, doing a double header of games against Feyenoord and West Ham United, with a trip to Bury (via Broadhurst Park) sandwiched inbetween.

As a bonus, I even got pictures of stickers left around Manchester by Feyenoord fans.

Glenavon v Linfield

Ballymena United v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan

Northern Ireland v Azerbaijan Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Croatia

Northern Ireland v Croatia Photo Album

Linfield v Cliftonville

Manchester United v Feyenoord

Manchester United v Feyenoord Photo Album

Feyenoord Stickers

Bury v Millwall

Bury v Millwall Photo Album

Broadhurst Park

Manchester United v West Ham United

Manchester United v West Ham United Photo Album

MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : NORTHERN IRELAND FOOTBALL – SPRING 2007

Dean Shiels is the cover star of Northern Ireland Football, as he has made a comeback after having an eye removed in early 2006.

In news, Mark Clyde of Wolves and Northern Ireland has had to announce his retirement at the age of 24 due to a succession of injuries.

At Burnley, Michael Duff and Kyle Lafferty have signed new deals that will keep them at the club until 2010.

Dean Shiels gets a full page interview, having made a comeback for both club and country, looking forward to a Scottish League Cup Final for Hibs against Kilmarnock.

Alan Shearer was recently in Belfast to present awards to Glenn Ferguson, Peter Thompson and Darren Kelly on behalf of Umbro.

Darren Murphy spills the beans on his Ballymena United team-mates, revealing that Mark Picking has the worst taste in music.

David Jeffrey gets a two page profile as he celebrates ten years as manager of Linfield.

The 2007 edition of the Setanta Cup has just kicked off, and a full page feature looks at the success of the competition so far.

Grant McCann gets profiled, as he hopes to get game time in Northern Ireland’s upcoming European Championship Qualifiers against Leichtenstein and Sweden.

The recent friendly against Wales, a 0-0 draw at Windsor Park, gets a full page picture special.

Meanwhile, the Irish Cup has announced a new sponsor, JJB Sports.

Northern Ireland’s Women are also in European Qualifying action, kicking off with an away game against England in May 2007.

Cliftonville get a double page profile, having just won the County Antrim Shield.

Across Belfast, there is a feature of Peter Thompson, Michael Gault and Paul McAreavey, who are settling into life as full-time professionals based in the Irish League, as they adjust to no longer having to combine playing with a full-time job.

McAreavey was selected for an Irish League Select XI who defeated the English Conference 3-1 at Mourneview Park.

Colin Murray and Neil Lennon were recently in Belfast to present the Football For All Awards.

CLIFTONVILLE 1-3 LINFIELD 29.4.2017

With 37 out of 38 games of the Irish League season completed, there were still some things that needed to be decided.

Portadown’s relegation had been confirmed, as had Coleraine’s qualification for the UEFA Cup. We knew who would be playing in the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, but not who would be playing who. Most importantly, the league title was still up for grabs.

On thing was guaranteed, that the title would be won in North Belfast. Linfield fans were hoping that the trophy would not be staying there as their side headed to Solitude looking to win the League for the first time since 2012.

The maths was simple, all they had to do was avoid defeat. If they did lose, they would be hoping that Crusaders would fail to beat Glenavon.

You could say that the venue was apt. The last time Linfield had entered the field as League Champions was in April 2013. The fans who arrived at Solitude did so hoping that things would now go full circle.

Cliftonville fans had a sense of deja vu going into this game. They’re used to seeing the title won in the flesh. As well as their side’s successes in 2013 and 2014, Glentoran (2009), Linfield (2010, theoretically in 2011) and Crusaders (theoretically in 2015, 2016) win the league against them.

The omens were good for Linfield. I was travelling on my own (We’ve lost the three times my dad has went) and I had my lucky scarf with me. I bought it from a charity shop last November, and Linfield have won all but one of the games i’ve had it with me. That game was a draw with a last minute equaliser.

Just to be sure, I went and had lunch at the same place on Oldpark Road I had lunch in before the 3-0 Irish Cup win at Solitude last season. This was not a day to leave things to chance.

