Things are going so well for Linfield at the moment, they moved up a place in the League without playing the previous weekend.
Even though they went out of the Scottish Challenge Cup, which was annoying as they would have had a trip to Dumfries in the next round, if you had to lose one cup tie that week, that would have been it. Even the bumps aren’t that bumpy.
Two Cup Finals to look forward to in 2023, Linfield needed to keep on winning to ensure they would start 2023 still in the title race that they looked out of in mid October.
They were handed an accidental boost by the weather, with Larne, Glentoran, Coleraine and Crusaders all having their matches postponed, giving Linfield a chance to get points on the board while others are inactive, a role reversal from the previous week.
Straight on the attack from kick-off, Linfield were looking to make the most of the opportunity to gain points on their rivals.
They looked like they might get a penalty in the opening minute for a foul on Joel Cooper but nothing was given.
Eetu Vertainen then had a shot blocked, the sting taken out of it to take it out for a corner.
It felt like a matter of time before Linfield scored.
Six minutes was the answer, as Eetu Vertainen was played in out right and his cross was perfect for Chris McKee to finish from close range.
From where I was sat, I and those around me could see him unmarked and onside. You were celebrating a goal before the cross even came in.
A much needed start in a game like this. You don’t want to give the opposition something to hold on to.
Linfield didn’t really kick on as hoped after that, and were a bit sloppy in defence, although Dungannon never looked like taking advantage of any sloppy passes going their way.
Eventually, Linfield got themselves back on track and were soon 2-0 up when Eetu Vertainen made space for himself in the box and smashed home. Even at this early stage, it was game over unless Linfield did something stupid.
It was Linfield who were almost gifted a goal when Joel Cooper capitalised on a loose ball but Dungannon’s keeper was able to get out quickly to make himself big and deny him.
Sam Roscoe was then frustrated as his flick goalwards didn’t have enough power to trouble the keeper as they had to settle for a commanding but not decisive 2-0 lead.
A third goal would have done the job for Linfield and there wasn’t long to wait in the second-half for it, just three minutes in fact.
Joel Cooper played in Chris McKee in a wide position, under pressure from Dungannon’s keeper. No problem, just backheel it for Cameron Palmer to put it into the empty net.
Palmer got a knock for his troubles but was able to continue.
He was one of those who would be substituted with the game won. No need to take risks.
Amongst those coming on was Jordan Stewart, making a long awaited return after injury. He would be joined by Liam McStravick, getting more minutes under his belt.
The rest of the game then meandered without incident, until the final five minutes.
Matthew Clarke went on a run and found himself running through on goal before being pulled back by Caolan Marron, who was sent-off
You could argue that was harsh as there was Dungannon defenders putting pressure on Clarke (something they probably should have done many yards earlier), but, Chris Johns was harshly sent-off at Stangmore Park in October in a game where Marron was lucky not to be sent-off.
It was a bit of a stupid thing to do, as the game was gone as far as Dungannon were concered, i’m not sure if was worth the sacrifice. It’s not as if they were holding on for a win or a draw.
The respite was almost temporary as Kyle McClean’s free-kick hit the bar before being headed in by Jordan Stewart, who was flagged offside.
Looking at replays of the incident, the offside call was correct but it looked like the ball might have been just over the line.
It wouldn’t be long before Linfield made it 4-0, and it was more frustration for Jordan Stewart as his shot hit the post but fell for Ethan Devine to set up Liam McStravick to put it into the back of the net.
If it’s not going to be your day, might as well be continually frustrated in your attempts to make it 4-0. That’s a good kind of bad day.
It was great to see him back in action, at a time when numbers will be needed.
Attention for Linfield now turned to the trip to The Oval on Boxing Day.
Although, there were other things occupying their mind recently.
They drew Warrenpoint at home in the Irish Cup. A bit meh, would have loved it if it was away.
Curiously, if they win the Irish Cup this season, their last three wins in the competition, all in the last decade, will have been on a Friday, Saturday and a Sunday.
Glentoran can also achieve this rather unique treble, but let’s not think about that.
A Sunday Final is handy for me as i’m planning to go to United v Wolves on the following weekend, so there is no awkward clash for me.
Let’s hope Linfield get there in the first place.
Also coming to Windsor Park is Michael O’Neill. A pleasantly surprising development. I didn’t think he’d take the Northern Ireland job as he’d be holding out for an English Championship post (he has enough credit in the bank in terms of reputation from his time at Stoke) so this is a bit of a coup.
A welcome mood boost ahead of the Euro 2024 Qualifiers, just as much as Denmark’s performances at the World Cup.
More good Euro news in the shape of new air routes to Frankfurt and Budapest being announced from Belfast. Possible trips with football thrown in to be explored.
