CARRICK RANGERS 0-2 LINFIELD 7.3.2020

After a Fruitful February (four games, four win), Linfield were hoping for a Marvellous March, returning to League action after a weekend off, with a trip to Carrick Rangers, as the season reaches the final straight.

This would also be Linfield’s last game of the season against an opponent in the bottom half of the table. Despite Carrick’s position outside the Top 6, this wouldn’t be an easy game for Linfield.

Despite the scorelines of 3-0 and 2-0, Linfield’s two previous meetings with Carrick have been anything but comfortable.

Their recent record against Carrick is good. Very good. In the four seasons Carrick have played in the top flight since promotion in 2015, Linfield have won ten and drawn one of the eleven meetings, only conceding one goal. An incredible run of nine successive clean sheets against Carrick. And the one goal that Carrick have scored in this period was a penalty.

Despite scoring four goals in each of their last two games, Linfield were forced into two changes through injury, Two Fs – Ferguson and Fallon, probably generating a few Fs amongst Linfield supporters when they heard the news. This was the first game that Rohan Ferguson had missed in the League this season.

Alex Moore got the nod ahead of Gareth Deane to replace him, his first appearance for the club since May 2018.

Bastien Hery, fresh from an international call-up for Madagascar, got the nod to replace Fallon in midfield.

Linfield’s squad was being stretched, just as it will be in January 2021 if Madagascar qualify for the African Cup Of Nations.

Also in receipt of good news, or not if you’re superstitious, is Andrew Waterworth, who won the Player Of The Month award for February, after a run of six goals in four games.

There are cynics who believe the award in jinxed, so it might not be a cause for celebration.

If you are of that persuasion, you’ll be hoping Oran Kearney beats David Healy to the Manager Of The Month award. Glentoran, Crusaders and Cliftonville were be hoping they get a joint award.

Thankfully, it was announced on Sunday morning that the winner was Kearney, which is good news if you believe the award is jinxed.

Positioned ready for the end that Linfield usually attack in the first-half (the one behind the goal where you just stand with no shelter), I got a shock when the sides switched ends and Linfield would now be attacking the away stand they usually attack in the second-half.

So, a quick dash to get into the position where Linfield were attacking, I was hoping there’d be no goal for Linfield inside the first minute of the game, so I wouldn’t miss it or have an obstructed view while being in motion.

They almost did, taking just ten seconds for Andrew Waterworth to look like he was going to get in behind Carrick’s defence, a bad bounce denying him the opportunity, and Carrick were able to clear the danger.

Joel Cooper got the crowd excited with a run out wide as Linfield searched for an early goal to settle the nerves.

They suffered an early blow when Niall Quinn went off injured. Thankfully, Linfield had a ready made replacement on the bench in the shape of Matthew Clarke.

Every weekend for what seems forever, there has been a named storm. No named storm this weekend, but Carrick has it’s own microclimate where today it was very windy. Carrick had it to their advantage in the first-half, and weren’t afraid to hit speculative long range shots.

A lot of them looked like they might be causing Alex Moore problems when the ball was in mid air. However, when the ball dropped down to earth, they turned out to be easy saves.

Whilst Moore was making a lot of saves, none of them were causing any trouble to Moore. You still have to make those saves.

Jordan Stewart had Linfield’s first effort on goal when he got into space but just over.

Soon after, Linfield took the lead when Chris Casement burst down the right wing and got himself into a crossing position in the penalty area. His cross was deflected onto the post, before an attempted clearance hit Kirk Millar and went into the net to put Linfield 1-0 up.

A stroke of luck perhaps, but you make your own luck. If Casement doesn’t make the run and if Millar doesn’t go into the penalty area, Linfield don’t get the goal.

An early goal was exactly what Linfield needed. They’ve struggled this season against teams who have had something to defend. They’ve especially struggled in the previous meetings with Carrick after failing to establish control of the game early on.

They couldn’t get the second goal that they needed. Andrew Waterworth thought he was going to get it but he was flagged offside.

Waterworth looked as though he was going to set up Kirk Millar (Should it not be the other way around?) when the ball fell loose to him after a challenge with Carrick’s keeper, it looked like he was going to put the ball into the empty net, only to be denied by a last ditch tackle.

1-0 up at half-time. Not playing great, but not playing awful. One more goal, and that would be three points.

They started the second-half determined to get that goal, with Joel Cooper firing a shot over in the opening seconds.

There wasn’t long to wait for that second goal, when Kirk Millar curled in a spectacular free-kick to make it 2-0.

It was such a good goal, even one of the Carrick subs warming up beside me applauded it.

Realistically, that was the game for Linfield. There was no way Carrick were going to score two. They didn’t even look like getting one.

Despite that, Linfield still needed a third just to be sure.

Soon after, Shayne Lavery came on for Jordan Stewart. I presume he had a slight injury as it was too early to be making a change with the game won, especially as it was only 2-0.

Lavery had a frustrating afternoon, getting into positions but being denied by a combination of post and Carrick’s keeper.

He almost got an assist when he crossed for Kirk Millar, but his header went just wide, as he looked for a hat-trick.

Millar had an effort go over as well. Whenever he got the ball in an attacking position, fans were urging him on to get the matchball.

There would be no third goal, but two was enough, another three points on the board.

Linfield’s gap at the top remained at four points, but this was a week where you could definitively argue that this season’s title race was whittled down to two teams.

Tuesday’s North Belfast Derby was effectively a title eliminator, where Cliftonville and Crusaders looked to reduce the gap to eight points.

