PHOTO OF THE SEASON : 2018-2019

2018-2019 is now over and consigned to history. I hope you’ve enjoyed my month by month look back. I thought i’ll end with a look through some of my favourites. Feel free to vote for yours.

NEWFORGE

Taken during a Pre-Season Friendly, I like arty farty shots in the style of Stuart Roy Clarke, so I unashamedly try to copy him.

MOURNEVIEW

I like this shot because of the way everybody is lined up, and how everybody has their eyes fixed on Kirk Millar, being the man in possession

COLERAINE

This shot came about by fluke, I was hoping to capture a Linfield goal, but again, it’s the fans who make the picture for me, all heads in the one direction.

DUNGANNON

Got some good photos this day due to generous Winter Sun. Dungannon is always good for photos. I like the framing, getting the terraces in alongside the pitch.

JORDAN

Jordan Stewart makes it 4-0 against Crusaders in December. I like being able to capture the celebrations on the pitch and in the stand. Even a Steward joined in.

CLANDEBOYE

That spot at Clandeboye Park is handy for getting photos, as long as something interesting happens at that end during the game. Thankfully, Linfield scored while I was at this end. Not just in terms of phototaking, but the match, as it was looking like a frustrating afternoon against opponents who had already proved tricky earlier in the season.

SNOW TRAFFORD

Having got snow photos of Windsor Park in 2010, I couldn’t believe my luck when Manchester was hit with snow the day after United’s match against Burnley. Staying close to the ground, I was straight out with my camera to get photos.

McCLEAN

An explosion of emotion. 2-0 down and looking to be pegged back in the title race, to 2-2 and being frustrated, then a last minute winner, I managed to capture the reactions, of fans and players both going wild in unison.

RAIN

A weather based photo that just works. Bleurgh, an awful night for weather and football.

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PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : APRIL/MAY

April 2019 meant the run-in was approaching, and my first football match of the month saw Linfield get a crucial 1-0 win against Ballymena United to virtually secure the Irish League title.

The following week, Linfield got the job done with a 0-0 draw at home to Crusaders.

A week later, Linfield lifted the title, on a day they lost 4-0 at home to Glenavon.

My last Linfield match of the season was a lot better, a 5-1 win over Cliftonville on Easter Tuesday.

That wouldn’t be my last match of the season, as I headed to Old Trafford in mid May to see Manchester United lose at home to Cardiff City. Not the way I wanted the season to end.

Tomorrow, you’ll get your chance to vote for your favourite.

So, that’s 2018-2019 over. Here’s to more football photos in 2019-2020.

Ballymena United v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

Linfield Title Win Photo Album

Linfield v Glenavon

Linfield Title Celebrations Photo Album

Linfield v Cliftonville

Manchester United v Cardiff City

Manchester United v Cardiff City Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : MARCH

I had to wait a while for March’s football watching, but it wasn’t really worth the wait as Linfield slumped to a League defeat at Glenavon then lost the County Antrim Shield Final to Crusaders.

Thankfully, the month got a bit better when Linfield defeated Institute 2-0 at Windsor Park.

The month ended with a flurry of games, three in four days, with Linfield’s trip to Dungannon Swifts being sandwiched inbetween Northern Ireland’s opening two Euro 2020 Qualifiers, both at home, against Estonia and Belarus.

Glenavon v Linfield

County Antrim Shield Final

County Antrim Shield Final Photo Album

Linfield v Institute

Northern Ireland v Estonia

Northern Ireland v Estonia Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Belarus

Northern Ireland v Belarus Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : FEBRUARY

February’s football watching was spent at Windsor Park, where I spent every Saturday of the month.

It began with Linfield exiting the Irish Cup to Crusaders, then come from 2-0 down to beat Coleraine with a last minute winner, beat Ballymena United to win the NIFL Cup, and then beat them again in the League.

The month ended with a trip to Newry to see Linfield secure a late and dramatic 1-0 win.

Linfield v Crusaders

Linfield v Coleraine

Linfield v Ballymena United (NIFL Cup)

NIFL Cup Final Photo Album

Linfield v Ballymena United (League)

Newry City v Linfield

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : JANUARY

Fifteen hours into 2019, and it was a short trip to the Seaside to see Linfield beat Ards.

More wins came in the month, with Warrenpoint Town, Crusaders and Glentoran all taken care of.

