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

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : MANCHESTER UNITED – NOVEMBER 1997

Peter Schmeichel is the cover star of this edition of Manchester United’s official magazine as the Winter months of 1997 approach.

In news, former United star Andrei Kanchelskis says he regrets leaving United and how he loved living in Manchester. In 2001, he would join City on loan.

Cover star Schmeichel gives a five page interview where he complains about the atmosphere at Old Trafford.

There is a look back at United’s recent European Cup game away to Kosice, looking at how football in Slovakia is coping in the years following a split from Czechoslovakia.

With the internet still in it’s infancy, there is a double page spread on the best football sites on the net.

Ronny Johnsen gets a three page interview, hoping for a Norway v England meeting at the following year’s World Cup, simply for the number of United players involved.

In adverts, Gary and Phil Neville appear in an advert for American sportswear firm Pony.

Brian McClair has his diary in a month where he gets a three page profile due to his autobiography being out, revealing that he wanted to be a punk as a teenager.

As usual, the magazine ends with a review of recent games, and a preview of upcoming games.

BALLYMENA UNITED 0-1 LINFIELD 5.4.2019

Almost there, not quite job done. Linfield can still be caught on Goal Difference. Yep, i’m being that guy.

The first game of the split, Linfield’s trip to Ballymena in early April was being earmarked as a potential title decider when the sides were within touching distance of each other.

As the weeks leading up to this game ticked by, the situation suddenly changed with Ballymena’s home defeats to Glentehran and Warrenpoint Town. It was no longer an opportunity for Ballymena to pull level with Linfield, it was now about just keeping in touch with Linfield, and having a small glimmer of hope kept alive.

A draw wouldn’t have been the worst result for Linfield, but to set up like that would have been disastrous. Linfield simply had to go for the win.

If they got it, they would be twelve points clear with four games to go. You do the maths. Goal Difference? That was seventeen in Linfield’s favour, and a win for Linfield would make it at least nineteen in their favour. Yep, that’s boring Linfield who grind out 1-0 wins having a vastly superior Goal Difference to free flowing attacking Ballymena United.

A win for Linfield would as good as seal the title. That was the simplicity of the situation.

Unsurprisingly, Linfield’s starting eleven was unchanged from the win at Dungannon Swifts. Surprisingly though, there was no place on the substitutes bench for Kyle McClean or Michael O’Connor after they both missed the game against Dungannon due to International Duty.

The match kicked-off a couple of minutes late, which worked out handy for me due to being held up at Applegreen by people who are too stupid to order food and insist on paying for everything by Credit Card.

Those opening minutes saw decent build-up play from Linfield with Jordan Stewart getting a lot of joy out wide as both teams struggled on a bobbly pitch, as both sets of players tried to work out how to pass the ball with this uncontrollable variable.

It was Ballymena who had the first chance of the game when Adam Lecky fired over from the penalty spot when pressure from a Linfield. Despite the pressure he was under, he really should have scored. It was a let off for Linfield.

Shortly afterwards, Joel Cooper looked like he was going to put Linfield 1-0 up from close ranger but fired wide under pressure from a Ballymena defender.

Despite not creating anything further of note, Linfield were looking good as an attacking force, with good build-up play.

However, they needed a goal, though i’m not sure that would have been a good idea, after visits to Ballymena in November 2017 and December 2018 saw an early 1-0 lead become a 2-1 defeat.

Midway through the first-half, Ballymena started to gain control of the game, with a flurry of corners, keeping Linfield in their defensive third.

The best opportunities those set pieces brought was an effort smashed against the bar with Jude Winchester’s follow-up being turned behind for a corner when he should have scored.

It looked like Ballymena were going to make the breakthrough when Andy McGrory’s free-kick looked to be going in, only to be denied by a top class one hand save from Gareth Deane.

Linfield were able to ride it out and ended the half with some pressure of their own, Ross Glendenning having to make a save to deny an own goal, while Joel Cooper’s attempted header saw a penalty appeal. I was screaming for it at the time, but TV pictures showed that it wasn’t.

0-0 at half-time, you began to wonder and hope if Ballymena would regret not scoring when they were on top. You had a feeling this was the best they could offer.

