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.
October is probably too early for games to be described as “must-win”, but two defeats and two postponements meant that Linfield had a lot of catching up to do.
Three defeats, including two in their last three League games meant that Coleraine also had a lot of catching up to do.
Naturally, in a game neither side could afford to lose, they cancelled each other out and drew 0-0.
There are some football stats you could make up and people would believe it.
If I told you that the last twenty meetings between Coleraine and Linfield had finished 0-0, you would believe it. It’s just one of those fixtures.
This is a game that is convenient for me to travel by train.
Due to the Belfast to Derry Line only having an hourly service, it means you have a bit of a dilemma going to the game.
Leave at 1.10pm and you are cutting it fine for kick-off, especially as Coleraine have moved the away entrances to be further away from the Train Station.
I got the 11.10am train, which was 20 minutes late.
That would have been problematic if I had got the later train and experienced such a delay and missed part of the game.
In retrospect, that probably would have been a good thing. This was not a good match.
Coleraine had the first attacking moment of the game when a shot from Conor McDermott was easily saved.
Linfield’s first attacking moment of note came when a free-kick from Joel Cooper went just wide.
Coleraine’s next big attacking moment saw Matthew Shevlin stretching to get on the end of a cross to no success, while Stephen Fallon headed over for Linfield from a good position under pressure from Robbie McDaid, probably too eager to get a goal for himself.
Even at this early stage, it was hard to see where a goal was going to come for either team. This game had 0-0 written all over it.
Chris Johns was spending his afternoon catching crosses and not doing much else..
As the minutes ticked down, Stephen Fallon had a volleyed effort go just wide while Sam Roscoe had a header go well wide.
The most glaring question was, where were the subs?
Too little too late. The game was there to be one, but Linfield didn’t take the risk.
Attacking their own fans, if they had wave after wave of attacks, Coleraine would have capitulated.
I get that 4-5-1 has it’s merits in some games, but when the ground work is done, you have to go for it.
In the end, the verdict was the same for both teams, comfortable in defence but not enough up front.
This was the game where I learnt what a “Staggered egress” is. They couldn’t stop announcing it over the tannoy during the final 20 minutes.
Seemingly, Coleraine fans were kept behind to allow Linfield fans to leave.
Problem was, when you see how far the away exits are from Coleraine Train Station, it was all a bit pointless.
One of those announcements was being made as Linfield had an attacking free-kick with seconds remaining of injury time
It was all set up perfectly for Linfield to score and the away fans to start chanting “We’re not going home”.
Of course that was never going to happen, they couldn’t get home quick enough after a rather forgettable afternoon of football.
It was hoped that December’s football watching would begin at Lansdowne Road, but I had to make do with Coleraine Showgrounds. It doesn’t really matter where you watch your football as long as you’re watching Linfield win.
Although, Linfield did undo that with a draw at home to Warrenpoint Town the following Saturday.
And then, they made up for it by beating Larne away for the first time since 2008, and then beat Ballymena United to go top for the first time all season.
Before undoing that by drawing at home to Glentoran on Boxing Day.
This was a day where everything that could have went wrong did go wrong for Linfield as a first defeat in twelve games saw them knocked off the top of the table at the end of a first week of a potentially season defining month of games.
Linfield’s starting eleven raised a few eyebrows. The absence of Christy Manzinga meant a first start for Ethan Devine after two goals in two sub appearances.
There was also a start for Jordan Stewart just weeks after there were fears he could be out for months, while a welcome return to the bench for Conor Pepper at a time when numbers in defence in Coleraine.
Despite goals in recent weeks from Ethan Devine and Chris McKee, Linfield shouldn’t be relying on youngsters to lead the attack. It was a pity that Matt Green didn’t work out as he did the job he was brought in to do (cover suspensions, cup games and come in off the bench) and scored big goals in wins over Portadown, Glentoran and Dungannon.
Curiously, I followed a Vintage Shop in Belfast and browsed through their Instagram and got a bit of a shock when I saw him posing for photos in it on the week he signed for Linfield. How random.
I took an earlier train to this game in the hope of rummaging through some charity shops in Coleraine Town Centre, In one Vintage Shop, I was quoted £4 for a Coleraine v Tottenham Hotspur programme from 1982. There were about five or six copies lying in the shop so it’s not as if they could say it is hard to find.
Unsurprisingly, I declined the offer.
Back to the game, and Linfield had a lot of the ball at the start but didn’t really do much with it, It would become a theme throughout the game.
When Coleraine got their first attack, they made the most of it, winning a soft penalty for handball when the ball was fired at Ethan Devine from close range.