The month ended with a trip to Old Trafford. Unfortunately, the one United match I went to didn’t result in a win, but a draw against Burnley, though I did manage to get some photos of Old Trafford in the snow the next morning.

Ards v Linfield

Linfield v Warrenpoint Town

Crusaders v Linfield

Linfield v Glentoran

Manchester United v Burnley

Manchester United v Burnley Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : DECEMBER

December’s football watching began with a trip to Ballymena on the first of the month and a top of the table clash, which Linfield lost 2-1.

Thankfully, the rest of the month did get better, including the following Saturday, where Crusaders were disposed of 4-1.

Postponements meant I wouldn’t be at another match for two weeks, as Linfield drew 0-0 with Glenavon, though it was still better than Crhistmas shopping.

The next match was a bit decent, as Linfield thrashed Glentoran 4-0 on Boxing Day.

The month, and the year, of football watching ended with a trip to Solitude to see Linfield secure a 2-0 win.

Ballymena United v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

Linfield v Glenavon

Linfield v Glentoran

Cliftonville v Linfield

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : AUGUST

August began for me with the opening game of the 2018-2019 season, as Linfield travelled to Mourneview Park to take on Glenavon.

My next match was in the Scottish Challenge Cup, taking in Edinburgh City v Albion Rovers during a short break to Edinburgh.

Upon my return, it was back to Irish League football for me, with successive trips to North Belfast for Linfield, against Crusaders and Cliftonville.

Glenavon v Linfield

Edinburgh City v Albion Rovers

Edinburgh City v Albion Rovers Photo Album

Crusaders v Linfield

Cliftonville v Linfield

LINFIELD 0-0 CRUSADERS 13.4.2019

Queen’s Greatest Hits, Track 17. Or, seeing as it’s Record Store Day and you might have it on vinyl, Side 2 Track 9.

Job done. No ifs, not buts. No hoping to avoid a mathematical freak.

The Irish League Champions arrived at Windsor Park today and set up camp in the away dressing room. By 5pm, they were now based in the home dressing room.

A win at Ballymena United the previous week meant that Linfield were virtually Champions but still needed one point to make sure, as they began the first of three successive home games with a game against a side they have beaten three times out of three in the League.

It was a far happier situation for Linfield than when they travelled to Seaview to face Crusaders in this weekend last year.

Having kept a winning team in recent weeks, Linfield had to make a change today with Josh Robinson unavailable. Ryan McGivern got the nod to replace him, surprisingly ahead of Mark Stafford.

Crusaders had the first attack of the game, spending the first few minutes in Linfield’s half, but Linfield were able to clear the danger, the best that Crusaders could offer was a Ronan Hale shot that went over the bar.

Linfield’s first attacks saw a Jamie Mulgrew run try to set up Jordan Stewart but he couldn’t get into a striking position, while a cleared corner fell to Daniel Kearns who fired over.

There was even a bizarre incident where Howard Beverland got a yellow card for fouling Jamie Mulgrew. Nothing new there, but Beverland was off the pitch after receiving treatment. Opposition teams are now finding creative ways to foul him.

Gareth Deane was forced into a save from a Philip Lowry header before Jamie Mulgrew had a penalty appeal turned down.

Linfield had a strong finish to the half, being camped in Crusaders half, but couldn’t get the breakthrough.

0-0 at half-time, job done. Not the three points wanted to do it in style, but job done.

Paul Heatley had the first shot on goal in the second-half, his shot on the counter attack being saved by Gareth Deane from a wide angle.

Soon after, Linfield were presented with the best opportunity of the game when they were awarded a penalty for a handball by Michael Reddy.

Andrew Waterworth, Andrew Mitchell and Jordan Stewart loitered around the ball, with Stewart getting the nod to take it.

Stewart had scored every penalty he’d taken this season which was ominous, which meant he was due to miss one, like when Stephen Lowry missed one against Dungannon Swifts in 2017.

Those fears proved to be right as his spot kick was saved by Gerard Doherty. It was a good save by him, but it was a good height for the keeper.

We probably should have tried to dive and get a penalty when we were 5-0 up at Dungannon recently just so he could miss it and get it out of the way.

Doherty was making another save soon afterwards when Ryan McGivern flicked goalwards from a corner.