Even though Linfield weren’t quite the attacking force they hoped to be, that didn’t mean that Linfield were absent as an attacking force in the first-half.

The main talking point in the final minutes of the first-half was the lack of a yellow card for Andrew McGrory for taking down Jamie Mulgrew as he raced towards Ballymena’s defensive third. I know, I know.

Whatever David Healy said at half-time, it had the desired effect as Linfield went 1-0 up after just 46 seconds of the second-half.

Ballymena only touched the twice between Linfield kicking off the half and scoring, and they were both headed clearances.

Joel Cooper played a through ball to Andrew Waterworth who finished low first time. It was the only thing he could do, but when you get a clean strike, you don’t even have to look. I was at that end, and it was a goal before he even struck the ball.

The game had swung in Linfield’s favour, and they started to take control of the game.

Ballymena suddenly got back into the game, and Gareth Deane had to be forced to come out of his box and make himself big to deny Andy McGrory just as he looked set to level.

Deane might have been busy in the League Cup Final and the League match against Ballymena in February, but you could argue he was making saves he should be expected to make. Not in this game, he made two big saves at key points in the match.

Jimmy Callacher then went on a run which saw him have a shot from outside the box which was turned around for a corner while Andrew Waterworth had a low shot saved as Linfield looked to get the second goal that they needed, even though they were snuffing out Ballymena’s attacking threat.

Callacher then had a header over the bar from a free kick that was awarded for a wild challenge by Jonathan Addis, who was lucky to escape with only a yellow card.

David Healy then turned to his bench. There was nobody who really needed to be taken off, and there was nobody we were desperate to get on, but fresh legs to see the game out would always be welcomed.

Kirk Millar came on for Joel Cooper before Matthew Clarke came on for Jordan Stewart.

Clarke for Stewart wouldn’t be a sub I would make, but bringing Clarke on and pushing Niall Quinn forward has been done before, and it proved effective against Cliftonville in November and then again in December.

As the game approached injury time, Ballymena got a free-kick in the centre circle for a foul by Daniel Kearns which resulted in Jim Ervin embarrassing himself sprinting to get involved and get Kearns sent-off. It was a foul, free-kick, maybe a yellow card, and you just get on with the game.

It was a sign of desperation from Ballymena, a team who had run out of ideas and were trying anything to get something. It was Kearns last involvement in the game as he came off for Stephen Fallon.

Andrew Waterworth saw a spectacular effort go just over the bar but Linfield didn’t need to worry about not getting a second, as they were able to see the game out and win 1-0.

As Linfield players prepared to celebrate a vital win with their fans, Ryan Mayse seemed to take the result badly and had to restrained by Darren Murphy.

It wasn’t going to dampen the celebrations, even though they were a warm-up to the main event (Yes, i’m still being cautious), we even got a Jeffrey-esque fistpump from David Healy.

What it means is that Linfield need one more point from the last four games to secure the title. Three will do next Saturday to do it in style.

Earlier this week, it was announced that the Irish League is in danger of losing a UEFA Cup spot due to it’s co-efficient, so naturally, the League is insisting on giving a place in that competition to lottery winners rather than on merit.

Not that Linfield will have to worry about that, as this result secured European Football and qualification to the Scottish Challenge Cup.

Next season can wait, it’s all about next Saturday, Crusaders at home, the first of three successive home games. And people said that Ballymena were going to have an advantage of home games in the run-in when they have the same amount as Linfield.

Even though we have lost our last two games to Crusaders, they were two games we’ve thrown away. Don’t forget, we’ve beaten them three times in the League already this season.

We’re a better team than Crusaders, we’ve proven it over 34 games, let’s do this in style and get the celebrations started.

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NORTHERN IRELAND 2-1 BELARUS 24.3.2019

If Estonia’s last visit to Windsor Park was one of Northern Ireland’s lowest points in recent years, Belarus only previous visit to South Belfast was one of the highest points.

It was a gloriously warm Friday night in late May 2016. We didn’t know if the heat was because of the sunshine or because of Will Grigg. We were seeing the team off in their last home game before heading to the European Championship in France, we were on an unbeaten run, we were going to win it.