The resulting penalty was fired home by Lyndon Kane to give Coleraine the lead.
Not an ideal start, but Linfield had been here before, coming from 1-0 down to win at Coleraine at the start of the previous month.
The problem for Linfield was, they were too predictable, and Coleraine, like Cliftonville on Tuesday night, knew exactly what they had to do to defend against it.
Linfield’s predictability was causing them problems at the other end of the pitch, far too often trying to play it out from the back and unable to to cope with Coleraine’s pressing. Coleraine players knew what Linfield players were going to do, and as a result, knew what they needed to do.
It clearly wasn’t working, yet Linfield persisted with it.
Even their best attacking moments were just half chances. A header from Sam Roscoe, Stephen Fallon making a run but not being able to get the ball under control and Kirk Millar having a speculative low shot easily saved.
Despite that, Linfield knew they would be attacking their own fans in the second-half. And when they do that, no matter what the score or how the game has gone, they always have a chance.
It looked like they were going to level when the ball fell perfectly to Jordan Stewart in the box, in Linfield’s first real attacking moment of note.
However, he would be denied by a Coleraine defender throwing himself at the ball at the expense of a corner.
Despite having a lot of the ball, Linfield weren’t doing a lot with it. Coleraine were holding on but not hanging on.
Unsurprisingly, David Healy turned to the bench in search of a goal, with Chris McKee coming on for Kyle McClean.
There would be an even bigger mountain to climb on 76 minutes when Matthew Shevlin was able to create space and fire home low to make it 2-0.
The move for the goal came from lost possession, the second time in a week. Same player as well.
Linfield had been here before, in 2016 and 2019, coming from 2-0 down to beat Coleraine 3-2. Maybe it was a triennial thing?
Andrew Clarke and Conor Pepper came on in search of an unlikely comeback, as several fans headed for the exit.
Due to trains between Coleraine and Belfast only being once an hour, I had no choice but to stay as i’d already missed the 4.19pm train home.
Those that did leave early missed an incident that summed up the afternoon for Linfield.
A wind assisted corner kick, not quite in the same league as Stephen Beatty v Glenavon in 1994, looked like it might be giving Linfield hope, until Gareth Deane did just enough to keep the ball out when it looked like it was going in.
Naturally, the claims from Linfield were loud. I didn’t have the best view of it in the ground but having looked at the TV footage (not the best of angles), it didn’t look in to me.
Within seconds, a quick counter-attack from Coleraine saw Jamie Glackin make it 3-0.
From 1-2 and a bit of hope to 0-3 and defeat confirmed in a matter of seconds.
Elsewhere, unsurprising news filtered through that Glentoran had beaten Warrenpoint Town at The Oval to go two points clear at the top of the table despite losing twice as many matches as Linfield.
Draws can kill you in this League. On Tuesday night, it was a draw at Cliftonville that had Linfield top of the League, but now it was the reason they trailed Glentoran who won at Solitude earlier in the month.
A train trip to Dublin was what Linfield supporters were hoping for this weekend, but they ended up having to do the train trip to Coleraine that was originally scheduled. However, wins are fun wherever you get them, even if this one was the dictionary definition of grinding one out.
That train journey for me began at Great Victoria Street, in order to get a table. I seriously hope this new Belfast Transport Hub has wider platforms. While I was waiting to get onto my train, there were two trains getting off at the same platform, not a brain cell on board. People were expecting me to jump onto the tracks to give them room instead of walking around me.
Making it to Coleraine, to be greeted by the team news, surprise perhaps, of a first start of the season for Kyle McClean, in only his third appearance back after long-term injury.
It was a change that resulted in a change of formation for Linfield, from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3/4-5-1.
Linfield had the first opportunity of the game when a Ahmed Salam free-kick forced Gareth Deane into a save, while Christy Manzinga dispossessed a defender and ran towards goal but didn’t take the shooting opportunity when it was there.
Coleraine had their own opportunities, with Patrick Kelly creating space in the box to shoot, but Chris Johns was well placed to make a save.
Throughout the first-half, Linfield were sloppy in possession, giving it away too easily and cheaply, presenting Coleraine attacking opportunities.
It felt like it was only going to be a matter of time before Linfield gifted Coleraine a goal.
And so it proved. A corner resulting from an attack which started from cheaply lost possession was headed home by Rodney Brown to put Coleraine 1-0 up.
To say that going 1-0 down to a team unbeaten since August was not ideal was a bit of an understatement.
Linfield almost had an instant response when the ball was pulled back to Kyle McClean but he pulled his shot wide.
It almost got worse for Linfield when their defenders backed off Jamie Glackin and invited him to shoot, his shot going just wide.