David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Stephen Fallon, Kirk Millar and Marek Cervenka in search of a winner.

The closest either of them cam was when Fallon got in behind Crusaders defence and crossing when he perhaps should have shot, taking Daniel Kearns by surprised who would have scored if he ran in, but he stopped having anticipated a shot.

It was a 0-0 sort of game, you know what I mean, both teams were trying, but not really looking like scoring.

With a few minutes remaining, the final whistle blew at Solitude, where Cliftonville held Ballymena United to a 1-1 draw. It meant that Linfield were Champions regardless of the score at Windsor Park, not that they planned on conceding a late winner to Crusaders for the third successive meeting.

They didn’t, it finished 0-0. It wasn’t as dramatic as in 2017, but Linfield were Champions again.

It was a day of draws in the Top Six, much to the frustration of Glenavon who conceded a late equaliser to dent their chances of claiming 2nd and securing automatic European football. The farce that is the UEFA Cup Play-Offs is of no concern to Linfield.

It’s looking likely that the presentation will be next Saturday against Glenavon, even though the protocol is for it to be in the last home game. It makes sense to have it on a Saturday afternoon rather than a Tuesday night when it will be more convenient for more people to attend.

This win wipes away the ghost of the 2017-2018 season. What went wrong? Everything.

It was hard to see it coming. Linfield recruited well, securing three signings in May 2017 while other clubs were playing in the UEFA Cup Play-Offs. Of those three signings – Robert Garrett, Jordan Stewart and Andrew Mitchell – Two had won the title while the other had won the Irish Cup. Josh Robinson was added in mid July, another title winner. The signings were no brainers, and three of them proved to be key players this season.

They came in to replace Sean Ward, Josh Carson and Ross Gaynor, who left in pursuit of first team football (although Gaynor is now playing at a lower level due to employment commitments) and you couldn’t blame them for doing so. The irony is, they probably would have played 30-40 games in 2017-2018 if they had stayed. The team picked itself in the final months of 2016-2017, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Andrew Waterworth and Jimmy Callacher both missed pre-season due to injury, and were always playing catch-up in terms of fitness when they returned.

There were even injuries at the other end of the season, with both Jordan Stewart and Jamie Mulgrew missing the run-in. Linfield were lost without Mulgrew in the final weeks.

It was a perfect storm. We weren’t creating enough chances. When we did we were missing them. We were conceding bad goals due to individual errors. We were losing or drawing games we should have won.

Part of that was remedied in the signings of Joel Cooper and Daniel Kearns, both of whom hit the ground running as part of a 4231 formation forced on David Healy due to a shortage of midfielders on the opening day.

It was obvious from his 45 minute debut in a friendly at Dundela in July that Cooper was going to be a star player for Linfield, even if a title win looked far away during the first-half of that game as we were lucky to be 1-0 down.

I’m going to put 2017-2018 down to us angering the Football Gods with those idiots against Celtic for landing us with a partial ground closure for one European match, expecting to serve it in the Summer of 2018, we’d have to wait a year for that.

Just a heads up about that if you like to sit at the end of the South Stand closest to The Kop.

You could perhaps argue that Linfield had too easy a start in 2017-2018 and weren’t ready by the time the big games came around.

This would not be the case in 2018-2019, with trips to Glenavon, Crusaders and Cliftonville before the end of August.

Things didn’t start great, penned into their own half and conceding a penalty inside the first five minutes of the opening game of the season at Mourneview. Thankfully, it was missed, and when Linfield had a period on top, they scored to win 1-0, but were thankful to their defence for helping to keep a clean sheet. Clean sheets would be a theme throughout the season.

The second match of the season against Institute was scheduled for a Friday night allowed them to get points on board early and put pressure on rivals, which they did winning 3-0.

Having seen Crusaders be walloped in Europe, and then concede twice in both of their opening two League games, Linfield knew they had nothing to fear from Crusaders, and so it proved, securing a 2-0 win, which could have been more.

The following week saw the first points dropped and first goal conceded in a 1-1 draw at Cliftonville, with a late equaliser from substitute Michael O’Connor.

Linfield’s success this season was built on a contradictory mix of having a settled starting eleven, but also utilising the squad.