A draw was perfect for Linfield, as it meant they are both ten points behind Linfield. Wins for them both meant they remain ten points behind.

The points difference is bigger than the number of games remaining. Even if either of them wins their last seven games to finish above Linfield, they’ll have to get seven more points than Coleraine as well.

Glentoran kicked off eight points behind Linfield, but the teams have to play each other twice.

That meant they had to win all their remaining games and hope Linfield drop a further three points.

Defeat at home to Cliftonville means the gap is eleven. That is too much to make up at this time of year.

I’m saying it. I’m writing them off. Neither Glentoran, Cliftonville or Crusaders will be 2020 Irish League Champions. It will be either Linfield or Coleraine.

Assuming that Linfield and Coleraine are the Top 2, 3rd place will be a UEFA Cup place if Coleraine win the Irish Cup, and Larne are in the mix for that now, giving those three something else to worry about.

Linfield and Coleraine both won 2-0, which means the goal difference remains at seven in Linfield’s favour. That seems like a lot, but that can be wiped out quite quickly.

It isn’t the big decisive advantage lurking in the background as it was in 2017.

Up next for Linfield is a home match against Larne.

A Larne side who have won their last six League matches.

However, Linfield have won their last five League matches and are unbeaten at Windsor Park in the League since August.

Larne will play Coleraine the week after. I have a suspicion that Linfield and Coleraine will replicate each others results against Larne just as Linfield and Glentoran did in January.

A big game for Linfield to get the win, keep the momentum going and keep the doubters at bay.

Especially as it’s hard to put a case forward for Dungannon Swifts getting a result away to Coleraine.

This week saw the Irish Cup Semi-Final draw, and my oh my, what a kerfuffle.

Surely when this season’s calendar was being created, somebody could have spotted that Irish Cup Semi-Finals over an international weekend could have been problematic if Windsor Park was unavailable.

Especially as they amended the dates of the Semi-Finals in 2015 because it was going to fall on an International Weekend. And 2015 has the exact same (from 1st March onwards) calendar as 2020.

And then to top it off, Cliftonville v Glentoran will be on a date when both clubs will have their Managers away on a Coaching Course.

Did nobody think to ask both clubs before confirming a date?

Talking of draws, this week saw the draw for the UEFA Nonsense League.

There would be no short trip to Scotland or Wales, instead we got Norway, Austria and Romania, all teams faced in the last five years.

Northern Ireland have the potential to finish anywhere between 1st and 4th. And there’ll be two sons of 90s players playing at Windsor Park in the shape of Erling Haaland and Ianis Hagi. Ianis Hagi will hope to avoid being sent-off at Windsor Park like his dad.

I had a look and Toni Polster and Andreas Herzog don’t have a son in the Austria squad.

I’m not booked for any of the away games. Austria would be the most tempting, especially as a double header with Slovakia (There is only one hour between Vienna and Bratislava)

Slovakia are at home to Scotland on the same day that Austria face Northern Ireland.

Talking of travelling, Flybe have gone under, which is a bit of a shitter, as I would use them when I fly to United matches.

As well as a lot of places which will now be cut off for Belfast (We don’t even have a lot of options to begin with), Flybe do a lot of Easyjet routes, so expect Easyjet prices to go up now that they have no competition.

Loganair haven’t wasted time and picked up the Aberdeen and Inverness routes, going direct.

Very tempted by that, for both cities, but Aberdeen has been interesting me after seeing it on Frankie Boyle’s Tour Of Scotland and Susan Calman’s Secret Scotland, and it has some decent Street Art.

However, my next football trip will be a short train journey across Belfast to The Oval in just under two weeks time.

Hopefully by then, Linfield will have a further three points in the bag.

Photo Album

LINFIELD 4-0 CRUSADERS 21.2.2020

Linfield and Andrew Waterworth are really enjoying February 2020. The good news is, it has an extra day this year. The bad news is, the next match isn’t until 7th March.

After three successive wins from games they were expected to win, now Linfield faced a game that they must win. Or certainly, do not lose.

Too many times this season, Linfield have failed to deliver when presented with the opportunity to pull clear of a rival. Kicking off eight points clear of Crusaders, albeit with a game more played, Linfield knew that if they won, they could have some justification is regrading the five team title race as a four team title race.

Crusaders were there for the taking, both sides recent forms was going in opposite directions. Linfield had won their last three games while Crusaders had lost their last two.

The pre-match team news saw mixed injury news for Linfield – one in and one out, luckily in the same position as Jamie Mulgrew returned for Kyle McClean.

Straight from kick-off, Linfield looked to get the ball to Joel Cooper. Not a bad tactic considering his recent form.

Linfield were already putting Crusaders under pressure, a statement, winning a corner in the first minute.

Gerard Doherty punched the corner away to Joel Cooper, whose sliced volley fell to Mark Haughey.

The temptation for Haughey would be to help the effort goalwards, but he sent the ball left to Kirk Millar.

Millar’s cross has headed in by Jimmy Callacher, who got in front of his man, to put Linfield 1-0 up with just ninety seconds on the clock.

The man who Callacher beat to the ball incidentally, was his own team-mate, Mark Haughey.

It kept up an incredible run, that this was the ninth successive League goal for Linfield against Crusaders scored by a player whose first name began with J.

It was a run that began when Josh Robinson put them 1-0 up after a minute in December 2017. Linfield would be hoping to kick on and avoid a repeat of the 2-1 defeat they suffered that day.