If the Irish League was a TV show, we were treated to a reintroduction of a former character ahead of the series finale, in the shape of Tommy Breslin (assisted by Peter Murray) being appointed Cliftonville interim manager for the remaining two, possibly three games of the season. Crusaders fans were hoping this would result in one final plot twist.

Paul Smyth was serving a one match ban meaning there would be one change to Linfield’s starting line-up. The general consensus was that Kirk Millar would come in and replace him. David Healy sprung a surprise by bringing in Mark Stafford, moving Mark Haughey to right-back and pushing Chris Casement to right-midfield.

It was a move designed at countering Cliftonville, though it wouldn’t be as if Chris Casement would be spending the game in his own half.

It wasn’t just Linfield’s starting eleven that raised eyebrows. The faces on Linfield’s bench were just as much of a pre-match talking point as the new faces on Cliftonville’s.

Joining Millar on the bench was Cameron Stewart, back after injury, and Gareth Deane, a rare occasion that David Healy named a goalkeeper on the bench.

The game got off to a slow start. Mark Haughey had Linfield’s first attacking moment of note when he shot from a wide position when a cross looked a better option.

Within a minute, Cliftonville won a corner. A few minutes earlier, they had a corner, and every player was tightly man marked and the best they could get was a speculative header from a wide angle that went well wide.

This time, they changed it, taking a short corner, and caught Linfield out, with Daniel Hughes finding enough space in the box to head home.

It got worse for Linfield. By this point, Crusaders were already 1-0 up against Glenavon. As things stood, the title was heading to Seaview. Linfield were Heartsing it.

It was so important for Linfield not to concede early on. Not just to stop giving Crusaders encouragement in their own fixture.

In recent years, there have been very few occasions when the team who scored first has lost. Linfield hadn’t come from behind to beat Cliftonville in the League since 2011. They hadn’t come from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville in the League since 2005. In that same time, Cliftonville only had wins at Windsor Park in 2012 and 2014 where they had come from behind.

All that Linfield could offer in response was a Matthew Clarke cross that evaded everybody. Cliftonville almost made it 2-0 when Roy Carroll had to tip around a goalbound Chris Curran shot. Linfield were playing so bad that their fans were hoping they could go in at half-time only 1-0 down.

Despite that, Linfield had one big moment in the first-half, their only moment of quality attacking play which saw Andrew Waterworth get free in the box to get on the end of a cross, only to head wide. Well wide. He really should have scored.

Linfield went in at half-time, a half which had a ridiculous lack of injury time considering how long Cliftonville took at set pieces, 1-0 down. A vast improvement was needed.

There were mixed emotions in the away end. Some felt that their side was going to blow it at the final hurdle. We all knew, that when Linfield attack a goal with their fans behind it, that anything was possible.

Linfield needed a quick response in the second-half.

Their first attack saw Niall Quinn almost get in behind Cliftonville’s defence. He caused enough panic for Cliftonville to concede a corner.

From that corner, Mark Stafford headed across goal and it fell perfectly for Andrew Waterworth to fire home from close range.

In truth, I barely saw it. All I saw was players celebrating and fans going wild and limbs all over the shop. Those really are the best goals.

As it stood, Linfield would be champions, but there would be no margin for error.

A few minutes later, Waterworth got the ball in a wide position, advanced into the penalty area, creating enough space to fire home and make it 2-1. It looked like there would be a plot twist on the last day, but the twist was in Linfield’s favour.

It then looked like Waterworth was going to get a hat-trick as he set himself up to shoot from a few yards out, a foul by Chris Ramsey denied him. The referee awarded a penalty, and a red card to Ramsey.

It was Linfield’s seventh penalty in ten matches, four in the last three. Who would take it was up for debate. Logic dictated that Aaron Burns would take it having scored in his last two games. He was denied a second penalty against Coleraine due to being subbed when it was awarded.

However, Andrew Waterworth wanted a hat-trick, and nobody was going to tell him he wasn’t taking the penalty. He put the ball in the net to make it 3-1.

I thought he had panenkaed it. TV replays suggested he scuffed it. Things were going his way, he probably could have farted the ball into the net.