Mark Haughey missed the season through injury, Chris Casement took his face. Mark Stafford was suspended on the opening day, Josh Robinson came in and never looked back. When Robinson was injured in October/November, Stafford took his place and even produced a late winner at Dungannon. Stafford even filled in when Callacher got injured at Seaview in January. Stephen Fallon broke into the team when Andrew Mitchell got injured, and then Kyle McClean took advantage when both of them were injured. Most famously, Jordan Stewart made the most of his opportunity when Daniel Kearns got injured.

Gareth Deane came in for the injured Roy Carroll at Newry in January, and then filled in when Carroll’s injury was confirmed as season ending. In that game at Newry, Deane saved a penalty.

That same match saw Michael O’Connor come in for the suspended Andrew Waterworth and score twice in a 2-0 win. Suspensions and red cards were a lot rarer this season as well. When somebody came into the team, more often than not, when someone came into the team, they made the most of the opportunity.

That game at Solitude saw Linfield play with ten men after a first-half red card for Jamie Mulgrew. The previous meeting against Cliftonville, four months earlier, saw Linfield capitulate after a first-half red card. Not this time.

September began on a frustrating manner with a 0-0 draw against Ards. Naturally, this is frustrating, but even more so with Crusaders and Coleraine playing each other on Sky on the Monday night after it, and then not having a League game the following weekend due to playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup. It was an opportunity to pull clear of rivals that was missed.

No mistake was made the following weekend, blasting aside Warrenpoint 5-0 though.

A 0-0 draw at Coleraine in mid September wasn’t the worst result in the world, as it kept Linfield five points clear of Coleraine albeit with a game more played, it was frustrating as there was a traffic jam forming in the table when Linfield were looking to pull clear. Those draws allowed Glenavon to take leadership of the League table.

At the end of the month, Linfield beat Ballymena United 2-1 to go eight points clear of them. I thought that would be the last time we’d have to worry about them.

October began with a throwback, a top of the table clash against Glentoran, live on Sky, which Linfield won 1-0 and sent their season into freefall. That was followed by a win over Newry City with a hat-trick from Jimmy Callcher.

Everybody played, eight wins, three draws and no defeats. There were also eight clean sheets in those eleven games.

However, there would soon be a run of no League clean sheets in two months as Linfield entered a sticky period.

October has been a problematic month for Linfield in recent years, so five wins from six matches in all competitions was a miracle.

That one blemish was a shock defeat to relegation threatened Ards. Espeecially frustrating as it was dropped points at the start of a run of games against Bottom Six teams.

November didn’t get off to a good start with a draw against Warrenpoint Town and a defeat to Coleraine, both at home.

The turning point of the season turned out to be a trip to The Brandywell in November to face Institute. It didn’t feel like it when we were 1-0 down. We turned it around and won 4-1. Joel Cooper was dropped for the first time as a Linfield player having lost his way after being kicked out of the game at The Oval in October.

A brief came at The Brandywell saw him regain his form, and an injury gave him an opportunity against Cliftonville the following week. They couldn’t handle him.

It was the start of a run of games at home in the space of four months where four was the magic number, where Cliftonville, Crusaders, Glentoran, Warrenpoint Town and Glentoran again left after picking the ball out of the back of the net four times.

December was full of big games. The first of the month saw Linfield lose to Ballymena who overtook them at the top. Especially frustrating as we were 1-0 up and could have killed off their title hopes. Instead, it gave them the boost of life.

By this point, we were managing a schedule of Midweek-Saturday. Even though our County Antrim Shield game against Ballymena was postponed twice, we were still having to prepare for it, as well as Bank Holiday games taking place on weekday afternoons.

A draw at home to Glenavon on the Saturday before Christmas saw Ballymena go four points clear. They had a generous run of games coming up as well. The only Top Six teams they were facing soon, Coleraine and Crusaders, were both out of form.

However, Coleraine and Crusaders did us a favour, and by New Year’s Day, Linfield were top. By mid January, it was now three points clear. With the superior Goal Difference (from all those scrappy 1-0 wins that those in North Antrim would have you believe), Ballymena needed Linfield to slip up twice.

Crusaders were never in the title race, and a win at Seaview made sure we weren’t going to let them into it. That was followed up by a win at Newry in midweek while Ballymena didn’t play to make the lead six points. Points on the board always trumps games in hand.

February began with an Irish Cup exit and going 2-0 down to Coleraine. Questions were being asked of Linfield. They answered them by coming back to win 3-2.

