The first weekend of March 2022 saw me visit Carrick to see Linfield win a rearranged game, then the following morning, head up Cavehill.
Then the rest of the month was Linfield matches, against Ballymena United, Crusaders, Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town.
With the match against Warrenpoint Town being a lunchtime kick-off and the weather being nice, I decided to head to Warrenpoint Beach for some photos. I also headed to Carlingford, but I didn’t get any photos there though.
The month ended with my first Northern Ireland match in over two years, the friendly at home to Hungary.
Another clean sheet and another game unbeaten, but a frustrating draw at home to Crusaders meant that Linfield’s revival suffered one step back after making a lot of steps forward.
Linfield suffered a blow with the absence of Kirk Millar, alongside the already absent Joel Cooper and Jordan Stewart, which meant they had no natural wingers, having to resort to 3-5-2 with Matthew Clarke and Daniel Finlayson playing as wingbacks, literally having to make the most of who was available.
Linfield had a lot of the ball in Crusaders final third in the opening minutes, but not really doing much with it. An all too familiar tale.
With this game being a 5.30pm kick-off, the narrative of this game was always going to be dictated by scores elsewhere.
Larne losing 2-0 at home to Coleraine on Friday night will have been noted by both clubs, knowing that this game presented an opportunity to cut the gap on Larne.
When there are five teams in a title race, you can’t just worry about Larne. With Cliftonville (v Newry) and Glentoran (v Portadown) winning their 3pm kick-offs as expected, three points were needed to keep up with them as well.
It was Crusaders who had the first attempt on goal, with Sam Roscoe forced into a block of a goalbound shot.
Linfield were then dealt an injury blow when Stephen Fallon went off injured when trying to get an attack going.
I was expecting Mike Newberry to come on with Chris Shields being pushed into midfield.
Chris Shields would be pushed into midfield, but it would be to accommodate Ethan Devine with 3-5-2 becoming 4-3-3, with Clarke and Finlayson pushed back.
The change almost brought an instant result when Robbie McDaid was played in behind Crusaders defence, through on goal but in a wide position, but he fired wide.
Even though he was in a wide position, he really should have scored, especially with the keeper well out of his goal.
Soon after, McDaid had another opportunity from a wide position on the edge of the box but he volleyed wide.
Again, he should have scored.
Paul Heatley made space for himself to get into a shooting position from long range, but his shot was easily and spectacularly saved by Chris Johns.
I was sat at the opposite end and thought it was going in. Turns out there was never a danger.
It soon became one each in terms of injuries with Robbie Weir going off.
His replacement raised some eyebrows, Declan Caddell, who retired in May.
He hadn’t lost it, getting a yellow card soon afterwards for a late tackle on Jamie Mulgrew.
Adam Leckey headed just wide for Crusaders, but it was a frustrating half for Linfield who dominated possesion but missed the only glorious opportunity they created.
The game was there for the taking.
You could feel that Joel Cooper was being sorely missed.
Cameron Palmer was forced into a block from Billy Joe Burns early in the second-half as Crusaders actually decided to show some attacking intent, with Chris Johns making a close range save from the follow-up.
Daniel Finlayson again went off with injury, and was replaced by Conor Pepper, as I had expected to happen on Tuesday.
Hopefully, he would have the same impact as Mike Newberry had against Larne.
Injuries had meant there was a lack of attacking options on the bench for Linfield, even more so as Ethan Devine was brought on earlier than anticipated.
One option they did have was Liam McStravick, who came on and scored on his debit as a substitute against Annagh United in the NIFL Cup.
I wasn’t at this game but I heard good reports on him, comparisons with Paul Smyth both in terms of stature and play.
There was nothing to lose by throwing him on, and there was no surprise when he was Linfield’s final sub, coming on for Chris McKee a day before his 18th birthday.
I’m actually old enough that I can remember matches on (or closest to) footballer’s dates of birth. Linfield beat Limavady United 4-1 on the day Liam McStravick was born.
He showed some nice touches but Linfield couldn’t get him on the ball enough.
It is a bit of a freak occurrence to have three players in the one position all injured at the same time.
This was a game that was crying out for a little bit of magic from Jordan Stewart or Joel Cooper, or for Kirk Millar to ping a cross onto someone’s head. Just once, that’s all that was needed.
With very little happening in open play, Linfield needed to make the most of their set pieces.
On player taking them the entire game, they were too predictable, cleared by Crusaders or any headers that were won by Linfield were too far out to threaten the goal.
If you were hoping for an injury time winner like in March when Crusaders last visited Windsor Park, you would be disappointed.
For a start, there was nowhere near enough, just the standard three minutes despite Crusaders persistant timewasting and numerous free-kicks and stoppaged.
In the end, they had to settle for a point. At least it keeps the unbeaten run going and it’s another clean sheet, seven in nine games.
That run was preceded by conceding nine in three goals.