It was the third successive game that Linfield had a quick flurry of goals. Against Glenavon, they went from 0-0 to 3-0 in fifteen minutes. Against Coleraine, they went from 0-1 to 3-1 in seven minutes.

Against Cliftonville, it was 0-1 to 3-1 in thirteen minutes.

This is a Linfield team that gets on top and goes for it, showing no mercy to opponents and kills the game when they are on top, and doesn’t give rivals an opportunity to get back into the game.

They wanted more goals. Aaron Burns couldn’t adjust his body to score when the ball fell onto his right foot, while Chris Casement fired over from outside the box.

David Healy then turned to his bench, bringing on Cameron Stewart for Aaron Burns, his first appearance since injury in March.

It was a good day to be a Stewart in Belfast (isn’t every day?) with Liam Stewart winning a medal at the Ice Hockey World Championship at The Odyssey later that day.

It is unclear if his dad Rod stopped by at Solitude before heading to The Odyssey, having got a guided tour of the ground in 2013.

It was too early a kick-off to say that Tonight’s The Night for Linfield, but it certainly was the day, as Cliftonville never looked like scoring or making an unlikely comeback.

Kirk Millar then came on for Chris Casement while Sean Ward came on for Andrew Waterworth, who unsurprisingly got a standing ovation after Van Persieing Linfield to the title.

Waterworth was one of seven David Jeffrey signings (not including Chris Casement, who was originally signed by Jeffrey, then re-signed by Healy) in Linfield’s starting eleven.

They had all been through the lean years together.

That stat isn’t designed to take away from David Healy’s achievement. He’s taken Jeffrey’s players, he’s taken Warren Feeney’s players, and added his own, and turned them into title winners.

Much will be made of the gap Linfield closed down from mid February onwards, but it shows what Healy has added.

Linfield surrended the title too quickly and too easily in 2014 and 2015. The day the title was won, Linfield lost on those days. They didn’t push their opponents all the way.

Even when Crusaders went eight points clear in April last year, Linfield kept on winning (wining their four final games by an aggregate of 12-0) and made Crusaders have to win the title.

This year, Linfield did the same. They issued a challenge to Crusaders and never gave up. They got their reward.

Any time over the previous four seasons, Linfield would have lost this game. They would have lost at Coleraine. They would have conceded a late equaliser at home to Crusaders. They would have lost at Ballinamallard.

Not this season, not this Linfield team.

I was under the impression that any trophy presentation would take place at Windsor Park later in the day, I was caught by surprise when a podium was starting to be erected.

I thought it was just for celebration photos to get the sponsor’s logo in.

It was a nice surprise to see the Gibson Cup at Solitude, ready to be presented.

The podium almost blew over in the wind. It gave us all a laugh.

Talking about the presentation, it was great that it took place close to Linfield’s fans, meaning that fans could get close to the ceremony.

I appreciate that the arrangements were different due to being at an away ground, but a big complaint about Windsor Park presentations were that they took place in the centre circle, far away for fans to see.

Hopefully, should Linfield win the League in future and be presented with the trophy at Windsor Park, the presentation will take place closer to the stands.

Elsewhere this week, new air routes from Belfast were announced. They were mostly sunbathing places with no real football teams of note. Naples stuck out though.

Those of us of a certain age will feel a romantic nostalgia to Napoli. Maradona, Careca, that sky blue top sponsored by Mars.

Plus, there are murals of Maradona in Naples.

I’m already dreaming of a trip to Naples. I’m not booking one in the immediate future though.

These results confirmed the Semi-Finals of the European Play-Offs as Ballymena United v Dungannon Swifts and Cliftonville v Glenavon. I’m glad that Linfield aren’t taking part in this ridiculous charade.

Hopefully, natural justice will prevail, and 4th place Ballymena win in, just like 4th place Cliftonville did last year.

Ideally, either Ballymena or Dungannon for me. Mainly because they’ll play home games at Seaview, which would be convenient for me to attend if they draw a team in the 102 Club list.

These games will take place on Monday 8th May and Friday 12th May.