Just as Linfield fans were feeling relived at going in at half-time only 1-0 down, the game swung in their side’s favour.
The ball fell to Kirk Millar after a challenge, and he was able to cut in an shoot, hitting the bar before the ball fell perfectly for Christy Manzinga to put the ball into the empty net, with Gareth Deane unable to get back into position after trying to save Millar’s shot.
It was Linfield’s first real attacking moment of quality, and it resulted in a goal. Barely deserved, but they’ll take it.
If Linfield fans were relieved to be going in at half-time level, things almost got better for them in the final minutes of the half, when a cross from Kirk Millar fell to Matthew Clarke went just over the bar.
The shot worried Gareth Deane enough to dive for it, his momentum lifting the netting up briefly and the ball almost ended up in the back of the net in unorthodox circumstances.
Older supporters were denied the opportunity to see Coleraine get their long await comeuppance for their ghost goal in the 1980s.
In the early minutes of the second-half, Linfield went in front when Stephen Fallon won possession and got space to shoot so decided to fire home from outside the box.
It took a while for the game to restart due to Coleraine players protesting about the goal.
I was stood on the Terrace between the Stand and the Shed where away fans were based, so I didn’t get a clear view of the goal. I couldn’t see what they were protesting so furiously about.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one, as people around me were confused as to what they were protesting about.
What the protest was about, was that Coleraine felt that the ball hit the Referee before Stephen Fallon got the ball.
Having reviewed the TV footage, I can’t see it. I’m not being biased, I just can’t see it. I do agree with Oran Kearney that the Referee’s positioning was poor in the incident.
Eventually, the game restarted. Thankfully, although I wasn’t quite starting to worry about not making the 5.19pm train home.
If it did hit the Referee, he would have known about it, and he wouldn’t have been slow in doing so, especially as there was a window of opportunity between Fallon getting the ball and scoring in which to do so.
Coleraine were spurred on by their perceived sense of injustice, going all out for an equaliser.
Matthew Shevlin, formerly of Linfield, was usually involved in that search, first of all, hitting the top of the bar from a header
Then, he looked set to benefit from Linfield’s own doing, almost losing possession on their own goal line when a backpass to Chris Johns was cleared under pressure from Jamie Glackin, falling perfectly to Shevlin.
It looked certain he was going to score, especially in the form he has been in this season, but he fired over. It was a let-off for Linfield.
Linfield weren’t helping themselves with their defending at times, but even when they did, they couldn’t clear the ball, with clearances being blown back towards their goal by the wind.
Yes, even the wind is against us. I’m writing an angry letter to Michael Fish about this.
The Coleraine chances kept coming, a header just over onto the roof of the net, while Chris Johns was forced to make himself big and save a shot from point blank range.
It wasn’t all one way traffic though, Linfield having attacking moments of their own. A lot of them were shots blocked just as they got into Coleraine’s final third.
The best of those attacking moments was a shot from Chris Shields which went just wide.
In the final minute of injury time, Coleraine had one last attempt at goal, a low speculative shot from outside the box which took a deflection. Just before you could moan about losing two points in such a cruel way, the ball landed safely in the arms of Chris Johns. No need to panic.
As we were now over the allotted amount of injury time, all Linfield had to do was clear the ball as far away from their own goal and that would be that.
If you want somebody to kick for touch in injury time and secure the win, who better than the son of an ex Rugby player.
And so it proved, the final kick of the game, securing the three points for Linfield.
It was a three points Linfield had to work very hard for. They were up for the challenge.
This was the sort of game that pundits say you look back on in May, but wins in November and December are worthless if they’re not followed up with wins in January, February and March.
You don’t really see the Irish League table take shape until 22 games in.
So far this season, it’s been the Top 6 all in close proximity to each other, but postponed games have meant we haven’t been able to see what the table truly looks like.
Crusaders are starting to get cut adrift after defeats to Ballymena United and Glenavon.
Linfield have now got a bit of a gap from Coleraine, but they will know from last season that they are a hard team to shake off.
However, it is Cliftonville who lead the table, although Linfield have a game in hand on them.
All they can do is keep winning to put the pressure on them. Up next, Warrenpoint Town at home.
October began with a disappointing trip to Seaview to see Linfield lose to Crusaders.
It got better the following Saturday, with a 4-1 win at Dungannon Swifts.
That was then followed by two quick trips to Windsor Park, to see Linfield beat Ballymena United 2-1, and then hammer Warrenpoint Town 7-0, before the month ended as it started, with a disappointing away defeat for Linfield, this time at Coleraine.