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.
Even though they had a big European game coming up, Linfield travelled to East Belfast for the Official Opening of Blanchflower Park, even though it has been hosting matched since October 2021.
A new ground for Harland and Wolff Welders, I had this earmarked to visit, and I was hoping that the worst case scenario, there would be a Linfield visit as part of pre-season preparations in the Summer of 2022 in order to get me that visit.
Despite that, I wasn’t going to miss Linfield’s first visit there, when this game was announced.
As it was a special occasion, gifts were exchanged on the pitch between Club Directors before the match. That would be as generous as Linfield got.
Welders first game there, in October 2021 was against Knockbreda, with an unknown Ethan Devine. He’s not unknown anymore.
He was though, not involved from the start in this game, as were all the starters from Wednesday night, with Linfield now using weekend friendlies to give gametime to players not involved in European games from the start so that they can be ready when needed, be it in Europe or when the domestic action starts in August.
Despite eleven changes, there were still quite a few big names on the pitch, and quite a lot on the bench, a bench that was far stronger than it was the previous Saturday against Knockbreda.
One of those big name starters was Eetu Vertainen, who was ineligible for the TNS games and was looking to kick on from his goal against Knockbreda.
It didn’t take long for him to do so, smashing home a volley in the penalty area in the opening minutes to put Linfield 1-0 up.
Within a few minutes, he had his eyes on a second goal as he gestured to the bench to be allowed to take a penalty awarded for a foul on Josh Archer.
It was a clear foul on Archer, the only question was in or outside the box.
I was unsure from my position, though TV replays confirmed in was a correct decision.
Josh Archer stepped up to make it 2-0, and Linfield almost had the game wrapped up inside the opening ten minutes.
A good start for Linfield, and the half got even better as they appeared to be having their own Goal Of The Season Competition.
After Andrew Clarke guided the ball home to make it 3-0, Jordan Stewart then fired home low from outside the box to make it 4-0.
One person not participating in the Goal Of The Season Competition was Daniel Finlayson, as his long range effort went over the bar and narrowly avoided hitting Roy McGivern, which meant he narrowly avoided being dumped on the next boat back to Scotland.
Andrew Clarke then got his second goal to make it 5-0. Jordan Stewart looked like he was going to get his second goal when he skinned everybody in the box, but he managed to skin himself just as he was about to score.
There would be long to wait for a sixth Linfield goal, as Chris McKee slotted home just before half-time. Bit rude to ruin the hosts big day like that.
In the early minutes of the second-half, The Welders got a goal back, and a comeback was on.
Those hopes didn’t last long, as Linfield made an instant response, with Jordan Stewart making it 7-1 a few minutes later.
With the game long won, Linfield decided to make a few subs.
Imagine being 7-1 down and seeing the opposition make a series of subs, and thinking to yourself “Well i’m glad they’re taking it easy now”, only to see Chris Shields, Kirk Millar, Jamie Mulgrew, Kyle McClean and Robbie McDaid getting ready to come on. They would be joined by youngsters such as Diego McGann, Ewen McCoubrey and Jack Montgomery.
Unsurprisingly, the game meandered for a while, although they was still time for another Linfield goal, Kyle McClean making it 8-1.
Number 8 making it 8, and now i’m trying to think of games where the scorer’s number has matched the number of goals scored by Linfield.
Not quite the scoreline that Harland and Wolff Welders had in mind for their big day, but it was a good day all round.
Goals for Linfield, minutes in the bank and a chance for a lot of fans to visit a new ground.
Regular readers will know I love visiting football grounds, especially ones i’ve never been to. Over the past two years, I haven’t had a chance to because of you know what limiting my travel opportunities.
So, when the opportunity to visit a newly built football ground, and all I had to do was travel across Belfast, came up, it was too good to be true.
It was an opportunity I thought i’d never have. Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.
You see, every time I had a free Saturday since it opened in October due to Linfield’s match being moved for live broadcast, Harland and Wolff Welders were always playing away from home. So frustrating.
Of course, Linfield were playing at the same time, but with a match against Oxford Sunnyside expected to be a non event (It was, eventually, after a lot of toiling), I could be forgiven for making the most of Harland and Wolff Welders getting a home draw in the 5th Round of the Irish Cup.
I was planning to get the train over but just as I was leaving the house my dad was passing and offered me a lift. Would have been rude not to take it up. He didn’t actually go into the game, but gave the new ground his approval from the outside.
It had a lot of bicycle parking spaces, which gets a thumbs up from me.
There are also a lot of car parking spaces available for fans attending, which is handy as there isn’t a lot of on street parking.