Ballymena were defeated at Windsor Park to make the gap nine points, having been defeated in the NIFL Cup Final a week earlier.

There was no time for rest as Linfield struggled at Newry the following midweek. A draw would have undone the win over Ballymena and given them a lifeline, but Linfield dug out an injury time winner. You could hear the groans in Ballymena.

You would soon be hearing cheers in Ballymena as Linfield lost at Glenavon, while Ballymena responded with a win at Coleraine. If Ballymena won their game in hand, the gap would be three points, and with Linfield still to come to Ballymena, they were eyeing up being level with four to play.

Thankfully, shock home defeats to Glentoran and Warrenpoint Town for Ballymena saw Linfield arrive nine points clear. A 1-0 win saw them leave twelve points clear. It was almost job done.

This 0-0 draw sealed the deal.

There’s still something to play for as winning our final games will secure a 90 point haul, something Linfield have never done in a 38 game season. The previous best in a 38 game season was 89 in 2017.

And, can we go through a season without losing at home to Cliftonville please? It would be the first time sine 2011-2012 if we do.

Here’s some stats for you:

20 clean sheets out of 35 matches.
Half as many goals conceded as the team with the second best defensive record
3 or more successive clean sheets on 6 occasions
Scoring 4 or more on 8 different occasions
Wins against every team in the League
Clean sheets against every team in the League
A win at Coleraine on the final game will see Linfield win at every ground in the League

Deserving Champions

Photo Album

CRUSADERS 4-3 LINFIELD 12.3.2019

Originally put back two weeks due to a Semi-Final postponement, then it got postponed itself, before changing venue, finally, the 2019 County Antrim Shield took place, as Linfield headed to Seaview looking to win their second trophy of the season.

The fact that it was Linfield and Crusaders going head to head in the Final shouldn’t have been that big a shock. This was the sixth Final in seven years that two out of Ballymena United, Crusaders and Linfield have met in the Final. If it’s one of those two teams going head to head in the 2020 Final, they might as well just make it a three team tournament.

This was the third meeting of Linfield and Crusaders during that run, with Linfield winning in 2014 and 2017.

Heading to the ground, it was so windy, there was a serious danger that if Crusaders played a long ball upfield, it might not come down for 27 minutes.

There were changes in the Linfield XI, not that surprising given previous Shield team selections this season.

With Gareth Deane playing in the 2017 Final as a rare opportunity for a second choice keeper to get a game, by 2019, he was now first choice, making way to give Conor Mitchell a debut.

Mark Stafford and Andrew Mitchell came in as players who haven’t played recently were given an opportunity, with Jamie Mulgrew missing through suspension.

Linfield had the better of the early stages and had a lot of pressure on Crusaders goal. They got their reward when Sean O’Neill dropped a corner, which fell perfectly for Mark Stafford to head home after 9 minutes, two minutes earlier than when he scored for Linfield in the 2017 Final.

Billy Joe Burns was lucky to get away with a yellow card for a late tackle, benefitting from the lack of minutes that were on the clock.

Crusaders soon got into the game and had some chances of their own, with Jordan Owens having a header that he should have scored, which David Cushley had a speculative shot saved. Not sure if you should count that, as he usually has about twenty speculative shots a game.

One of those shots soon found the back of the net from outside the penalty area, though questions have to be asked as to why Linfield failed to clear despite having two opportunities to do so in the build-up.

If Linfield fans were worried about how their team would respond to this setback, they had no need to be, as they responded to conceding one goal by scoring two themselves.

Andrew Waterworth nipped in front of a Crusaders defender to get to the ball first, running clean through on goal, only to see his shot saved, but Kirk Millar followed up to finish into the open net from a few yards out.

Surprisingly, it was only Millar’s fourth goal against teams in the current Top Six, having scored against Glenavon in 2015 and twice against Coleraine in 2016. It was very timely, though it should be pointed out that he compensates for his lack of goals with assists.

A minute later, it was 3-1 to Linfield when Millar resorted to assisting duties when his cross was header by a Crusaders defender off Colin Coates and in, though the PA Announcer gave it to Jordan Stewart because he was loitering in the penalty area, it was clearly an own goal.

Coates was then going in the referee’s notebook after grabbing Andrew Waterworth’s neck after a challenge. Of course, it was only going to be a yellow at worst.