If you hadn’t seen such riches, you could live with being poor.

We loved the experience of going to a major tournament, and all the little spin-offs such as sticker books, send-off home matches and newspaper pull-outs, we want to do it all again in Euro 2020.

It will be tough though, with Northern Ireland in Pot 3 behind two former European Champions and two heavyweights. However, Germany and Holland are two heavyweights trying to rebuild their reputation after humiliating failures in recent years.

However, 3rd place may not be enough for Northern Ireland to secure a Play-Off place thanks to the farce that is the Nations League.

If the group goes to form based on the seedings, Northern Ireland finish 3rd and Belarus 5th, Northern Ireland won’t be guaranteed a Play-Off whole Belarus will be on the basis of winning their group in League D.

There were idiots in our support who kept saying the UEFA Nations League was a great opportunity to help Northern Ireland qualify. How? It is nothing more than a reward for mediocrity.

There will be a 3rd place team who misses out to a team who finishes 5th or 6th in their group. This will blow up in a big way in November.

Northern Ireland would be guaranteed a Play-Off if Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria qualify automatically. Bosnia-Herzegovina blew a 2-0 lead at home to one of their main rivals, while Austria have lost their opening two games in the weakest group. Useless showers.

Northern Ireland can only help themselves, and they found themselves camped in the Belarus half in the opening minutes of the game, but the best they could offer was a Paddy McNair shot saved by the keeper.

Kyle Lafferty had a shot turned around for a corner, a corner which brought Northern Ireland their opening goal when Jonny Evans found himself free in the box to head home from close range.

Pointless stat, but it was Northern Ireland’s first goal in the first-half of a competitive game since Chris Brunt scored against Czech Republic in 2017, nine games ago.

All the clichés about not giving Belarus something to defend and the floodgates opening for Northern Ireland were soon wiped out within a couple of minutes when a shot from Ihar Stasevich was deflected and looped up and over Bailey Peacock-Farrell. It was like a recreation of Andreas Brehme’s goal against England at the 1990 World Cup.

I was behind the goal it was scored in, and you knew what was going to happen as soon as the ball looped up. Windsor Park fell silent, apart from a small pocket of Belarus fans in the corner of North Stand and Railway Stand.

This was a game that Northern Ireland had to win, and the best way of making that happen looked like it was going to come down the left hand side with the duo of Jamal Lewis and Jordan Jones, where most of Northern Ireland’s play was going to.

Jones looked like he was going to set up a second for Northern Ireland but his cross went agonisingly across the box but nobody was able to get on the end of it.

Paddy McNair had a shot blocked as Northern Ireland’s pressure continued in search of a second goal that would not come.

As each minute passed, it became inevitable that Northern Ireland would turn to their bench.

First up, was Josh Magennis for Niall McGinn, then it was Liam Boyce for Kyle Lafferty.

You might say i’m being biased, but I was hoping that the third sub would be Paul Smyth.

It wasn’t, as Shane Ferguson came on for Jordan Jones. It was a sub that made sense though, as Jones was getting into good position out the left but the final ball was missing. If Ferguson could get into the same position, his left foot could provide a final ball that could be productive for Northern Ireland.

A small section of supporters in the quadrant between The Kop and North Stand began singing “Kop Stand Kop Stand, sing us a song”, to which The Kop responded “Who are ya? Who are ya?

Good point actually, who are they? Are they Kop? Are they North Stand? What stand are they in?

It looked like the winner was never going to come.

With just minutes remaining, the ball fell to Josh Magennis. It was set up for him to shoot but he couldn’t get a clear strike on goal.

He ended up passing it, and within seconds, was on the end of a cross, finding that elusive space to turn the ball home. Windsor Park erupted in celebration.

He doesn’t score many, but when he does, it’s vital. That second goal against Greece, breaking the deadlock on a frustrating night in San Marino.

Even his consolation goal against Germany felt important at the time.

The common consensus, would that this would be enough for Northern Ireland, but it almost wasn’t.

With less than a minute of injury time remaining, Bailey Peacock-Farrell had to save at the feet of a Belarus striker who looked set to score from a few yards out.

Northern Ireland held on and got the win, making it two wins out of two.