If you are so inclined, there is a bar at the back of the main stand behind the goal. There is another bar for Sponsors and Directors known as the Fred Magee Lounge, but the signage may need an update as, as of last week, he is now known as Fred Magee MBE.
One big stand for sitting if you wish, two smaller ones and one terraced stand as well as plenty of standing area along the side of the pitch, it’s a decent ground for Irish League football. The spatiousness (is that even a word?) will come in handy if Linfield ever make a competitive visit there.
Highlight of the day was walking past Glenn Ferguson, who was watching the game.
In the build-up to their opening game at Blanchflower Park, the club released a video showing off the facilities.
The visitors were Annagh United, best known for beating a Glentoran side featuring Nacho Novo in the League Cup in 2016, a result which saw the end of Alan Kernaghan’s reign at The Oval.
It’s not cup shocks against Glentoran that Annagh want, it’s League matches against them, which could be a possibility next season, with Annagh currently 3rd, six points behind leaders Newry City with a game in hand, and Harland and Wolff Welders a further six points behind in 6th.
No chance of a giantkilling here, mainly due to both teams being in the same division and relatively close to each other.
Naturally, there would be some relatively familiar names in both teams. Michael McLellan, briefly of Linfield in 2016, Darren Murray, of various clubs, Scott Davidson, who scored in the 2011 League Cup Final for Distillery and Ben McAuley, formerly of Ballymena United lining up for Welders. Annagh had Niall Henderson, an Irish Cup winner with Glentoran in 2015 lining up for them.
The first-half was mostly even, defences on top.
Of what chances there were, Welders keeper had to stretch to tip a shot over while Darren Murray headed just wide from a cross.
It was hard to see where a goal was coming from, then out of nowhere, Ruari McDonald flicked home a cross to put Annagh 1-0 up.
And then, almost another goal, as Darren Murray headed off the post immediately, agonisingly close to an equaliser.
1-0 down at half-time, Welders came out intent on equalising and had to wait until just before the hour when Michael McLellan got in behind Annagh’s defence, turning inside his man to create a shooting opportunity for himself and then firing the ball home to make it 1-1.
A game that had been even so far was now turning in Harland and Wolff’s favour, as they put pressure on Annagh’s goal. The best effort was a goalbound shot being cleared off the line.
Crosses were particularly problematic for Annagh, often evading the keeper and defender but unfortunately for The Welders, their attackers were never able to get a clear header to score, often going agonisingly wide.
With the weather getting a bit chilly, I was hoping for this game to be settled inside 90 minutes. Can’t say I was looking forward to extra-time.
The plot twist, was that the goal came against the run of play to Annagh, when a cross fell perfectly for Niall Henderson to set himself up to smash home from close range and win the game.
Even though there was still some time left for an equaliser, you just felt it wouldn’t come, and so it proved as Annagh made it through to the next round.
Their prize, an away tie against Dungannon Swifts.
Linfield meanwhile, were eventually winning 4-0 against Oxford Sunnyside, with a debut goal for Ethan Devine, just signed from Knockbreda.
I don’t know much about him, but i’d be hoping for a more experienced striker to be signed alongside him for the run-in. Still, good to see him and Andrew Clarke getting on the scoresheet.
One more defender to bolster numbers would be needed now that Trai Hume has moved to Sunderland.
A great move for him, though Sunderland signing Northern Ireland players leaves me conflicted as I am enjoying them languishing in the lower leagues.
He brings the ex Linfield contingent on Wearside to two alongside Carl Winchester. It would have been three if Conor McLaughlin hadn’t left in the Summer.
Linfield’s prize is a trip to Larne, meaning they will face Larne twice and Glentoran in the space of seven days. Bring it on.
It is being rumoured of a UK and Ireland bid for Euro 2028. I don’t know why England doesn’t just bid on it’s own. Still, at least it will fill up some pages on slow news day with reports of a 700,000 capacity stadium to be built in Belfast in order to host Slovenia v North Macedonia.
So, overall, it was great to be groundhopping again, it is a perfect ground for Irish League football, something for everybody depending on how you like to watch football. I would be very excited if Linfield were to play a competitive game here at some point in the future.
Definitely on my pre-season wishlist, though obviously not taking over my top two of Bray and Stranraer away.
My football watching in December began in Ballymena, to see Linfield race into an early 2-0 lead, only to get home 3-2, in a vital win.
The following Saturday, was the first of three visits to Windsor Park in December, to see Linfield beat Ballinamallard United and go top of the league.
That set up a top of the table clash against Portadown, which Linfield won 3-2, helped by a last minute penalty save from Ross Glendinning.