Cameron Dummigan got a yellow card ten minutes into the game, a surprise considering the unwritten rule that Referees aren’t allowed to issue a yellow card in the opening fifteen minutes of an Irish League game. Even more reason to get Joel Cooper on the ball.

It looked like a second goal was going to come when a cross fell to Andrew Waterworth in the penalty area. Unfortunately, the ball hit him as he tried to control it, and bounced into Gerard Doherty’s arms. A moment of frustration for Linfield.

Crusaders did have sights of Linfield’s goal. Paul Heatley had a left foot shot saved when he would have been better trying to cut in and hit it with his right foot. Rodney Brown saw a header from a free-kick tipped over by Rohan Ferguson.

A satisfactory first-half for Linfield, mostly nullifying Crusaders attack and getting a lead of their own. Now they needed to kill the game off in the second-half.

Linfield went out in the second-half determined to secure the points as early as possible.

Andrew Waterworth had a shot which forced Gerard Doherty into a spectacular save. The respite was only brief for Crusaders.

As Crusaders tried to counter attack, Jamie Mulgrew wasn’t having any of it, winning back possession and starting Linfield on another attack.

That attack saw Joel Cooper run at Crusaders defence and pull the ball back. There was a bit of a scramble, but when the ball fell to Andrew Waterworth a few yards out, there was only going to be one outcome, as Linfield went 2-0 up.

That goal gave Linfield control of the game, but it was almost wiped out straight away when Jamie McGonigle had a free header from a cross, but the ball went straight into Rohan Ferguson’s arms.

Linfield made the most of their escape, applying more pressure on Crusaders goal in search of a third goal just to be sure.

Chris Casement had an effort saved while Stephen Fallon had an effort go just over.

There wasn’t long to wait for the third, as Jimmy Callacher headed home from a corner to make it 3-0. As with the other two goals, it was a case of the Linfield player wanting it more and reacting quicker to the ball when it was in the six yard box.

Even someone as cautious as me knew that the points were in the bag. It was now a case of how many for Linfield.

The three goal lead allowed Linfield to make use of their bench.

Having missed the match against Ballymena through injury, Shayne Lavery came on. Surprisingly, not a straight swap for Andrew Waterworth, but for Jordan Stewart. Why not throw on an extra striker when you’re 3-0 up?

Lavery almost had an instant impact when he got in behind Crusaders defence, but his first time effort was saved by Gerard Doherty while under pressure from a Crusaders defender.

With two more subs to make, Daniel Kearns was introduced to give him game time, having not featured much recently.

For the same reason, it was a bit surprising that Bastien Hery didn’t get a brief cameo, as Rory Currie was Linfield’s final sub, coming on for Andrew Waterworth.

The night got worse for Crusaders when Howard Beverland got a second yellow card for a foul on Shayne Lavery on the halfway line.

When Beverland got his first yellow card, someone beside me was screaming for a second yellow. Beverland is one of those players that you just always think is on a yellow card, even if he isn’t.

I know you always want your team to fight to the end and all that, but Beverland would have been better off letting him go and hope a team mate can cover for you. Now he is suspended from his side’s biggest match of the season.

Not that it is of any concern to Linfield.

Shayne Lavery had an opportunity to make it 4-0 in injury time, but he dragged his shot wide.

Just as against Glenavon last month, Linfield had a counter attack with thirty seconds to go. Just as then, they managed to get a goal in that timeframe, with ten seconds to spare this time, as Stephen Fallon passed a low shot into the back of the net.

Just as with the first three goals, it was about Linfield players wanting it more, Fallon making that run to make something happen, even though the game was long won.

Not important in terms of the result, but it could be by the end of the season.

At kick-off, Linfield’s goal difference was only two better than Crusaders, the only team close to them in this regard. This was effectively an eight goal win, as Linfield’s advantage over Crusaders in terms of goal difference is now ten goals.

The most pleasing thing about this game was the clean sheet, a first in five matches. Wins, goals and clean sheets are good habits to get into at this time of year.

Linfield fans went to bed on Friday night safe in their knowledge their team was now nine points clear at the top, though that would change after Saturday’s games.

The lunchtime game didn’t give them the shock result they were hoping for, as Coleraine beat Institute 4-0.

The 3pm games were a lot kinder for Linfield, with Glentoran (v Glenavon) and Cliftonville (at home to a Ballymena side who had lost seven games in a row. Absolute textbook post 2014 Cliftonville) both drawing.

The five team title race isn’t as exciting as Neutrals are hoping for. Glentoran, Crusaders and Cliftonville are having to argument to say they are part of the title race.

You can’t fully assess the League table until everybody has played the same amount of games, as Coleraine, Cliftonville and Crusaders have a game in hand on Linfield.

Those games are scheduled to take place on Tuesday 3rd March. I won’t be thinking about them that night as i’ll be seeing Blossoms in concert at The Limelight.

The good news for Linfield, is that Crusaders face Cliftonville, so only one of those will win that night, if any. At eleven points behind, this is a title eliminator. Even the victor being eight points behind will be needing a spectacular run of form and a lot of help from others.

Glentoran are eight behind and up against it but not out. They face Linfield twice still, so they can cut that deficit to two. They will need to win all their remaining games just to be part of the title conversation.

Their next three games are against Crusaders, Cliftonville and Linfield. Those first two games will represent further point droppage for Linfield to take advantage of

Coleraine are the main worry for Linfield. Seven points behind but with a game in hand, and with one trophy in the bag.

