It’s not often that people are jealous of Loughgall fans, but that was the case on Tuesday night, as they put their feet up while six other teams battled to join them in the Irish Cup Semi-Finals.
Two of sides were Linfield and Cliftonville. Side by side in League mediocrity, it was perhaps inevitable they would be paired together in the Irish Cup at some point, especially having avoided their annual (paired together eight times in the previous ten seasons) County Antrim Shield meeting this season.
Quarter-Finals against Cliftonville had been historically good for Linfield. The three previous meetings at this stage (1992, 1994, 2016) had seen Linfield wins en route to the Final.
Both sides had reason to be optimistic. Linfield had beaten Cliftonville in the League the previous month, while Cliftonville had beaten Crusaders inside sixteen minutes the previous Saturday. The truth was, neither result was relevant. This was a standalone match.
It was Linfield who were straight on the attack, the ball mostly in Cliftonville’s half, the first opportunity came when Kirk Millar’s header looked to be looping in, to everyone’s surprise, only for Cliftonville keeper Brian Neeson to save at the cost of a corner.
Within a few minutes, Cliftonville had their first attack when an inswinging free-kick was punched clear by Linfield’s teenage goalkeeper Alex Moore. It was, as pundits like to say, a good touch for the young keeper.
I’m old enough to remember the closest Linfield match to a current player being born. In the case of Alex Moore, he was born two days before a 4-1 win away to Crusaders. I was at that match. Tommy McDonald scored a screamer.
Not that Moore had lacked big match experience, having played in a Steel and Sons Cup Final, and made his first-team debut at The Oval.
The only shaky moment during the game for him was a sliced clearance that conceded a corner, though it looked to me (I was at the other end) that the defender who passed it back to him and out him under pressure had more questions to answer.
Moore was playing because if an injury to Gareth Deane, who himself was thrown into an Irish Cup Quarter-Final against Cliftonville in 2016.
That’s the second time that Deane has suffered an injury just as he looked set for an extended run in the team. That really is rotten luck.
Cliftonville looked nervous in the opening moments, conceding cheap throws in their own half under no pressure. The opportunity was there for Linfield to capitalise.
Kurtis Byrne was involved in most of Linfield’s attacking play, in creation and being on the end of, having a header saved before being found in space only to see his first time shot saved.
Mark Stafford was next to try his luck, having a header saved, before heading off the bar from a corner. Sandwiched inbetween those was a shot from Mark Haughey (after an advantage played by Arnold Hunter. You read that right, praise for Arnold Hunter) which brought about the corner for Stafford to hit the bar.
Byrne then had a header saved on the line by Neeson, as Linfield failed to get the goal their dominance deserved.
0-0 at half-time but no reason to panic. Same performance again, and Linfield would win.
We didn’t get the same performance from Linfield in the second-half. It was a scrappy affair, but Cliftonville were spending more time in Linfield’s half than they did in the first-half.
It took them until just after the hour to have a chance, Garry Breen heading wide from a free header. It was a warning for Linfield.
Cliftonville were now having their best spell of the game and Linfield were now struggling.
There are two main criticisms of David Healy throughout his reign as Linfield manager so far. One is that he goes too defensive too quickly when holding onto a narrow lead, and the other is that he is reactive rather than proactive with his substitutions when the game is in the balance.
Far too often players have been brought on in response to an opposition goal, rather than to get the goal that Linfield need.
With seven subs allowed in the Irish Cup, the options were there. Mitchell or Lowry for Garrett. Fallon for one of the wide players. Rooney or Strain for Campion. It was obvious that Linfield were crying out for fresh blood.
Eventually, Stephen Lowry came on for Robert Garret. The score was still 0-0, but the change should have been made a lot earlier.
Lowry almost put Linfield in front when he tried to force the ball home after a Niall Quinn header was saved, only the hit the post.
In a game where it looked like there would be only one goal, Linfield had thrown away another opportunity to get it.
It was as if they were doing their own Ken Dodd tribute when they went forward, The Dithermen.
Minutes later, it was Cliftonville who got it when Joe Gormley was played through and made no mistake. There was only one outcome as soon as he got the ball, and it looked like being only one outcome of the match once the ball hit the back of the net.
David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Louis Rooney and Ryan Strain for Matthew Clarke and Achille Campion. Already hampered by the loss of Andrew Waterworth to injury, when Linfield needed a goal, they were relying on a young player yet to score, and a striker low on confidence who hasn’t scored since September.
The chances that were plentiful at 0-0 had now dried up at 0-1. Linfield didn’t take them when they were there, and were made to pay for it.
For all their possession in the final ten minutes, Linfield never looked like equalising. There was one monent that summed it up.
A Cliftonville clearance in injury time went into Linfield’s half and a Linfield defender waited for the ball to come to him, rather than going to the ball and starting another attack. Those few second gave Cliftonville enough time to reorganise their shape and defend the situation. It’s the little things that can make such a big difference.
It was a feast of chances but a famine of goals. A whole season summed up in a match.
It got worse when the draw was made. As Jim Bowen would say, here’s what you could have won – a Semi-Final against Loughgall while Coleraine face Larne in the other Semi-Final.
This result is going to get a lot worse when Cliftonville capitulate to Coleraine in the Final. That’s if they don’t lose to Loughgall.
Cliftonville fans who believe in omens may be cheered by the fact that six of the last seven teams to beat Crusaders in the Irish Cup have gone on to win the trophy. The only one not to though, was Cliftonville in 2013.
Cheering on Coleraine in the Irish Cup Final is something we may have to do if we want to qualify automatically for Europe and avoid the farce of the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, though part of me is hoping we finish 5th and win the UEFA Cup Play-Offs purely to laugh at the amount of pantwetting from opposition fans.
To be honest though, I prefer opposition fans to be pantwetting when we win the League.
If Coleraine win the Irish Cup, 3rd place will secure automatic entry to the UEFA Cup. Linfield are only four points off Glenavon, who hold that spot.
They are catchable. To do that, we’ll have to do something we haven’t done since August/ earlySeptember – Go on a winning run.
Elsewhere, three countries have applied to host the UEFA Nations League in June 2019. Portugal and Poland have recently hosted European Championships, which may let Italy in, while all three have hosted European club finals in the last five years.
I’ll keep an eye on that to see if it’s affordable and travelable whoever hosts it.
Next on my footballing agenda is Glentoran’s visit to Windsor Park on Saturday, as David Healy faces the only Irish League manager he hasn’t beaten as Linfield manager in the shape of Ronnie McFall.
McFall’s last visit to Windsor Park was in 2015 to a half built stadium to face a Linfield team managed by Warren Feeney, with Guy Bates pulling the strings. It really feels like a different century.
Hopefully, Glentoran fans will be keeping up one St Patrick’s Day tradition at Windsor Park on Saturday …… of people dressed in green feeling a bit sick at 5pm.