The final week of the month saw me go to three matches in three days. I got invited to the Steel and Sons Cup Final on Christmas morning. It was a good game and worth getting out of bed for, Carrick Rangers beating Harland and Wolff Welders 4-1.
The next day, was the Boxing Day clash between Linfield and Glentoran. It wasn’t a good game, but it was a good result, with Linfield winning 2-1.
The next day, one more match for the year, to see Bangor take on Ards in a top of the table clash in Championship 1, with Ards getting a late and dramatic 3-2 win in injury time.
So, my football watching is over for 2014. Time to look back at the year just gone. And what better way to do it than with a load of stats.
Games : 54
Goals Seen : 164
Red Cards : 17 (includes Rhys Marshall getting sent-off after the final whistle, but not Gary Hamilton being sent-off as a substitute before he entered the field)
Missed/Saved Penalties : 4
Hat-Tricks : 1 (Robin Van Persie, Manchester United v Olympiacos)
Teams Seen : 37
Accrington Stanley (1st time), AIK Solna (1st time), Ards, B36 Torshavn, Ballinamallard United, Ballyclare Comrades (1st time), Ballymena United, Bangor, Bray Wanderers (1st time), Carrick Rangers, Cliftonville, Coleraine, Cowdenbeath (1st time), Crusaders, Drogheda United, Dungannon Swifts, Everton (1st time), Exeter City (1st time), Faroe Islands, Glenavon, Glentoran, Harland and Wolff Welders, Heart Of Midlothian, Hibernian, Hull City (1st time), Institute, Leyton Orient (1st time), Linfield, Manchester United, Northern Ireland, Olympiacos (1st time), Peterborough United (1st time), Portadown, Real Madrid, Sevilla (1st time), Tottenham Hotspur, Warrenpoint Town,
Stadiums Visited : 19
Ballymena Showgrounds, Brisbane Road (1st time), Cardiff City Stadium (1st time), Carlisle Grounds (1st time), Coleraine Showgrounds, Crown Ground (1st time), Drumahoe (1st time), Ferney Park, Milltown (1st time), Mourneview Park, Old Trafford, Seaview, Shamrock Park, Solitude, Stangmore Park, The Oval, Tynecastle, White Hart Lane (1st time), Windsor Park
Competitions : 15
County Antrim Shield, European Championship, European Cup, European Super Cup (1st time), FA Premier League, Football League One (1st time), Football League Two (1st time), Irish Cup, Irish League, Irish League Championship, League Of Ireland, Northern Ireland League Cup, Scottish Championship (1st time), Steel and Sons Cup, UEFA Cup
No real curiosities this year. There were two twins on opposing sides, but i’d already seen it. Other than that, a player setting up a goal with no boots. It was a poor year for curiousities.
UEFA 100 Club : Everton, Sevilla (now at 32 clubs)
I love football, but getting up early on Christmas morning does test my faith. I was invited along, so it would have been rude not to. It wasn’t my first time at a Steel and Sons Cup Final, but it was a while ago. It was so long ago, the RUC were playing – 1993, and they beat Dundela 5-1.
This year’s game, was a clash between two Championship 1 sides, Carrick Rangers and Harland and Wolff Welders.
Having played a season at Seaview, and a few other matches due to renovations at Taylor’s Avenue, Carrick will have reason to feel at home. Though, with former Crusaders players Gary Smyth (manager) and David Rainey (forward) on their books, The Welders had two key personnel who would be at home at the North Belfast venue. Rainey was only recently ruled eligible for this game, as it was suggested that his role as a non playing subsitute in last season’s Irish Cup Final might have ruled him out.
Welders kicked-off and went straight on the attack, but it was Carrick who dominated the early stages, and went ahead on 17 minutes with a lovely finish from Aaron Smyth.
As half-time approached, Carrick went 2-0 from a header by Kyle Cherry.
Mark Magennis had Welders best moment in the early stages of the second-half when his free-kick was headed off the line.
The next goal was crucial, and it was Carrick that got it, when Conor McCloskey fired home just before the hour. The game was effectively over.
The game didn’t go all Carrick’s way, with 15 minutes remaining they had Daniel Kelly sent-off for a second yellow card. It could possibly have been a straight red card, as he brought down his opponent running through on goal.
From the resulting free-kick, there was a scramble which resulted in Michael McLellan putting the ball in the back of the net.
Welders have a brief lifeline, and against ten men, they fancied their chances.
With each passing minute, they knew a dramatic comeback wasn’t going to happen. In injury time, Ben Roy made sure of it, if there was any doubt when he finished to make it 4-1, celebrating with the Carrick fans behind the goal at the Shore Road End. They knew the job was done.