If Linfield keep winning, it doesn’t matter what the others do. They will need to keep winning just to keep up, and they can’t all win if they play each other.

That game against Glentoran incidentally, has tickets on sale now. It’s good to see that tickets are on sale four weeks in advance of the match. I don’t think this is because of my constant moaning.

Supporters will have two home games, a free Saturday morning, and another Saturday morning on the day of a relatively short away trip to purchase tickets, which is very convenient. I’d better get a move on and get mine.

Here’s a pointless stat for you. A list of how many times Linfield have scored 4 or more goals in a League match under David Healy.

6 – Dungannon Swifts
5 – Warrenpoint Town
3 – Glenavon, Cliftonville, Glentoran, Ballymena United, Ballinamallard United
2 – Crusaders, Portadown, Ards
1 – Coleraine, Institute

Only three teams have avoided such a fate. Linfield face two of them, Carrick Rangers and Larne in their next two games.

Not being greedy. I’ll take a 1-0 win in those two games, and every game remaining this season.

The other club who haven’t conceded four goals in a game to Linfield under David Healy? A bit surprising, Newry City.

I’ll be heading to that game at Carrick by train, hopefully. Assuming that Northern Ireland still has a Railway Network in two weeks time.

Talking of trips, i’m looking at Warsaw maybe for later in the year. Most likely a Saturday-Tuesday on Ryanair. Hopefully, i’ll take in a game while there.

Before Linfield play again, is the UEFA Nations League draw. You should know my views on the “Competition” is that it is a farce. But while we’re in it, a trip to Scotland, midweek game please. It’s been a while since I was last in Glasgow.

So, February 2020 has been a good month for Linfield. Hopefully, March and April will be likewise.

Photo Album

BALLYMENA UNITED 1-4 LINFIELD 14.2.2020

Why spend Valentine’s Day with the one you love when you can spend it with the eleven that you love? We’ve had our ups and downs lately, but things are going well. Although, we’d rather have been putting our feet up and getting ready for the League Cup Final.

That trophy may be gone, but the League was still up for grabs. With three rivals all inactive in the League this weekend, Linfield knew they could put a lot of pressure on them with a win here.

Linfield’s starting eleven showed one change from their last game, with Jordan Stewart coming in for the injured Shayne Lavery, as Linfield reverted to 4-2-3-1.

The game got off to a slow start, for both teams, a lot of the game being played in midfield as both defences were on top.

Linfield’s first chance was a header from Andrew Waterworth that couldn’t be diverted goalwards.

Ballymena’s first chance was a shot from Joe McCready that forced Rohan Ferguson into a save. A reminder to Linfield that for all their possession, the object of the game is to put the ball into the back of the net.

They certainly got a reminder of that when Joe McCready created space for himself on the edge of the box to shoot. It looked set up perfectly for a left foot curler, but he went for the right foot, and got the outcome he wanted, putting Ballymena 1-0 up.

I was sat at the other end and had a perfect view of it as he set himself up. It was in from the moment he hit it.

Worryingly, this was the sixth time in seven games that Linfield had conceded in the League, five in a row and seven in eight in all competitions. This is something that will need to be addressed in the run-in if Linfield have any ambitions of winning the League.

Remarkably, despite this run, Linfield have the second best clean sheet record in the League, only one behind Coleraine.

Although, it should be pointed out, that the last time Linfield kept a clean sheet, people were moaning that day, because it came in a 0-0 draw against Dungannon Swifts.

Having already ruined my birthday by not being in the League Cup Final and playing on this date, Linfield were now ruining it again by losing.

The response, was instant. Well, not as instant as the response to going 1-0 down against Dungannon earlier in the month. We had to wait five minutes for it.

Ballymena’s goal kickstarted Linfield into life, adding more intensity and urgency into their attacking. That was rewarded when Mark Haughey headed home from a header by Kirk Millar. Just like with McCready’s goal, it was in from the moment he sent it goalwards.

Earlier in the day, Millar had passed his Driving Test, and was now hoping that this would kickstart a three point turn, with the points now going to Linfield rather than Ballymena.

On his previous appearance at Ballymena, Haughey was sent-off, so this was a welcome change in fortune.

Credit to the Referee as well, for playing advantage in the attack that led to the corner after a foul on Jordan Stewart, before going back to book the Ballymena player who committed the foul.

Jordan Stewart then escaped the attention of a couple of Ballymena players in the penalty area, before hitting a left foot shot that was tipped over by Ross Glendenning.

Adam Lecky was then lucky to only to shown a yellow card for a high foot when going for the ball.

As it looked like the sides were going to go in at half-time level, Linfield took the lead with just fifteen seconds of injury time remaining when Joel Cooper ran into the box and saw his shot saved, then bounced off a defender perfectly for Jordan Stewart to finish from a few yards put.

The mood in both Dressing Rooms had now changed. For Linfield, it was no longer about winning the game, it was about finishing the game off.

Half-time leads at Ballymena have been precarious for Linfield in recent years. 2017 and 2018 had seen them go in 1-0 up but find themselves 2-1 down early in the second-half, so nothing would be taken for granted.

Linfield needed a third just to be sure, and looked the most likely to score.

A free-kick from Stephen McCullough which went just wide was a reminder to Linfield that they needed it.

Eventually it came, when a Ballymena player headed a corner towards his own goal. From where I was sat, it looked like it was going in, but TV replays suggested it might have been hitting the post.

Jimmy Callacher wasn’t waiting to see, nipping in to make it 3-1.

You sensed that if Linfield could make it 3-1, that would be the points in the bag.