They were two games they were expected to win, but they still had to go out there and get the win.

Elsewhere in the group, Germany beat Holland 3-2.

It’s hard what to want when Germany meet Holland. Logically, a draw wouldn’t be bad, but it might not be a bad thing if Germany win both games.

That means that if Northern Ireland win away to Belarus and Estonia, and even if they lose home and away to Germany, they will effectively be in a Play-Off with Holland.

Given the choice, you’d rather be in that situation with Holland than Germany.

Even though Holland and Germany are both trying to rebuild their reputations after humiliating failures in recent years, it is Holland who have had the greater fall, and failure to reach the last two tournaments will still be on their mind until they get over the line in this one.

Due to their involvement in the UEFA Nations League, Holland won’t be playing any qualifiers in June while Northern Ireland play twice. This makes them even more of a must-win set of games than they already are.

If we do, we’ll have a nine point advantage over the Dutch, and put all the pressure on them come September.

For once, the UEFA Nonsense League will be doing Northern Ireland a favour.

Northern Ireland v Belarus 2016

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 11.1.1986

It’s a cup edition of Shoot this week, with the FA Cup 3rd Round, and a World Cup calendar included in this edition. The cover star, Ray Stewart of West Ham and Scotland, was hoping for glory in both.

Don Howe is interviewed, where he says he knows he could lose his job as Arsenal manager and his role in the England coaching set-up if both teams fail in 1986.

Manchester United’s FA Cup tie against Rochdale is previewed, with Shoot warning that Steve Taylor could be Rochdale’s danger man.

Nigel Callaghan gets a full page profile after handing in a transfer request at Watford, but denies he has had a bust-up with manager Graham Taylor.

Steve Moran tells Shoot that he hopes 1986 will bring him better luck that 1985, when he damaged knee ligaments in and end of season friendly in the Caribbean

Jan Molby gets a full page feature, crediting Kenny Dalglish for his turnaround in form, and revealing that he practices free-kicks.

Mick Harford also gets a full page feature, but it’s the opposite from Molby’s piece, which sees manager (David Pleat) praising player, stating that the Luton forward should be in the England squad.

It’s all one big love-in this week, with Paul Gascoigne of Newcastle United crediting manager Willie McFaul with the weight loss that has enabled him to be a professional footballer.

Despite English clubs being banned from Europe, they were well represented in the Adidas Awards, with Everton beating Manchester United to Team Of The Year, while Kerry Dixon was a finalist for Golden Boot, alongside Frank McDougall of Scotland and Martin McGaughey of Northern Ireland.

Hibs get a team profile where manager John Blackley declares he is building a team with ambitions of winning the league.

In news, Ian Greaves turned down the job as West Brom manager because they are sponsored by an anti smoking body and he is a dedicated smoker, Aston Villa want to sign Kevin Richardson from Everton, and Tommy Docherty dismisses England’s World Cup chances.

Manchester United defender Graeme Hogg tells Shoot he is hoping to curb his aggression and avoid suspension, while Billy Stark is the subject of this week’s “Focus On ……”

His favourite music is U2, Alison Moyet and Dire Straits.

DUNGANNON SWIFTS 0-5 LINFIELD 22.3.2019

When this game was chosen for live TV coverage, Dungannon Swifts were on a run of seven wins and a draw in eight games. It represented a major challenge to Linfield ahead of the split, a potential slip-up that would be captured live to the viewing public, just as it was against Glenavon a few weeks previously.

However, in more recent weeks, Dungannon’s form has gone on a downward trajectory, with defeats to Institute and Glenavon, and an Irish Cup exit to Ballinamallard United.

Even though Stangmore Park has been a kind ground to Linfield in recent years – Unbeaten since November 2013 and won on their last eight visits – the visits this season suggested this would be tight, with a last minute winner needed in October, and extra-time needed to end Dungannon’s grip on the League Cup in December.

Linfield went into this game missing two players due to international duty, though the two players in question, Kyle McClean and Michael O’Connor were substitutes last time out against Institiute, meaning that there was no disruption to the starting eleven. Their places on the bench were taken by Stephen Fallon, returning after injury, and Kirk Millar, returning after suspension.

