Three was the magic number prior to kick-off at Seaview.
Obviously, three points on offer, with Linfield having a three point lead over Crusaders, looking for their third win of the season over Crusaders, in the first of three games between the sides in eighteen days.
The League table had a familiar theme to the previous meetings, with Linfield looking to extend their lead over Crusaders.
By January, it was now three points, but Linfield had a game in hand, due to Crusaders going on a six game winning run since then.
You could argue that run is a bit deceptive. Four of those wins have come against teams in the bottom six, and of those four wins, three of them have been by one goal. They’ve been scraping by.
A draw wouldn’t have been the worst result, but a win represented an opportunity to pull clear of a title rival and have some daylight. Crusaders wouldn’t be out of the title race with a defeat, but you’d have to put across a very convincing argument as to why they were in it.
Crusaders first attack saw a series of attempted shots blocked by various Linfield bodies. Not surprising given the clean sheet run in the League that Linfield are currently on. Crusaders were the last team in the League to score against Linfield. That would still be the case regardless of what happened at Seaview, but Linfield weren’t in the mood for that stat to be updated.
Linfield’s first attack was a lot more effective. A long ball seemed to cause confusion in Crusaders defence, allowing Jordan Stewart an opportunity to nip in and lob the ball over the onrushing Gerard Doherty to put Linfield 1-0 up.
Doherty was one of three former Derry City players making their home debut for a Crusaders side which had Hale but no Pace. There’s almost as many ex Derry players than ex Linfield players. You could do a Venn Diagram of the ex Derry players and ex Linfield players in their squad, and put Philip Lowry and Rory Patterson in the middle.
The first goal was important in this fixture. That isn’t clichéd pundit speak, there is statistics to back it up. The last time a team scoring first at Seaview failed to win was September 2014. The last time a team scored first and lost was April 2014. Linfield last scored first and lost there in January 2013. This is a fixture where the first goal has been key in recent years.
It also kept up a random statistic that all of Linfield’s goals this season against Crusaders have been scored by players whose names begin with J – Joel Cooper (2), Jamie Mulgrew, Jimmy Callacher, Josh Robinson and Jordan Stewart (2)
Hopefully in the upcoming meetings in February, we’ll have goalscoring contributions from Jiall Quinn, Jeven Fallon, Jirk Millar and Jandrew Waterworth.
Cooper and Stewart were getting a lot of joy when combining up front as Linfield took control of the game. It felt like they had fifteen players on the pitch. Any time that Crusaders had an opportunity to get the ball forward, it was usually intercepted by Jamie Mulgrew.
Andrew Waterworth had a header saved by Doherty as Linfield looked to convert their dominance into a two goal lead.
Every time a Linfield player had the ball, they always seemed to have options to pass to and space to operate in. On some occasions, they had both.
Paul Heatley curled wide with Crusaders best chance of the first-half. It was their only chance of note in the half. All their other attempts on goal were speculative efforts which never troubled Roy Carroll.
In the previous two meetings, Linfield got early second-half goals to secure the points, in August going from 1-0 to 2-0, and in December from 2-0 to 4-0. If they repeated it here, it would surely secure the points.
They didn’t get it, but there was no real response from Crusaders. All they offered was an overhit cross from Ross Clarke which was tipped over by Roy Carroll when it looked like it might sneak in.
The only moment of worry came when Mark Stafford intercepted a cross and got the ball stuck between his legs with Crusaders players swarming around him, but he was able to clear at the expense of a corner.
Stafford had come on as a sub for Jimmy Callacher, who went off injured, showing the value of the squad, having players who can fill in when needed.
It would be expected that Daniel Kearns and/or Michael O’Connor would be introduced in the final stages, so it wasn’t ideal having to use a sub so early as there wouldn’t be much room for manoeuvre regarding bringing players on from the bench.
By this point, a quick free-kick set up an opportunity for Joel Cooper, but he fired wide from a tight angle.