Even though they drew 3-3 after being 3-1 up in 2010, and had a tense 3-2 win after being 2-0 and 3-1 up in 2014, Ballymena didn’t look like they had a two goal comeback in them.

Something that has been a bit of an issue for me in recent games has been the lack of substitutions. None at Warrenpoint and only one against Dungannon.

Though there was nobody who deserved to be taken off, we have a squad and we should be using it, especially to bring on fresh faces in attacking areas.

The third goal did bring a sub for Linfield, not one I would have made, as Matthew Clarke came on for Jordan Stewart where there were like for like options who could have come on for Stewart.

Within a few minutes, it was 4-1 as a run from Joel Cooper was frustrated by a save from Glendenning, then the crossbar, before Andrew Waterworth finished from close range, his fifth in three matches.

The 4-1 lead allowed a few more substitutions for Linfield, as Bastien Hery came on for Kyle McClean, who had needed treatment earlier in the half.

Rory Currie came on for Andrew Waterworth, his brief involvement saw him create an opportunity for Joel Cooper.

Points are vital, but so are goals. Linfield have the best goal difference in the League, but are only two better than Crusaders, so were thankfully for a Niall Quinn clearance from a Ballymena header on the line, even if it wasn’t important in the context of the match.

As the final whistle blew and scores were announced over the PA System, with a fancy new ringtone that sounds like you’re in a Supermercado, Linfield fans were celebrating even more good news from East Belfast, that Glentoran had drawn 0-0 with Carrick Rangers.

A shock to an extent, but not as much. Carrick have been one of the best teams Linfield have faced this season, their naivety being their undoing. After the game against Linfield in November, I felt they would get a big result against a Top 5 team this season, now they’ve got two. Hopefully, not a third when Linfield visit Taylor’s Avenue on 7th March.

That result puts Linfield six points clear of Glentoran. Glentoran still have the title race in their hands as they face Linfield twice (but have to make up twelve goals over nine games), but they have no margin for error. As long as Linfield keep winning, Glentoran have to keep winning just to stay alive in the title race.

The six point lead at the top is deceptive as Coleraine hand a game in hand, which could cut the lead to four points. Good, but not comfortable.

Friday night’s results meant that the identity of the Top 6 has been confirmed, although i’m still expecting Glenavon to somehow have a late surge to 3rd.

That means Linfield will know their final five opponents but not the order, is this will be determined by League positions after Matchday 33.

I have a suspicion dates might be confirmed in advance of that at the request of PSNI/Health and Safety due to some matches that may require ticketing.

One last note about this game, but with the League Cup Final kicking off at 7.30pm, there’s no reason why the Friday night games couldn’t have been played on Saturday afternoon as there’d be no clash, even if the games had earlier starts of 1pm or 2pm.

That said, Friday worked out well for me as I had something to go to on the Saturday afternoon (You’ll see that in the next blog) and the weather on Saturday afternoon may have resulted in a postponement.

Up next, is a home match against Crusaders. This is a big game, an opportunity to not quite kill off Crusaders, but leave them well behind this.

Far too many times this season, Linfield haven’t been ruthless when given the chance to pull away from teams. Not only will a win see Linfield pull further clear of Crusaders, it will put pressure on Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glentoran as they prepare for their Saturday games.

Although, those three play Bottom 6 teams, they should win, it might not be so simple if Linfield have added some pressure on them.

With two defeats in a row, including the League Cup Final, Crusaders are there for the taking. Attack them, don’t play to their tactics, and keep your heads.

Photo Album

WARRENPOINT TOWN 1-2 LINFIELD 8.2.2020

One down, ten to go. Or if you prefer – Three down, thirty to go.

Having got back to the top of the League with a win over Dungannon on Tuesday night, Linfield were intent on staying there.

All they have left this season is League matches, eleven of them to go in order to win the League.

The first of those was at Warrenpoint, a ground they had won at in all eight of their previous visits, as well as a win at Stangmore Park when Wareenpoint played there in the early months of the 2013-2014 season.

Not all of those wins have been straightforward, some have been dicey.

With the Top 5 separated by four points, there was no room for error from Linfield, or indeed the four teams below them.

Linfield were boosted that two of them, Glentoran and Coleraine, would be facing each other. The fact that at least one rival would be guaranteed to drop points made getting three points even more important for Linfield.

Linfield were boosted by the return of Shayne Lavery after suspension, and he came straight in for Rory Currie, hoping to repeat his feat of scoring in his previous two games against Warrenpoint this season.

This match would be played in the early stages of Storm Ciara, and Warrenpoint were hoping to take advantage of it, playing into the wind in the first-half and shooting straight from kick-off, forcing Rohan Ferguson into a (albeit, easy) save three seconds into the game.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t a shout from the crowd for Linfield to sort it out, that Warrenpoint were all over them.

It was a slow start from both teams as they tried to settle themselves in the conditions.

Shayne Lavery had Linfield’s first chance when his shot from a wide position was well saved by Warrenpoint’s goalkeeper, although a cross would have been a better option for Lavery.

Stephen Fallon had a shot easily saved before Joel Cooper cut inside but fired well wide as Linfield began to put Warrenpoint under pressure.

It didn’t feel like a Linfield goal was imminent, but it start to feel that Linfield were starting to take control of the game.

Eventually, Linfield did take the lead, but the assist came from a Warrenpoint player, after a header from Colm Deasy back to his keeper was short (The keeper actually shouted for him to head the ball back to him) and Andrew Waterworth jumped knocked the ball over the keeper first time to put Linfield 1-0 up.