Trying to get back into the title race was never going to happen inside four or five games, it was always going to be a long-term challenge.
If we go on another winning run, this result will be forgotten about.
Even though it feels like it was two points dropped against a team who were there for the taking.
I really hope this new kit, as wonderful as it is, isn’t going to be a jinx, as Linfield blew a 1-0 lead for the second successive season. Just like in November 2021, it leaves them with a bit of work to do in the title race, but no need to panic.
It could and should have been so much better. Defeats in their last two games had seen Crusaders slip out of two cup competitions. A third in a row could have seen any hopes of the League title slip away, even at this early stage.
The three points in the bag puts them very much back in the race, as well as the damage to Linfield as Glentoran and Cliftonville were now being presented with an opportunity to pull clear.
No surprises in Linfield’s starting eleven, but the subs made for interesting reading with a lot of attacking options and not much defensive cover.
It was an even start, with both sides having attacking moments but no real opportunities, although Crusaders were getting slightly further into Linfield’s third than Linfield were getting into Crusaders third.
Linfield weren’t really helping themselves with some sloppy passing, giving the ball away far too easily.
Eventually, Linfield began to flex their attacking muscle when a quick counter-attacking move saw Robbie McDaid put the ball over on the stretch from a few yards out.
During various stages of the attack, it might have been better for Joel Cooper or Kirk Millar to shoot instead of passing, especially Millar.
A shot across the goalkeeper would surely have resulted in a goal.
McDaid would be denied again when he ran on to a through ball but his low shot under pressure was well saved.
Linfield were now putting on the pressure,but needed a goal to show for it.
Sam Roscoe was denied from a header as another chance went astray for Linfield.
No need to panic for Linfield at half-time with the score at 0-0.
I did think to myself that if Crusaders went 1-0 up, there would be no need to panic as Linfield were more than capable of getting the goals to win the game, and that if Linfield could get 1-0 up, there would be no way Crusaders would be able to come back.
Spoiler alert, that observation would turn out to be spectacularly off the mark.
The second-half started perfectly for Linfield, with a goal inside the opening minutes, just as against Moyola Park three days previously.
Just as against Ballymena (twice) it came from a cross from Stephen Fallon on the left hand side, who worked space for himself despite having two defenders for company, straight to Joel Cooper to hook the ball home from close range.
To describe it as a dream start to the second-half would be an understatement. Now to push on and wrap up the three points.
Well, not quite. Not only did Linfield disappear as an attacking force, Crusaders started to get back into the game and were denied when Jimmy Callacher had to block a goalbound shot after Chris Johns dropped a cross under pressure.
The reprieve didn’t last long with Philip Lowry finishing from close range after a corner that Linfield simply couldn’t clear. Crusaders always seemed to be one touch ahead of them.
All the good work at the start of the second-half was now undone.
Just fifteen minutes earlier, it was looking like a matter of how many Linfield would win by. Now you would have happily taken a draw.
Even at this early stage, it was obvious that changes in personnel were needed.
There were plenty of options to freshen things up front, while there was Jamie Mulgrew and/or Niall Quinn to freshen things up in midfield.
However, there was no activity from the away dugout.
As the personnel stayed the same, so did the flow of the match.
If you hoped that the Crusaders goal would waken Linfield up, it would turn out to be false hope.
Crusaders continued to be on top as they pushed for a winner.
It was Linfield who had the next big chance of the game when a Jimmy Callacher header from a corner was agonisingly saved.
With just under ten minutes to go, Crusaders took the lead, and it was a self inflicted blow from Linfield. . Stephen Fallon lost possession and the cross from the resulting attack was scuffed into the net by Jordan Forsythe to put Crusaders 2-1 up.
The goal had been coming.
Eventually, Linfield made some changes, a bit late, you could say, bringing on every striker they could find.
As a result, Linfield had no shape, and were basically just hitting and hoping.
In fact, it was Crusaders who looked most likely to score when they countered.
This was three points thrown away, against a side who was there for the taking, before the match and during the game.
Crusaders had went into this game without a win in three, including losing their last two games, exiting two cup competitions.
We could have killed off their season, now it has breathed new life into it.
Two defeats already and a game in hand to play, Linfield are having to make up a lot of lost ground.
It’s not an impossible task though.
Hopefully, a traffic jam at the top will distract Linfield’s rivals and present an opportunity to blast through it.
Although getting into the Top 6 would be a start, as they sit in 7th.
Win the game in hand and it’s up to 4th, only four points off the top.
When Linfield lost at Seaview last season, Cliftonville had threatened to pull away as they did in the Winter of 2012-2013.
Linfield beat them the following week, reeled them back in, and used it as a launchpad for a run of results that sent them top for the first time in the season, where they (apart from a few weeks in February) stayed there.