Chris Casement had a free-kick tipped over while Declan Caddell had a shot saved as both teams searched for a goal before half-time, which saw Linfield have a 3-1 lead.

The second-half would have the wind in Crusaders favour, but Linfield weren’t 3-1 up because of the weather. They were 3-1 up because they’re a better team.

Linfield had the first chance of the second-half when Andrew Waterworth broke down the left to set up Jordan Stewart, who was denied.

Crusaders then started to see more of the ball and Linfield struggled to get the ball clear, literally, as the wind kept blowing it back towards their goal.

Not that it bothered Josh Robinson, who nonchalantly headed the ball back to Conor Mitchell from long range, without fear that it would end up in his own net.

Conor Mitchell was especially struggling with his kickouts, trying various techniques to find one that would see the ball not return to Linfield’s defensive work, with minimal success.

The pressure on Linfield’s goal was usually seen off, but only just, getting a body in the way more often than not.

Linfield needed to get the ball away from their own goal, as there would be no way of riding out such pressure for an entire half.

That proved to be the case when Colin Coates headed home to make it 3-2.

The goal didn’t inspire an immediate fightback, as Linfield not only held out, but had their own sustained period of pressure, with a Mark Stafford overhead kick being denied by a save from Sean O’Neill.

As the final minutes approached, Crusaders began the run out of ideas. Their main idea of kicking it up in the air and hoping to get a lucky bounce wasn’t working. However, they had one final corner.

You began to get bad vibes as soon as Crusaders set up for a corner, as the body language of the Linfield players didn’t look right, they didn’t look like they were ready to defend it.

And so it proved, as Jordan Forsythe finished from close range to make it 3-3.

Just when it looked like it was heading for extra-time, David Cushley headed home to make it 4-3 and put Crusaders in front.

Linfield responded with an attacking urgency that should have been there 45 minutes earlier.

To be brutally honest, this was a trophy that was thrown away.

We weren’t 3-1 up at half-time because of the weather, we were 3-1 up because we’re a better team. We allowed ourselves to be spooked by the weather and believed that it made Crusaders a better team than they really are.

We also didn’t help ourselves by not making a substitution at any point during the game.

Even though there are only substitutes allowed in the County Antrim Shield, there were still options for Linfield. Daniel Kearns, Marek Cervenka and Kyle McClean all could easily have made a positive impact if any of them were introduced from the bench.

The attitude in the second-half shouldn’t have been can we hold on to the lead, but can we extend it? We surrendered the initiative to Crusaders and lost a game we never looked like losing.

Twice in a row now, we’ve lost to Crusaders because we weren’t concentrating in the final minutes of a game.

So, the trophy chase is now – one in the bag, two gone and the big one to play for.

The day after this game, Linfield’s post-split fixtures were confirmed, even though teams can change position before the end of Matchday 33.

So, here it is:

05 Apr 19 Ballymena United (away)
13 Apr 19 Crusaders (home)
20 Apr 19 Glenavon (home)
23 Apr 19 Cliftonville (home)
27 Apr 19 Coleraine (away)

But before then, Institute and Dungannon.

Photo Album

LINFIELD 1-2 CRUSADERS 2.2.2019

You sometimes get strange quirks in the Irish Cup. For the second successive season, Linfield hosted opposition from North Belfast who were hoping to avenge a Quarter-Final defeat at home two years previously.

For the first time in a long time, Linfield made several unenforced changes to their starting eleven, Stephen Fallon coming in after injury, and Daniel Kearns and Michael O’Connor were rewarded for changing the game against Glentoran five days earlier with a start.

David Cushley had the first chance of the game, firing wide from an angle. It was never really troubling the goal, but it looked a lot closer than it was from where I was sat, at the other end of the pitch.

Linfield were then forced into an early change after 6 minutes when Stephen Fallon went off injured and was replaced by Kyle McClean. Having to make an early change is never ideal in any game, but especially in one that could last 120 minutes.

Linfield’s first attack came to an abrupt end when a Joel Cooper run was ended by a foul by Rory Hale.

The biggest surprise was that a yellow card was awarded, mainly due to the unwritten rule in Irish League football that referees don’t issue yellow cards in the first 15 minutes of a game. The resulting free-kick from Chris Casement went just wide.