Like on Tuesday night, the question wasn’t if he would score, but if he would get to the ball in time to score. Waterworth must think that it’s Christmas with all these presents he’s got this week.

Apologies for using the C Word in February.

Linfield’s next chance to extend their lead came just before the half-time whistle when Kirk Millar stretched to get a shot on goal, but the shot was saved.

A very satisfactory half for Linfield, nullifying Warrenpoint’s wind advantage, and getting a 1-0 lead themselves. Now they had to go and complete the job.

There was a goal in the early minutes of the second-half, but it was for Warrenpoint, as a heavy touch from Jimmy Callacher saw him lose the ball and one pass saw Ryan Swan make the most of his free space to fire home and make it 1-1. This was not what Linfield had anticipated.

The goal galvanised Linfield, and made them more determined to get the three points.

Warrenpoint couldn’t get out of their own half due to a wave of Linfield pressure.

That pressure was rewarded when Jimmy Callacher headed a free-kick across the penalty area, and Andrew Waterworth was bundled over before he could get on the end of it.

There was only one man going to take it. It was a pressure penalty. If he missed it, you felt that this could end up being a frustrating day for Linfield. He stepped up, and panenkaed it, just as he did at Solitude in 2017.

For a brief moment, it looked like the keeper had saved it, but thankfully, it was only a touch of the ball as it ended up in the back of the next to put Linfield 2-1 up.

Even though a second goal was welcome, Linfield needed a third just to be sure.

It looked like that was going to come when a speculative long range shot from Stephen Fallon got deflected and looked up and then picked up a bit of pace, but Warrenpoint’s keeper was able to adjust his bodyshape and make the save.

Throughout this game it was obvious that Linfield were managing the conditions better. When the wind was against them, they were able to get their passes and through balls to hold up and keep the pressure on. When the wind was with them, they were able to use the wind to get passes in behind Warrenpoint’s defence.

It looked like that third goal was going to come when Shayne Lavery got on the end of a Joel Cooper cross but Warrenpoint’s keeper made himself big and saved the effort, doing the same when Lavery tried to backheel the rebound in. You just know it would have found the back of the net in September or October, such is the life of a striker.

The lack of a third goal made things nervous for Linfield. The only real moment of worry was an Emmett Bennett header straight at Rohan Ferguson. Either side of the keeper, and it would have been a real worry for Linfield.

In injury time, Warrenpoint had a flurry of possession and balls into Linfield’s penalty area, but Linfield were able to hold out and get a 2-1 win.

Any win is a good day, but things got even better when scores from elsewhere were digested.

Coleraine beat Glentoran, a draw would have been perfect, but if you had to choose a winner, you’d go for the team that are further behind. Cliftonville usually have (at least) one bad result a season against Dungannon Swifts, I thought they’d be saving that for the Irish Cup game in a few weeks time rather than in the League, while Crusaders lost to Glenavon.

That means that Linfield are now four points clear at the top, a bit of daylight. Not a lot, that cane disappear very quickly. The aim is to keep on winning.

The next Matchday is very interesting.

Linfield travel to Ballymena United on Friday night in one of only four games next weekend.

Ballymena have lost their last six League games. I know what you’re thinking. I’m fearing that as well. Let’s make those fears unfounded.

The reason why there are only four League matches next weekend is due to the League Cup Final.

Because of that, Coleraine and Crusaders won’t have a League match, and neither will Cliftonville, as they were due to play Crusaders.

All the games are important, but this one especially so. Three rivals inactive, and guaranteed point droppage from one of them when they do play. This is a great opportunity for Linfield to get more points on the board and put the pressure on their rivals.

Linfield fans have been talking about the benefits of games in hand, now we can be talking about the benefits of how points on the board are better than games in hand. We just need to get those points on the board.

It seems silly to have these games on a Friday night when the League Cup Final kicks off at 7.30pm on the Saturday night. League games on a Saturday could easily be accommodated alongside this, even if they were earlier kick-offs.

Hopefully, if this is the new kick-off for the League Cup Final, League games that weekend can be moved to the Saturday from 2021 onwards.

But on to more short term issues. Three points at Ballymena please.

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LINFIELD 2-1 DUNGANNON SWIFTS 4.2.2020

So far in 2020, Linfield had swung from good to bad to good to bad as regular as clockwork. The last game, at Larne, was bad, so logically this would be good.

Well the result was, if the performance wasn’t.

Having been playing catch-up since Matchday 2, Linfield’s famous games in hand were no more, all caught up.

All caught up on games, hopefully overtaking the rest on points. Linfield’s games in hand had always been part of an objective, to catch up, to overtake, to stretch their lead. The recent run of inconsistent results have rendered these games as establishing a lead rather than extending one.

Linfield had six changes from that match at Larne. A Suspension for Shayne Lavery presented an opportunity for a start for one of the strikers. Andrew Waterworth returned from injury to take advantage of that. He was one of two strikers coming into the team, with Rory Currie getting a first start.

Niall Quinn, Mark Stafford, Mark Haughey and Kyle McClean also made returns to the starting eleven.

Looking at the line-up when it was announced, I wasn’t too unhappy, the 4-4-2 that should have been on from the start of the 0-0 draw against Dungannon two and a half weeks earlier.

A benefit of Linfield’s squad is it’s versatility with players who can play in a number of positions. Only if it is utilised well.