Kirk Millar then tried his luck from a tight angle (Think Marco Van Basten v Soviet Union) but was narrowly wide.
Crusaders resorted to trying to wind up Linfield’s players, but only succeeded in winding themselves up, losing their discipline and racking up yellow cards.
Howard Beverland managing to pick up the stupidest yellow card for obstruction, looking to see where the player was and blocking him off, right in the eyesight of the referee. He got booked the second time he was penalised for it.
With a one goal lead, there was always going to be an element of nerves in the final moments, but in truth, Crusaders never looked like scoring, as Linfield held on for the 1-0 win.
That result puts them six points clear of Crusaders with a game in hand, and maintains a three point lead over Ballymena, who won 2-1 at Glenavon.
Ballymena dropping points would have been great, but it does mean that we can officially rule Glenavon out of the title race, although the ten point gap at kick-off made it generous to consider them still in it.
Up next, is a trip to Newry on Tuesday night. Curiously, due to Institute’s involvement in the North-West Cup Final, Ballymena’s game against Institute has been postponed.
Three points is a must. We can go nine clear of Crusaders and six clear of Ballymena, laying down the challenge to them to catch us if they can. Curiously, Crusaders and Ards are the only teams in the League who don’t have outstanding games to play.
After that, is Glentoran at home on Sky the following Monday night. That was worked out quite well for us, spreading the games around having come through a busy December period and only having one free midweek in that time.
Personally, it also blocks off 29th January as a date for the County Antrim Shield Final, which is good for me as i’ll be in England.
That game, will be against Crusaders, who we’ll face in the Irish Cup three days before. Nothing to fear, as we’ve proved three times this season. There are too many teams in the Irish League who are afraid of Crusaders.
Those games are ticketed, most games are at the moment. Thankfully, we’ve had quite a few Saturday home games for supporters to get tickets. Also, a Ticketmaster outlet has opened up in the Tourist Information Centre in Belfast City Centre if that’s more convenient for you.
There is also the possibility of a Two Ronnies-esque situation at the Ticket Office.
Can I have a ticket of the match? What match? The Crusaders match. Crusaders at Seaview? Crusaders at home? Crusaders at Ballymena? Or the match against Ballymena? Ummmmm
Since I last wrote, there’s been a few ins and outs. Mostly outs, which isn’t surprising given the size of our squad.
Eammon Scannell, Ryan Strain and Jonathan Smith have all left on loan. Not that surprising in the case of Smith. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brandon Doyle joined him going out on loan.
Kyle McClean came in from St Johnstone, and was an unused sub for this game. I don’t know much about him.
That incoming meant that Robert Garrett was allowed to leave, heading to Glenavon. It wasn’t really a surprise to see him leave, but I thought that wouldn’t happen until the Summer. I’m slightly surprised we didn’t “Play the system” and loan him rather than letting him leave, as this would block him from playing against us this season.
It’s absolutely certain if Glenavon were a lot closer to us in the table, there’s not a hope in hell we’d be so accommodating.
Garrett will be facing us on Friday 8th March live on BBC 2, as the latest TV games have been announced. Two Glenavon matches on BBC to go with another one of their games on Sky next month. They might as well have their own channel.
The draw for the FA Cup 4th Round has confirmed that United’s match against Burnley will be on the Tuesday night. As I now have the Wednesday free, i’m tempted to do a day trip to Sheffield, having last been there in 2010.
I was in London on the weekend of the 4th Round last year and went to Millwall v Rochdale. I picked the wrong year.
If I went this year, I could do Arsenal v Man United, day trip to Brighton for Brighton v West Brom and then Palace v Spurs.
I’m actually thinking of doing a London/Brighton double header in July 2020, over the 12th Holidays, catch a pre-season game and soak up the atmosphere of the European Championship Final.
Pre-Season 2020 can wait, the 2018-2019 season is far from resolved.