I can’t see why they can’t be accommodated on Sunday 7th May and/or Saturday 13th May. Weekend dates will be more convenient to fans of competing clubs, and might even attract some neutrals.

Talking of Play-Offs, Ballyclare and Institute meet to face Carrick for the last spot in next season’s top flight. I’ve no particular favour to any of the three teams regarding who goes up.

The second leg of Carrick’s game will also be on Friday 12th May. Surely it could have been on a different date from the European Play-Off in order to make it a standalone event in terms of unique media coverage.

It’s looking like Linfield will start next season in late June in the First Round of the European Cup. 26th May 2018 in Kiev if you’re optimistic and into forward planning.

Hopefully, a tie against a team from San Marino, Andorra or Malta. More than winnable.

Playing European games on Tuesday and Wednesday will also be convenient in terms of arranging Saturday friendly games inbetween, as opposed to playing on a Thursday.

Pre-season friendlies can wait, 2016-2017 is still ongoing.

It’s already been good. It could end up great.

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LINFIELD 2-0 CLIFTONVILLE 13.3.2017

In their last league matchday, Linfield reduced Crusaders lead at the top to seven points. They kicked-off against Cliftonville, a side they have lost twice to this season in the league, looking to keep that lead at seven points following Crusaders expected win over Carrick Rangers on Saturday.

The reason why Linfield were playing two days later than Crusaders was that this match was moved for live broadcast on Sky Sports, though with the counter attraction of Chelsea v Manchester United on the BBC, there were probably more people in the ground watching it than watching it on TV.

It’s great that the Irish League is getting this exposure, and we know it’s to fill gaps on FA Cup and International weekends, but Sky should have held off until the FA Cup TV games were confirmed before scheduling this.

It never stood a chance against Chelsea v United, it might have done better when slotted against Brighton v Derby on the Friday.

No doubt there were quite a lot of people in both stands keeping an eye on events at Stamford Bridge. I overheard someone behind me saying that United would take a replay, obviously unaware that FA Cup Quarter-Finals are played to a finish from this season onwards, when Ander Herrera was sent-off.

Even if supporters had an eye on Chelsea v United, Linfield players had to focus on the task in front of them, getting three points to keep the pressure on Crusaders, against a Cliftonville team in a rotten run of form. They were there for the taking, Linfield had to go out and take them.

February and March have been defining months for Cliftonville in recent years, winning runs setting up title successes in 2013 and 2014, while poor runs of form have caused damage to them in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

From the outside, it appears their players have given up following their Irish Cup exit and are fulfilling fixtures ahead of the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, just like last season. The worrying thing for them is, they exited the Irish Cup two rounds earlier this season.

However, Cliftonville’s concerns are not my concerns.

For most of the season, Linfield have been in a sandwich – trying to keep up with Crusaders in front while trying to keep clear of Cliftonville behind them. An eleven point lead at kick-off meant that Linfield had stopped worrying about Cliftonville overtaking them a long time ago,

I arrived at Windsor Park, as I do for most weeknight matches, in a totally shitty mood, after navigating the street from hell known as Elgantine Avenue.

This is a street where the residents have just enough brain power to order a taxi, but not enough to be ready when the taxi comes, meaning that taxis are just parked in the middle of the street, and you have to go around them to get past.When you get to the end of the street, there are the never ending red lights.

The residents and taxi drivers can collectively just fuck right off. Fuck the fucking lot of them.

I arrived at Windsor Park to see signing in the South Stand depicting Linfield glory days past and more recent, such as the County Antrim Shield win last month, the expectant crowd hoping that more glorious images will be added over the coming months,

Cliftonville began the match like a team on a rotten run of form, being defensively nervous and giving away cheap possession when under no or little pressure.

Gradually, Linfield took control of the game, the first chance coming when a low Jamie Mulgrew shot was saved by Jason Mooney, while Mark Haughey got in front of Mooney from a cross but couldn’t direct his header in.

Some Linfield fans, dependent on their view, thought it had gone in and began celebrating. Cliftonville fans ironically cheered the premature celebrations. It was the only cheer they had all night.