Those absences didn’t affect them, going straight on the attack and spending the opening minutes in Dungannon’s half. They got rewarded with an early goal when Jordan Stewart created space down the right wing for Andrew Waterworth to nip in ahead of Joel Cooper and head home to put Linfield 1-0 up.

Having struggled at times against Bottom Six teams this season after not getting an early goal, Linfield now made sure that Dungannon didn’t have something to hold on to. It was also a timely goal for Waterworth, his first goal in five games.

Within a few minutes, he was making up for lost time when Jordan Stewart got in behind Dungannon’s defence to set him up to put it into the empty net. For the second time, Linfield had a situation that was going to result in a goal, the only question was who would score it. The answer each time was Andrew Waterworth.

Linfield must have been inspired by watching Kazakhstan score two in the early stages against Scotland the previous night.

Another cross from Jordan Stewart almost resulted in a goal but a Dungannon defender got to the ball ahead of Joel Cooper at the cost of a corner, while Cooper headed just wide from another cross.

All of Linfield’s attacking play was coming from the trio of Joel Cooper, Daniel Kearns and Jordan Stewart. Left or right, it didn’t matter which side Linfield went, one of those three would be setting something up.

A neat passing move resulted in Andrew Mitchell having a volley saved.

Linfield didn’t have to wait long to go 3-0 up, when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick, ending a goal drought for him, his first goal since New Year’s Day.

The half ended eventfully for Andrew Mitchell with a yellow card and an injury, making him a prime candidate to be the first one substituted once the points were secured, if they weren’t already.

A run from Joel Cooper resulted in Niall Quinn having a shot go just wide.

Dungannon had some half chances towards the end of the half, but the danger was easily snuffed out by Linfield’s defence.

3-0 up at half-time, Linfield were a bit slow at the start of the second-half, perhaps not that surprising as they didn’t need to score, but they didn’t need to be giving Dungannon any encouragement that they could get back into the game.

Any possibility that Dungannon could launch an unlikely comeback disappeared when a bout of Head Tennis between Jimmy Callacher and Josh Robinson after a Daniel Kearns cross resulted in Andrew Waterworth heading home from close range to complete his hat-trick to make it 4-0. It was the second time he had scored a hat-trick against Dungannon, having scored one against them in 2015.

Waterworth then scuffed home an effort to make it 5-0, or so he thought, only to be denied by an offside flag.

The game won, Andrew Mitchell was replaced by Stephen Fallon to give him some vital minutes ahead of the run-in, as he returns from injury.

Andrew Waterworth would then get his fourth goal of the game, heading home from a Daniel Kearns cross to make it 5-0. It kept up a bizarre run of Linfield scoring five goals at Stangmore Park having won 5-3 there in 1995 and 5-1 in 2007. I’m already looking forward to Linfield scoring five away to Dungannon in 2031.

With the points definitely in the bag, Kirk Millar and Marek Cervenka coming on for Andrew Waterworth and Jordan Stewart.

Both of them were involved in attacking moments, with Millar hitting a shot wide after being caught in two minds wether to head it or shoot.

It finished 5-0, which put Linfield nine points clear, which they would expected it to be cut to six by Saturday teatime.

Except, that it wasn’t, with Warrenpoint Town recording a surprise win at Ballymena United.

It means that if Linfield win at Ballymena on 5th April, they will effectively be champions, with Ballymena United having to win their last four games, Linfield to lose their last four, and Ballymena to overcome a goal difference advantage of nineteen in Linfield’s favour.

What a win at Ballymena will definitely result in, will be European football and a return to the Scottish Challenge Cup for 2019-2020.

Friday night games on TV have been a mixed bag for Linfield this season. Hopefully, the game against Ballymena is a repeat of this rather than Glenavon.

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NORTHERN IRELAND 2-0 ESTONIA 21.3.2019

The last time Estonia visited Windsor Park, it was one of Northern Ireland’s lowest points in recent history.

It was October 2011, nearing the end of Nigel Worthington’s second full campaign as manager, both of which saw group favourites (Czech Republic/Poland in 2010, and Serbia in 2012) fail to qualify and minnows take advantage of it, but we weren’t the minnows taking advantage.