Before my visit to The Oval will be a trip to Seaview for the Steel and Sons Cup Final as it’s on the rather more convenient date of Christmas Eve.
Might as well make the most of it as it won’t be on that date until 2033.
So i’ll sign off by wishing you all a Merry Christmas, even to Glentoran supporters.
Although, I hope they have a shitty day on the 26th.
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.
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.
Linfield’s stop-start domestic season got back off to another start, just about getting over the line at Stangmore Park. It was a win that didn’t move them anywhere in the table, but a weekend where more dropped points would have seen them falling further and further behind those ahead of them.
They couldn’t even overtake Carrick Rangers for crying out loud.
It was advisable not to turn up late for this one.
When it became obvious that there would be a change of ends, Linfield attacking their fans in the first-half instead of the second-half, I had to scurry to the opposite end, so I was hoping there wouldn’t be an early goal while I was in motion.
There wasn’t, but I was in position to see Robbie McDaid get in behind Dungannon’s defence, but his low shot from a wide angle was well saved.
Dungannon responded with a low shot that went well wide.
They then had a few moments that caused worry for Linfield, an effort which went agonisingly across the six yard box and a shot which hit the side netting.
Despite having a lot of the ball, Linfield weren’t creating a lot of opportunities in open play. It never felt like Dungannon were under so much pressure that a goal for Linfield was only a matter of time.
In fact, Linfield’s best opportunity came when Dungannon lost possession in their final third, the ball falling to Robbie McDaid, who set himself up but fired over when he really should have scored.
A voice from the crowd said “You can’t afford to miss those McDaid”. Whoever he was, he was right.
On a day when Linfield were creating so few clear opportunities to score, they had to make the most of anything that came their way.
There was more frustration for Linfield when Daniel Finlayson headed wide from a corner.
By this point, there was a torrential rainstorm, which saw fans quickly vacate the open terracing for the sheltered areas.
As the pitch at Dungannon is 4G, there was no danger of an abandonment like there was at The Oval the previous evening, as tempting as that was feeling, to have the opportunity to go home and start again.
Within a few minutes, an abandonment was the last thing that Linfield fans were thinking of as Robbie McDaid put them 1-0 up, chesting the ball into the empty net from a few yards out after a cross from Stephen Fallon.
Just as it looked like Linfield were going to kick on and secure a comfortable victory, there was a dramatic change to the momentum as Chris Johns was sent-off for a professional foul.
Except, he wasn’t the last man, and it wasn’t even a foul.
I was stood behind the goal at the opposite and thought it was a foul in real time.
When you are watching a football match, you will know when one of your team’s players is in trouble.
Not once when the Referee approached Chris Johns did I fear that a red card would be coming next.
There were plenty of defenders tracking back in a position to try and challenge the Dungannon attacker if he bore down on goal.
After all that, TV replays suggested that any contact was minimal.
I had expected a midfielder to be sacrificed, but surprisingly, it was Mike Newberry who made way for David Walsh.
Not quite experienced, but far from a novice, you could trust that Walsh would not be overawed.
Thankfully, there wasn’t long left in the half. See that out, and use the break to clear heads and work towards getting the three points.
At least there was a lead to defend rather than a lead to seek out.
The second-half saw some Linfield pressure in the opening moments as they looked for a much needed second goal, which unfortunately didn’t come.
To counter that, Linfield were comfortable in defence, but a one goal lead is far from secure, regardless of who you are and who you are playing.
Robbie McDaid thought he had secured that much needed second when he finished after following-up an effort which hit the bar, only to be denied by an offside flag.
McDaid was further frustrated when he created space for himself in the penalty area, only to fire into the side netting when he really should have scored.
Despite the clock running down and playing with ten men, David Healy was reluctant to turn to his bench.
It seemed too obvious to bring on an attacker for Robbie McDaid or Cameron Palmer to add some freshness in midfield.
Eventually, there was a substitution, with Niall Quinn coming on for Robbie McDaid, with Joel Cooper playing up front on his own.
That was not a move I was anticipating.
Dungannon then hit the top of the crossbar from a header, a reminder to Linfield that 1-0 is a precarious lead.
With each passing minute, the 1-1 draw at Stangmore Park in 2012 began to enter the memory bank, when a comfortable afternoon because two dropped points and two players banned from the next game.
Joel Cooper would be involved in the main action in the final minutes when his shot from the left went to the wrong side of the near post.
Then, he got pushed over by a Dungannon defender when the game had stopped. No card.
Dare I suggest that a Linfield player would have got a card if the roles were reversed?
I wasn’t screaming for a red card as others might have been doing. A yellow would have sufficed. Even that was lacking.
Thankfully, Linfield were able to hold on and get a crucial win, even though it didn’t help them climb the table, it did keep them in touch with teams above them.