Cooper was then able to get away from Crusaders defence without being fouled but fired wide from a wide angle when a cross to Kyle McClean looked like a better option. This was after he had an early shot from the edge of the box blocked behind for a corner.

Linfield continued to dominate the half but couldn’t get a breakthrough.

That was, when the ball was in play, due to Crusaders timewasting at goal kicks at a level that would embarrass Elliott Morris. Eventualy, 119 minutes, Sean O’Neill was booked for booting the ball into the North Stand when given it by a ballboy. It should have been his tenth of the game.

The Ballboys were, no pun intended, on the ball, making sure a new ball came back into play as soon as another ball went out, but those on the pitch need to start making an issue of it, putting refs under pressure by flagging it up and getting it actioned.

We can’t allow ourselves to be outsmarted by stupid teams, we can’t let opposition dictate the pace of the game and be comfortable doing so. The game should be played at our pace.

There’s not much you can do though when you have a weak referee who is easy to make a mug of, and Crusaders weren’t slow in exploiting it.

At the start of the second-half, Crusaders introduced Jordan Owens from the bench, and in the opening minutes, Ronan Hale volleyed over.

Linfield responded with a Kyle McClean header which hit the post, before Michael O’Connor had a shot saved and then had a header against the bar.

Nobody dared say it, but we were starting to think it, that this was going to be a repeat of the Cliftonville game in the Irish Cup last season.

Linfield now turned to the bench to try and win the game, with Kirk Millar coming on for Joel Cooper. With each passing minute, it looked like Andrew Waterworth was being saved for the possibility of Extra-Time. He ended up coming on quite late in the regulation time, coming on for Daniel Kearns as Linfield went more attacking to try and win the game in 90 minutes.

It was Crusaders who had the best chance in injury time when Kyle McClean was forced to save a goalbound shot on the line.

It finished 0-0 at 90 minutes and went to Extra-Time. Extra-Time in the Irish Cup isn’t a new experience for Linfield in the Irish Cup under David Healy, after needing two hours to defeat Ballymena in 2016 and Glentoran in 2017. Hopefully, this was going to be three out of three.

This looked like the sort of game that was going to be goal the winner. Making that breakthrough would be so crucial.

It looked like Linfield were going to get it when Andrew Waterworth headed over from six yards out. He really should have scored, or at least get the shot on target and make the keeper work.

Soon after Crusaders went 1-0 up in typical Crusaders fashion, a long hoof upfield fell for Jordan Owens to smash home. To be fair, it was a decent strike, but it should have been defended better, to win the original header, and to make sure the second ball was won. That looked like being it.

Linfield responded by bringing on Marek Cervenka for Jordan Stewart. Not through choice though as Stewart was suffering from an injury, watching the remainder of the game from the bench with an ice pack strapped to him.

As the clock ran down, Cervenka gave Linfield a lifeline when a misplaced Crusaders pass played him through to make no mistake to make it 1-1. The ball was in the back of the net as soon as he set himself up to strike.

Now the momentum was with Linfield to go an win the game.

But Crusaders went straight on the attack with Gareth Deane saving from David Cushley. From the resulting corner, Billy Joe Burns scored to win the game for Crusaders. It wasn’t the first time a second ball had fallen to Crusaders when they had an attacking set piece. They were two bad goals to concede.

It was an absolute travesty of a result. One team trying to win the game, and another trying to play for penalties.

There still should have been enough time for Linfield to get a second equaliser, due to the amount of stoppages, but the Referee’s watch wasn’t working.

The worst thing about this result, as it was when we lost to Cliftonville last season, is that we all know Crusaders will choke in the Quarter-Finals or Semi-Finals.

The Clean Sweep is over, but nobody was ever really talking about it. The season, however, is far from over.

This was Linfield’s first defeat since early December. We simply have to do what we did then, dust ourselves down and go again.

When we lost to Ballymena in December, we had a game straight away on the Tuesday night. We have that again.

One thing about this result that we can use to our advantage, is that we can use the free weekend at the start of March to slot in our rearranged League match against Newry City, which is currently scheduled for the midweek before.

It makes so much sense for both sets of players and fans for the game to take place on a weekend, hopefully that option gets explored.

We all hoped that February would be the month that Linfield win two competitions and make progress in two others. It can still be a month where Linfield win two competitions and progress in another.

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