If Slovenia can reach a World Cup, why can’t we? If Estonia can reach a European Championship Play-Off, why can’t we?

It was grim, we couldn’t win a game, it felt like we would never win another game, and nobody wanted to play for us.

Unsurprisingly, Nigel Worthington’s time as manager was up, a new man was needed to take us forward.

That man, was Michael O’Neill, but it wasn’t instant. A poor qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup saw Northern Ireland be in Pot five for the expanded Euro 2016.

Suddenly, it all clicked, Northern Ireland won their group and went to France. They almost went to Russia. Now, they were wanting to head to, um, any one of thirteen countries co-hosting Euro 2020, for their second successive European Championship.

It would be tough though, as Northern Ireland, now in Pot three for Euro 2020, found themselves in a group with Germany and Holland.

Oh well, but even if we finish third, we’ll have a shot at the Play-Offs.

Well, no, that’s not guaranteed, thanks to the sham that is the UEFA Nations League.

Northern Ireland’s first foray into that competition wasn’t exactly glorious, losing all four games and being relegated. Quite how, I don’t know, Northern Ireland had enough chances to win all four games.

That frustration was worse when you saw Austria’s group – Poland, Latvia, Macedonia, Slovenia and Israel. If Northern Ireland had that group, we’d be very confident of qualifying automatically from that.

Northern Ireland had a chance with just over a minute on the clock, with Niall McGinn dragging a shot just wide, failing to emulate Ivan Sproule scoring an early goal against Estonia at Windsor Park.

Paddy McNair then had Northern Ireland’s first really chance of note when he headed over from close range when he really should have scored. Craig Cathcart had a header easily saved before Jordan Jones dragged a shot just wide, as Northern Ireland went in search of the opening goal they so desperately needed.

If Northern Ireland could get it, they could charge on and win this game comfortably. If Estonia got it, it could be a long night against a team set up to defend, now with something to defend.

The most curious thing about Estonia’s play in the first-half, was their goalkeeper always kicking out wide from goal kicks, usually conceding throws or possession.

All that Estonia could offer as an attacking force in the first-half was a couple of corners that were easily cleared.

If the first-half was a false start, the second literally was as Estonia had to kick off three times before they got it right. That third time was to ironic cheers. Hopefully, Northern Ireland fans would be cheering at some point for real as Estonia are kicking off, this time after a goal.

Northern Ireland began the second-half a lot quicker, outing more pressure on Estonia’s goal. That pressure was rewarded on 55 minutes when an attacking move which saw Northern Ireland seem to always have one more player and were a pass ahead get rewarded when Niall McGinn finish into The Kop.

Despite being 1-0 up, Northern Ireland still needed a second goal just to be sure.

They got a reminder of that when Estonia got in behind Northern Ireland’s defence, only for Bailey Peacock-Farrell to make himself big and deny Henri Anier.

Any nerves that may have been in Windsor Park were soon gone when Goerge Savile won possession (I originally though it was going to get pulled back for a high foot by him) before launching an attack which resulted in him being fouled for a penalty.

Steven Davis made no mistake from the spot to make it 2-0, and secure the Northern Ireland the points.

They could have secured them by a bigger margin, but Josh Magennis, now on as a substitute, enduring a frustrating evening, hitting everything except the back of the net, but he never hid when he got the ball next time. Thankfully, the misses weren’t costly.

With a Play-Off spot being determined by UEFA Nations League placings, 3rd place won’t be enough for Northern Ireland. It would only be enough if Austria and Bosnia qualify automatically.

Austria lost their opening game, but no need to panic, it was against the team who is Pot one in their group, while Bosnia won.

Northern Ireland can only help themselves, they simply had to get twelve points on the board before facing Holland and Germany. They have three of them.

On to Belarus, arriving at Windsor Park three days later.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 14.9.1985

England’s new star striker Gary Lineker shares cover space with Ian Rush, ahead of a vital week of World Cup Qualifiers, with Rush stating that Wales will destroy Scotland.

Rush gets a double page spread, saying that Wales will win and set up a Play-Off against a team from Oceania, due to Scotland missing the suspended Graeme Souness.

Unsurprisingly, Scotland think they will get the win, according to Shoot columnist Willie Miller.