Up next, a trip to Dundela in the League Cup, then a trip to Coleraine in the League.
In the build-up to this game, the draw for the County Antrim Shield was done, where Linfield will face Cliftonville.
Eetu Four-tainen, you could say. Unless you’re German, then you can say Eetu Vier-tainen. You felt it wouldn’t be long until he opened his goalscoring account, he did it in style, becoming the first Linfield player to hit four in a game since Andrew Waterworth. Coincidentally., that was also in a 5-0 win over Dungannon Swifts during the month of March, back in 2019.
Four and five were key numbers pre-match, having navigated four successive wins since defeat at The Oval, and were looking for a fifth to go into the split in a good run of form, which always helps.
Kieron Evans was rewarded for some impressive cameos with a start, with Sam Roscoe coming into the defence and Ethan Devine having to wait on the bench despite his goalscoring heroics last weekend.
There wasn’t long to wait for an opening goal, when Chris McKee set up Eet Vertainen, who cut inside and fired home to put Linfield 1-0 up.
Just ten minutes on the clock and the breakthrough Linfield needed in a game where it was so important to get an early lead.
The game then became Attack v Defence, with Linfield trying to work an opening through Dungannon.
Linfield just needed a second goal to be sure. The longer it stayed 1-0, the more Dungannon would have felt they could get something out of this game.
Chris Shields had a shot go over. He would have fancied it having scored his only goal from open play for Linfield against Dungannon in January.
Just after the half hour, Linfield doubled their lead when Eetu Vertainen was played in behind Dungannon’s defence.
It looked like the opportunity had gone when he was now in a difficult angle to shoot. A low composed finish from a tight angle snuck in, and Linfield now had a cushion.
Such a lead was a luxury at Windsor Park this season.
This was the first time since October that Linfield had a two goal lead at home in the League before the 85th minute.
Every other game had wither been a one goal win, a late second clincher or a draw. In other words, up for grabs right until the end.
Even though the points were secured, having such a lead at home had been a rare experience for Linfield fans.
It wasn’t long before the lead was extended, but this time it was Vertainen providing the assist for Chris McKee to attempt to go around the keeper. He got a bit lucky when the ball fell back to him, but he made no mistake with his second chance, firing home from close range to make it 3-0.
Just before the end of the half, it was almost four when a cross was pulled back to Eetu Vertainen who fired over.
You could see by the look on his face how frustrated he was not to get a hat-trick. He was fancying getting one.
3-0 at half-time meaning that Linfield fans could prepare for the second-half in a relaxed mood. Let’s hope this sort of thing catches on.
With the title race so tight, even the goal difference was relatively tight, so it was important to try and give that a boost.
It was in Linfield’s favour, but not buy a big amount, where a big win for Cliftonville or Glentoran could wipe it out.
A big win for Linfield though, could pull them out of reach in that regard.
It looked like it was going to be 4-0 when Kirk Millar made space for himself in the penalty area but his left foot shot went well wide.
With each passing minute, it was obvious that the game was won, taking the opportunity to bring on a few subs, with a return to action for Martin Donnelly amongst them.
Eventually, it became 4-0 when Eetu Vertainen was played through, cut inside and finished to complete his hat-trick.
It got even better soon afterwards when Vertainen finished again from close range to make it 5-0.
With the game long won, attention turned to results elswhere. It was a mixed bag from a Linfield point of view, with a win for Cliftonville and a draw for Glentoran.
That gives Linfield a five point lead over Glentoran, despite Glentoran winning the League in mid February.
Linfield’s lead at the top has now increased to four points, over Cliftonville who have jumped up to second.
It is a deceptive lead, as Cliftonville have a game in hand. That will come in midweek against Dungannon Swifts.
I can’t honestly see Dungannon getting anything against Cliftonville, but you live in hope.
Next week sees Linfield travel to Warrenpoint Town in a lunchtime kick-off live on Sky.
Playing earlier gives them the opportunity to put even more pressure on Cliftonville and Glentoran, but only if they win.
It’s a game where they won’t have McKee or Vertainen available due to International Call-Ups.
That would leave Ethan Devine and Andrew Clarke as the only striking options available, but that was the front two they finished against Crusaders the previous week.
I’m going to take advantage of the early kick-off by checking out Warrenpoint after the game. Hit me up with suggestions.
It is doable to head straight to Lansdowne Road for Republic Of Ireland v Belgium at 5pm, if you’re into Groundhopping. I am joking on that regard.
Talking of football trips, i’m looking at going away for my birthday in February next year, so looking for suggestions. I am open to travelling from Dublin as the options from Belfast are crap.
It doesn’t have to be a football trip, but it would be rude not to.