I got a bit of a shock when the game kicked off and the 4-4-2 I expected turned out to be a 3-4-3. It didn’t work.

Three at the back left them exposed and vulnerable whenever Dungannon attacked, often being rescued by some soft free-kick awards.

At the other end of the pitch, only one player wide on each side meant that Dungannon were able to cope with Linfield’s attacking threat.

When Linfield did get in behind Dungannon, they almost scored the greatest goal in Irish League history when Stephen Fallon burst down the left and crossed for Kirk Millar, who rabonaed narrowly wide.

It looked fancy, but it was all he could do. If he hit it with his left foot, he would have scuffed it straight to the keeper and if he controlled it, Dungannon defenders would have immediately put him under pressure.

There wasn’t long to wait for a goal, but it came for Dungannon, when a neat passing move played in Daniel Hughes, who made no mistake to put Dungannon 1-0 up. This was not supposed to happen.

Windsor Park hoped for an offside flag, more in hope than expectation. Their hope was not met.

It didn’t take long for Linfield respond, less than ten seconds in fact.

An attempted pass to Kirk Millar from kick-off saw a stray header go in the direction of the penalty area. Andrew Waterworth started running towards it. The only question was if he would get there in time to score, not if he would score. He did, and Linfield were back level at 1-1 straight away.

It was an important goal, stating the obvious that. Linfield have struggled this season against teams who have had something to defend. Dungannon’s lead was wiped out straight away. However, they still had a point to hold on to.

Linfield didn’t kick on from there, lacking attacking cohesion in the rest of the half. The closest they came to going in ahead was a speculative backheader from Rory Currie after confusion in Dungannon’s defence.

Early in the second-half, it looked like Linfield were going to take the lead when Kirk Millar got in behind Dungannon’s defence but his attempted lob went over. He did the right thing, but didn’t do it very well.

There was another moment of frustration for Linfield when Rory Currie saw a shot get blocked.

Eventually, Linfield took the lead, in bizarre fashion.

A cleared corner was returned into the box by Niall Quinn and headed on by Andrew Waterworth. It looked like it was going over, and then the ball dropped down. Before you could say “Oh, that’s dropping down”, the ball dropped down in off the bar.

Two goals from Andrew Waterworth turning the game in Linfield’s favour after going 1-0 down to a goal from Daniel Hughes. Just like that day at Solitude in 2017. Any excuse to bring it up.

Linfield could have done with a third goal just to be sure like that day at Solitude. It didn’t specifically have to come from Andrew Waterworth. A third goal from anyone would have been welcomed.

Jordan Stewart came on for Rory Currie as Linfield searched for that goal. It didn’t really happen for Currie. I wouldn’t write him off just yet. He’s making the runs just not getting the goals.

Matthew Shevlin was very unlucky not to get the nod for Currie as a like for like sub, instead of Stewart.

Stewart almost got it when he created space for himself on the edge of the box and curled narrowly wide.

Earlier, Mark Stafford had a header saved and Dungannon survived the scramble.

A third goal would have secured the points, but Linfield just couldn’t get it.

They were almost made to pay for that when Dungannon broke, but thankfully, Mark Patton’s weak shot was easily saved by Rohan Ferguson.

Jordan Stewart was Linfield’s only substitute used, even though Joel Cooper was walking a disciplinary tightrope tracking back, and Linfield had other attacking options if they wanted to bring on a fresh face.

Thankfully, they weren’t made to pay for their lack of fresh faces in the final minutes, especially as Dungannon had played extra-time a few days earlier, and Linfield should have been taking advantage of that.

Job done, and back on top, which is the important thing.

Elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Carrick Rangers to mean that the Top 5 are now separated by four points.

All five of those clubs will be cursing points dropped against clubs in the bottom half.

Linfield can’t afford to drop any more points, especially against clubs in the bottom half, who make up three of their next four opponents. A great chance to get winning momentum, especially with clubs around us facing each other, such as Glentoran facing Coleraine on Saturday.

As well as that, next week is the NIFL Cup Final, where Coleraine and Crusaders will be inactive in League terms, giving Linfield an opportunity to pull clear while others have outstanding games to play.

Just because Linfield are all caught up doesn’t mean everybody else is. The postponement a few weeks back between Dungannon Swifts and Ballymena United means they haven’t played their full compliment of games.

The opening day of the season is the only time this season when everybody has played the same amount of games. Pointless stat for you.

Meanwhile, the game against Glentoran in March has been brought forward to the Friday night for live coverage on the BBC. No real surprise that to be honest.

Will be a bit of a scramble for me to get the train home after the game. I’ll have to run like Andrew Waterworth when he saw a Dungannon player make a loose header.

It might be a five team title battle, but if Linfield keep winning, others will start to fall behind.

Time for a 2017 style finish to the season.

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LARNE 3-1 LINFIELD 28.1.2020

Eight goals and a chance to go top of the League, Linfield were in a very good mood at kick-off at Inver Park. Within 90 minutes, the mood had totally changed.

For me, this was my first visit to Inver Park since 2005. I can’t really remember much about that visit other than it was very wet that day.

Newly promoted with a lot of hype, to be honest, Larne’s 6th place are probably where you would expect them to be. Never in danger of going down, but not enough about them to launch a title challenge.

Their record against the five teams above them is the biggest criticism pundits have against them. Prior to the Saturday before this match, their record against the Top 5 was P10 W0 D5 L5.

That included a match in November where Linfield gave Larne a lesson. Of sorts. The lesson being, to take your chances.