The match ended in a 1-1 draw, a result which sent Scotland into a Play-Off against Australia, which they won 2-0 on aggregate to reach the World Cup in Mexico.

The game will be remembered for the death of Scotland manager Jock Stein, who collapsed on the touchline moments before the final whistle.

Sammy McIlroy gets interviewed about Northern Ireland’s game in Turkey, expecting Turkey to provide difficult opponents despite losing 8-0 to England earlier in the group.

Kevin Sheedy gets interviewed about Republic Of Ireland’s chances of reaching the World Cup, stating that they can do it. Sheedy had yet to win an away game in his international career, and would need to start doing so, with trips to Switzerland and Soviet Union coming up.

England’s game against Romania is previewed, with manager Bobby Robson singing the praises of Gary Lineker, who had only made his international debut earlier that year.

Bryan Robson uses his column to focus on players who are aiming to head to Mexico next summer, such as Adrian Heath, Paul Walsh, Peter Davenport, Steve Williams and Remi Moses.

Celtic’s new star Alan McInally gets a double page spread, while Rangers also get a double page spread. Well, Queens Park Rangers.

Justin Fashanu also gets a profile as he hopes to get Brighton promoted from the Second Division.

Charlie Nicholas uses his column to express his fears after Scotland manager Jock Stein considers picking only domestic based players after having problems getting access to English based players.

One Scottish striker not worried about not getting picked is Kenny Dalglish, also player-manager at Liverpool, telling Shoot he’ll have no hesitation in dropping himself.

Meanwhile, there is disharmony with the West Germany squad, due to a row breaking out between Berndt Schuster and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Schuster was currently in international exile due to a disagreement with manager Franz Beckenbauer.

A dispute with broadcasters means that no club games in England are televised, so Shoot does double page photos of some of the best action.

LINFIELD 2-0 INSTITUTE 16.3.2019

And relax, all is well. Panic over.

After two defeats which saw their lead at the top cut and a trophy slip away, there was a danger that if it became three in a row, questions would start to be asked if Linfield’s season was about to fall apart.

With two games before the split to come against Bottom Six teams, this represented an opportunity for Linfield to get back to winning ways ahead of the crunch trip to Ballymena in early April.

This was a rare Saturday 3pm game, for numerous reasons. Institute hadn’t played at Windsor Park in that timeslot since 2011, 2008 in the League, while Linfield haven’t played at 3pm on a Saturday since 23rd February, and won’t do again until 13th April.

On the back of two bad results, Linfield will have been glad to be facing a side they had a lot of joy against this season, winning the previous three meetings by an aggregate of 12-1.

That form guide that Linfield were the only team to truly overpower Institute this season, who’ve had a comfortable first season back in the top flight, having to get used to a new ground, but never ever being in relegation danger, instead having ambitions of 7th place, and a possible wildcard opportunity of European football next season.

For Linfield, it was a welcome return to 4231, but no Kirk Millar, who was absent through suspension.

As well as the formation, there were two welcome returns with Jamie Mulgrew returning after suspension, and Joel Cooper returned after a month out through injury, a period where he was badly missed. Andrew Mitchell got the nod in midfield ahead of Kyle McClean.

The two previous League games had been milestone points in Cooper’s season. The first League meeting in August saw him make his home debut and mark it with a goal. By the time Linfield headed to The Brandywell in November, he had lost a bit of form and was on the bench for the first time as a Linfield player, but briefly found it again in a brief cameo, which laid the foundations for his performance against Cliftonville the following weekend when injury presented him with an opportunity to return to the side.

Unsurprisingly, Linfield were on the attack straight from the start, with Andrew Waterworth and Daniel Kearns having shots saved.

Institute had their moments, usually on the counter attack, but the attack was usually sniffed out before it became any major concern to Linfield.

The game died down as Linfield tried to get the lead, wanting to avoid giving Institute something to hold on to, usually finding themselves frustrated by their own wayward or overambitious passes.

The game then burst into life again in the final minutes of the half, with Chris Casement usually involved.

First he had a header well saved from six yards out when it looked like he was going to score, before having a free-kick hit the bar, before Andrew Waterworth’s instinctive rebound shot being saved, though an offside flag rendered that irrelevant.

