So far in 2020, Linfield had swung from good to bad to good to bad as regular as clockwork. The last game, at Larne, was bad, so logically this would be good.
Well the result was, if the performance wasn’t.
Having been playing catch-up since Matchday 2, Linfield’s famous games in hand were no more, all caught up.
All caught up on games, hopefully overtaking the rest on points. Linfield’s games in hand had always been part of an objective, to catch up, to overtake, to stretch their lead. The recent run of inconsistent results have rendered these games as establishing a lead rather than extending one.
Linfield had six changes from that match at Larne. A Suspension for Shayne Lavery presented an opportunity for a start for one of the strikers. Andrew Waterworth returned from injury to take advantage of that. He was one of two strikers coming into the team, with Rory Currie getting a first start.
Niall Quinn, Mark Stafford, Mark Haughey and Kyle McClean also made returns to the starting eleven.
Looking at the line-up when it was announced, I wasn’t too unhappy, the 4-4-2 that should have been on from the start of the 0-0 draw against Dungannon two and a half weeks earlier.
A benefit of Linfield’s squad is it’s versatility with players who can play in a number of positions. Only if it is utilised well.
I got a bit of a shock when the game kicked off and the 4-4-2 I expected turned out to be a 3-4-3. It didn’t work.
Three at the back left them exposed and vulnerable whenever Dungannon attacked, often being rescued by some soft free-kick awards.
At the other end of the pitch, only one player wide on each side meant that Dungannon were able to cope with Linfield’s attacking threat.
When Linfield did get in behind Dungannon, they almost scored the greatest goal in Irish League history when Stephen Fallon burst down the left and crossed for Kirk Millar, who rabonaed narrowly wide.
It looked fancy, but it was all he could do. If he hit it with his left foot, he would have scuffed it straight to the keeper and if he controlled it, Dungannon defenders would have immediately put him under pressure.
There wasn’t long to wait for a goal, but it came for Dungannon, when a neat passing move played in Daniel Hughes, who made no mistake to put Dungannon 1-0 up. This was not supposed to happen.
Windsor Park hoped for an offside flag, more in hope than expectation. Their hope was not met.
It didn’t take long for Linfield respond, less than ten seconds in fact.
An attempted pass to Kirk Millar from kick-off saw a stray header go in the direction of the penalty area. Andrew Waterworth started running towards it. The only question was if he would get there in time to score, not if he would score. He did, and Linfield were back level at 1-1 straight away.
It was an important goal, stating the obvious that. Linfield have struggled this season against teams who have had something to defend. Dungannon’s lead was wiped out straight away. However, they still had a point to hold on to.
Linfield didn’t kick on from there, lacking attacking cohesion in the rest of the half. The closest they came to going in ahead was a speculative backheader from Rory Currie after confusion in Dungannon’s defence.
Early in the second-half, it looked like Linfield were going to take the lead when Kirk Millar got in behind Dungannon’s defence but his attempted lob went over. He did the right thing, but didn’t do it very well.
There was another moment of frustration for Linfield when Rory Currie saw a shot get blocked.
Eventually, Linfield took the lead, in bizarre fashion.
A cleared corner was returned into the box by Niall Quinn and headed on by Andrew Waterworth. It looked like it was going over, and then the ball dropped down. Before you could say “Oh, that’s dropping down”, the ball dropped down in off the bar.
Two goals from Andrew Waterworth turning the game in Linfield’s favour after going 1-0 down to a goal from Daniel Hughes. Just like that day at Solitude in 2017. Any excuse to bring it up.
Linfield could have done with a third goal just to be sure like that day at Solitude. It didn’t specifically have to come from Andrew Waterworth. A third goal from anyone would have been welcomed.
Jordan Stewart came on for Rory Currie as Linfield searched for that goal. It didn’t really happen for Currie. I wouldn’t write him off just yet. He’s making the runs just not getting the goals.
Matthew Shevlin was very unlucky not to get the nod for Currie as a like for like sub, instead of Stewart.
Stewart almost got it when he created space for himself on the edge of the box and curled narrowly wide.
Earlier, Mark Stafford had a header saved and Dungannon survived the scramble.
A third goal would have secured the points, but Linfield just couldn’t get it.
They were almost made to pay for that when Dungannon broke, but thankfully, Mark Patton’s weak shot was easily saved by Rohan Ferguson.
Jordan Stewart was Linfield’s only substitute used, even though Joel Cooper was walking a disciplinary tightrope tracking back, and Linfield had other attacking options if they wanted to bring on a fresh face.
Thankfully, they weren’t made to pay for their lack of fresh faces in the final minutes, especially as Dungannon had played extra-time a few days earlier, and Linfield should have been taking advantage of that.
Job done, and back on top, which is the important thing.
Elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Carrick Rangers to mean that the Top 5 are now separated by four points.
All five of those clubs will be cursing points dropped against clubs in the bottom half.
Linfield can’t afford to drop any more points, especially against clubs in the bottom half, who make up three of their next four opponents. A great chance to get winning momentum, especially with clubs around us facing each other, such as Glentoran facing Coleraine on Saturday.
As well as that, next week is the NIFL Cup Final, where Coleraine and Crusaders will be inactive in League terms, giving Linfield an opportunity to pull clear while others have outstanding games to play.
Just because Linfield are all caught up doesn’t mean everybody else is. The postponement a few weeks back between Dungannon Swifts and Ballymena United means they haven’t played their full compliment of games.
The opening day of the season is the only time this season when everybody has played the same amount of games. Pointless stat for you.
Meanwhile, the game against Glentoran in March has been brought forward to the Friday night for live coverage on the BBC. No real surprise that to be honest.
Will be a bit of a scramble for me to get the train home after the game. I’ll have to run like Andrew Waterworth when he saw a Dungannon player make a loose header.
It might be a five team title battle, but if Linfield keep winning, others will start to fall behind.
Time for a 2017 style finish to the season.