It’s not Cliftonville they need to overhaul, it’s Glentoran. There’ll be an opportunity to reel them in a few weeks time, we’ve got two opportunities to get points on the board by then,
That game will be Linfield’s first home match in nearly two months. We’ll be needing directions to Windsor Park by then.
Should have been at home to Larne on the Tuesday after this, but it was postponed due to International Call-Ups, having been originally postponed due to clashing with Linfield’s European games.
Then the match at home to Cliftonville the weekend after this, but that match has been postponed due to both clubs playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup.
Unfortunately, i’ll be going to Northern Ireland v Kosovo so will miss Linfield’s trip to Buckie Thistle.
Plus, it’s an absolute nightmare to get to, the logistics might have defeated me anyway.
Fingers crossed we get a win and a favourable draw in the next round.
This is now the second of three away defeats in the League.
We’d better sort out the away form, as we’re slap bang in the middle of nine away games in a row in all competitions.
I guess you could say this was …… a big win. A big big win.
With games running out, every win counts, especially with Cliftonville winning as well, as a goal from Ethan Devine kept Linfield top of the Irish League with just two games to go.
Crusaders had went into this game with five wins in a row and six wins out of seven.
That one defeat though, came against Linfield last month. Incidentally, that was Linfield’s seventh win in eight against Crusaders and tenth out of the last fourteen League games against Crusaders.
While Crusaders had a good recent record, Linfield had a very good recent record against Crusaders.
Jake Hastie and Eetu Vertainen were rewarded with starts after cameos from the bench on Good Friday. Both of whom would have chances to score early one.
There was a difference to this game at kick-off, with Linfield attacking the goal where their own fans are based in the first-half instead of in the second-half.
Having got myself in position to see them attacking the home end, I quickly had to powerwalk to the other end of the ground to get into position. In case you’re wondering. I like to base myself where Linfield are attacking, if possible.
When I get caught out like this, i’m always hoping that Linfield don’t score in the opening minute while i’m getting my new view. Score as many as you wish in the following 89 minutes.
They almost did score in the first minute, when Eetu Vertainen managed to work his way into the box into a shooting position but fired over.
Jake Hastie was then next to be frustrated when he volleyed over from a cross.
A bright start from Linfield, there were goals in this game for them.
They still had to be wary of the attacking threat posed by Crusaders, and got a gentle reminder when Jordan Owens headed wide from a set piece.
It looked like Linfield might get that opportunity when a Jordan Stewart shot was blocked by a Crusaders defender.
Despite appeals for a handball, nothing was given.
Replays showed that it wasn’t a handball, but when a defender charges out with arms in the air, you’re always going to claim it.
The wait for a goal didn’t last too long when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick.
With Linfield looking to kick on, it looked like Matthew Clarke was played in. Just as he was about to shoot, a Crusaders player was able to get a tackle in.
There were goals in this for Linfield.
As it turned out, there needed to be, as Jordan Fosythe headed home from a corner in the final minutes of the half. For the second successive game, Linfield threw away a lead almost as quickly as they got it.
However, there was no need to panic. Eetu Vertainen looked like he had a goal in him. Or a card. He was having one of those nights, getting into positions, creating shooting opportunities for himself and battling against defenders.
The one big disadvantage Linfield had, was that they wouldn’t be attacking their own fans in the second-half. That would be a different experience.
Those Crusaders behind the goal were almost treated to a goal from Eetu Vertainen, but his header agonisingly struck the post.
Surely not a third successive frustrating draw?
Linfield went for the win in the only way they know how, by bringing on Ethan Devine. Crusaders had already been on the receiving end of one of his goals this season.
And so it proved, when he was played in by Matthew Clarke in the penalty area, firing home to put Linfield 2-1 up with twenty minutes to go.
A bit early by his standards. But welcome. Needed a third goal though.
That third goal didn’t come but it was ok, just about, as Linfield were doing an ample job of holding Crusaders at bay.
It just needed one lucky bounce to fall Crusaders way for all that to be undone.
Kyle McClean came on for Eetu Vertainen to provide an extra body in midfield.
Ahmed Salam then came on for Kirk Millar. As Millar was walking off towards the touchline, he realised where he was and what the situation needed, so he did a detour and took the scenic route off the pitch instead to kill a bit of time.
Time was on Linfield’s side, but they needed to make sure Crusaders had as little of it as possible to get an equaliser.
They didn’t. Linfield saw out the game to win 2-1.
A big win, which got big celebrations.
Cliftonville also won, meaning that the gap at the top of the table remained one point in Linfield’s favour.
The draw at The Oval between Glentoran and Larne meant that both Linfield and Cliftonville secured European Football for 2022-2023. What competition is still to be decided.
Elsewhere, Newry have as good as secured promotion from The Championship. Just one more point needed.
Away in August or September, teatime kick-off, sneak off to Carlingford again. Would be nice.
A night when some things were decided but in the end, nothing really was.