To end, he had a cross flash across the six yard box and evade everybody, to complete a frustrating half for Linfield, which ended 0-0.

Despite that, there was no need to panic, especially as Linfield were extending their lead at the top as Ballymena United were surprisingly trailing Glentoran 1-0 at home.

It looked like the deadlock was broken in the early minutes of the second-half when Jimmy Callacher headed home, but he was denied by an offside flag.

Having been denied by the crossbar earlier in the game, Chris Casement tried his luck again with another free-kick, going just over.

Just after the hour, Linfield finally took the lead. After a series of Linfield crosses always seemed to be blocked by an Institute foot, Andrew Waterworth was able to control the ball, but not really getting into a clear position to strike at goal, but inadvertently set up Jordan Stewart to blast it into the roof of the net.

All the pressure was off Linfield now, and it showed. Joel Cooper looked to chip the ball in but it was headed off the line by Caoimhin Bonner. The TV footage was inconclusive though Linfield fans were screaming for it.

They don’t have VAR in the Irish League, and I don’t think SSAR (South Stand Assistant Referees) is going to be implemented any time soon.

Linfield’s hunt for a second goal ended when Josh Robinson headed home to make it 2-0, to as good as secure the points.

Institute responded by bringing on Paul Smyth from the bench, but there was no need for Linfield fans to panic, it wasn’t that Paul Smyth, he was somewhere in the North-West of England bemoaning the fact that Accrington Stanley’s match at home to Rochdale was postponed.

Coincidentally, there’s an interview with him on Stanley’s website, you can read it here.

David Healy then introduced some substitutions, starting with Matthew Clarke for Joel Cooper, cue the obvious poetry joke, before Marek Cervenka and Michael O’Connor coming on for Daniel Kearns and Andrew Waterworth.

Cervenka had an opportunity to score but would have needed a right foot curler, he waited too long and Institute were able to see out the danger.

His other main contribution was to get a yellow card to a sliding tackle that everybody in the ground could see a mile off, causing Caoimhin Bonner to show some pace for the first time in his career to get involved, resulting in a yellow card for himself as well.

If it was ten minutes earlier, of if the game was still up for grabs, he would have been an absolute cert for a second yellow card.

Gareth Deane was forced into a save in the final minutes, saving Linfield from a nervous end to the game.

The final whistle blew, and it was a 2-0 win for Linfield, a welcome win, and a welcome clean sheet after conceding six goals in two games.

The news came through from Ballymena that they had lost 2-0 at home to Glentoran. I’ll be honest, that is not a result I saw coming.

That means that Linfield are nine points clear, but Ballymena’s game in hand means it is effectively six points.

You’ll be glad to know that game in hand is on Tuesday, meaning that we’ll be level in terms of games played, meaning i’ll shut up about effective leads.

Institute are the opponents. As well as Institute played when it was 0-0, I can’t really see them taking anything at Ballymena, but I thought the same about Glentoran.

Up next for Linfield is a trip to Dungannon, on the Friday night, giving Linfield a chance to extend their lead before Ballymena kick-off on the Saturday.

Hopefully, we take that opportunity, unlike against Glenavon a few weeks back.

When the Dungannon game was announced for TV coverage, Dungannon were on a decent run of form. That has tailed off in recent weeks.

Despite that, Linfield fans will have seen for themselves that their two visits have needed a last minute winner, and a cup win after extra-time.

Before that, it is the return of international football, as Northern Ireland face Estonia in their opening Euro 2020 Qualifier, and the start of the long road to England/Germany/Italy/Azerbaijan/Russia/Romania/Holland/Republic Of Ireland/Denmark/Spain/Hungary/Scotland begins.

I’m planning on being in London on the weekend of the Final. It would be great to pick up a ticket, but it’s more about the weekend away. I’ll also hope to sneak some time in Brighton as well.

Unfortunately, the kick-off for the Dublin games aren’t known yet, but i’ll try to sneak down to one of them in the Finals.

That’s a long way in the future, take each game at a time. Six points for Northern Ireland and three more for Linfield to aid their respective ambitions please.

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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.

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