Recent meetings between the two sides suggested that the first goal would be vital. You have to go back to September 2012 for the last time a team came from behind (Cliftonville at Windsor Park) to win, while Linfield’s last come from behind win was January 2011. You have to go back to April 2005 for the last time Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville.

For clarification, those stats refer to League matches, Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville in a County Antrim Shield match in October 2015.

Linfield got the breakthrough midway through the first-half when a penalty was awarded for a handball by Chris Ramsey. Stephen Lowry stepped up to make it four penalties out of four in the past month and a bit to put Linfield 1-0 up.

That lead almost disappeared soon afterwards when Mark Haughey got caught in possession in his own penalty area to concede a penalty.

Jay Donnelly put the ball wide from the resulting spot kick.

Linfield were in the mood to make Cliftonville pay for their generousity. Cameron Stewart almost made it 2-0 but his shot hit the post.

As the half neared it’s end, Linfield made it 2-0 when Jason Mooney dropped a cross and, after a bit of a scramble, Andrew Waterworth fired home from close range.

Now, i’ve seen Cliftonville fans online complaining about Mooney’s performances, but it really needs to be seen in the flesh how bad he is. He was actually much worse than they said he was.

At one corner, he caught the ball unchallenged, then held it and dropped it. It’s a pity no Linfield players were alert enough to take advantage. They really should have been, considering how bad he was playing.

He even manage to drop kick the ball out for a throw-in on the halfway line. Linfield fans were running low on sympathy for him.

This performance from October is truly astounding. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact it gifted Crusaders three points.

Cliftonville started the second-half having a lot of the ball but not doing much with it. Despite that, Linfield were giving them too much encouragement and needed to quickly improve.

It soon became clear that Cliftonville never looked like scoring no matter how much of the ball they had. Linfield’s full-backs were their most worked defensive players, and that was juts shepherding the ball out for a throw or a goal kick.

Despite recent memories of blowing two goal leads to draw against Cliftonville, Linfield fans were relaxed at 2-0 up. Despite that, they would have preferred their team to make it 3-0.

Mark Stafford thought he did it, but his header hit the post, before a spectacular effort went wide later of.

Mark Haughey had a goal disallowed. There was a bit of confusion as to why. It was either offside against Andrew Waterworth who crossed it, or the ball went out of play before he crossed it. I haven’t seen a TV replay of it yet.

Paul Smyth was running the show for Linfield, and it was no surprise when he was announced as the Man Of The Match.

Up next is a home match against Ards. If we win that, the gap is cut to four, and an opportunity to put pressure on Crusaders before they play on Sky next Monday against Ballinamallard.

If we win all our games, we only need Crusaders to slip up twice. It’s not that inconceivable.

Meanwhile, I got myself a ticket for the Irish Cup Semi-Final against Dungannon on April 1st. Having Ticketmaster is handy, but it should never be the only option. It’s good that the club are able to sell tickets as well to compliment this.

I decided to be a hero and get mine at Monday lunchtime as I work in the City Centre, leaving Windsor Park tickets for those who find it more convenient to get from there, instead of getting one at this match.

Staying at Windsor Park, a new Education and Heritage Centre was opened last week. It’s a Museum. Let’s just call it what it is. I’m hoping to get a chance to visit this soon, though it won’t be immediately soon.

Roy Carroll has been called-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the match against Norway. Hopefully, a deal can be done to allow him to play against Ballinamallard the day before. We only win at Ballinamallard when i’m there, and i’m not sure if I could get to a midweek match.

And finally, the post split fixtures have been confirmed. For Linfield, it is :

H Crusaders (8th April)
A Ballymena United (15th April)
H Glenavon (18th April)
A Coleraine (22nd April)
A Cliftonville (29th April)

Going to be some fun trying to get a ticket if the title race goes to the last day. On the plus side, if Cliftonville’s slide continues, there may be plenty of spaces in the home end that day.

Despite a seven point deficit to make up, things are looking up for Linfield fans. And it just gets better, up next is a Saturday 3pm match at home.

Remember when Linfield played home matches at 3pm on a Saturday? Don’t blame you if you don’t, it’s only our second of 2017.

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