That all changed on the Saturday before with a late 2-1 win over Glentoran, a result that was gratefully welcome at Windsor Park.

This match should have been played in September, live on Sky Sports, but it was postponed due to international call-ups, only now getting an opportunity to play it.

You could say that this date was very convenient for Linfield. Elimination from the Irish Cup meant they were free on the Saturday, so slotting in a midweek match with plenty of recovery time made sense.

Add in the fact that Larne were on the back of games against Crusaders and Glentoran, that match against Glentoran coming two and a half hours after Linfield’s match the same day. After this, came an Irish Cup tie against Ballyclare Comrades.

If Larne were tired or had their eyes on future match, Linfield had to smell blood and go for it.

It remained to be seen if this was a good time for Linfield to play Larne, but 28th January was certainly a good day in Linfield’s recent history, with 2017 and 2019 bringing wins with four goals.

As a tribute to Nicholas Parsons who died earlier that day, it took Just A Minute for Linfield to score when Jordan Stewart nipped in front of Albert Watson to poke home from close range.

It was a dream start for Linfield. Unfortunately, they decided to pay further tribute to Nicholas Parsons by deviating from their performance against Glenavon three days earlier, giving a repetition of their performance against Coleraine in August.

The decline, was instant, when Davy McDaid nodded home from close range ahead of Ethan Boyle after a ball into the box. It was a poor goal to concede.

Between Boyle and Rohan Ferguson, one of them should have been getting their body in the way, anything to deny McDaid an attempt on goal. He was so close, he couldn’t miss.

Having got the dream start, it was sloppy of Linfield to concede an equaliser so quickly. The momentum was now all with Larne.

Linfield were now all over the place defensively, usually when the ball went near Davy McDaid.

The absence of Jamie Mulgrew meant this was a team lacking leadership, someone to kick them up the arse and tell them to get themselves together. That was surprising, as there were a lot of players of vast Irish League experience on the pitch.

Larne were getting closer and closer to a second goal, but found themselves being denied by Ethan Boyle, but usually when he was covering for his own mistakes.

It was no surprise when Larne took the lead after a through ball from Mark Randall played Davy McDaid to smash home and make it 2-1.

Linfield’s response was a Bastien Hery shot which went wide and Shayne Lavery being unable to get on the end of a cross.

Despite that, it was Larne who were always the most likely to score whenever they went forward, and Linfield had a massive let-off in the final minutes of the half when Mark Randall hit the bar from close range after a cross from Davy McDaid. He really should have scored,

At half-time, Linfield were glad to only be 2-1 down. However, no matter how bad Linfield are playing or whatever the score, you never write them off when they are attacking their own fans. If they wanted to give those fans something to celebrate, they would need to play a lot better.

The second-half didn’t give them much to shout about, the closest they came was a Kirk Millar cross which evaded everyone.

Just as in the first-half, it was Larne who were most likely to score. Everytime they had a corner, Larne were winning the header, thankfully, not enough to cause any damage to Linfield.

Eventually, David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Kyle McClean, who probably should have started the game, for Bastien Hery, and Niall Quinn for Ethan Boyle. The introduction for Quinn for Boyle made no sense positionally whatsoever.

Linfield’s final substitution saw Rory Currie come on for Joel Cooper. Cooper limped off as he made his way to the bench, a matter of concern for Linfield.

After surviving several free headers in their own penalty area, eventually Larne made one count when Harry Flowers headed home after a free-kick.

You felt that at 2-1, there would still be goals in this game. You also felt that, if it went to 3-1, it would be a long way back for Linfield.

And so it proved. Linfield had the ball, but didn’t do enough with it. They never looked like pulling a goal back that could bring hope of a fightback, as the game meandered to it’s inevitable conclusion of three points for Larne.

Results elsewhere weren’t unexpected or kind to Linfield, as Glentoran beat Glenavon 4-0.

Over the space of four days, Glentoran and Linfield replicated each other’s results, beating Glenavon at home and losing to Larne.

Once again, Linfield throw away an opportunity to go top. We’ve thrown away too many opportunities to go top or pull clear.

When we went top for the first time in December, we should have been kicking on from there.

If Larne’s record against the Top 6 is lamentable, Linfield’s isn’t much better, with negative goal differences in the head to heads against everybody except Cliftonville.

This has to stop. We can’t be good-bad-good-bad as it has been in 2020. It has to be good-good-good-good and it has to change now. We won’t get away with it and win the League if it continues.

We have to get back to basics, stop conceding bad goals and stop trying to score the perfect goal. Far too often, we allow teams the opportunity to get comfortable and settled when defending, when we shouldn’t be giving them an opportunity to breathe.

At Inver Park, Linfield lacked leadership and didn’t stand up to the challenge that Larne set.

All is not lost, if Linfield win their next match, at home to Dungannon Swifts, they will go top. The aim is staying there.

Every since Matchday 2, Linfield have had games in hand. Those games in hand should have been about extending the lead, not getting a lead.

As of next Tuesday night, those games in hand will be gone. If performances don’t improve, so will the title.

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LINFIELD 8-1 GLENAVON 25.1.2020

Better, Much much better.

After a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Dungannon Swifts the previous Saturday, Linfield responded with an 8-1 win over Glenavon.

Going into this match, Glenavon had won three of the previous four meetings with Linfield, including a 4-0 win. The aggregate score over those four games? 7-7. That is absolute Peak Glenavon.

Linfield began with the starting eleven that should have started the previous week, though they would be making one change regardless of the formation, as Andrew Mitchell being sold to Larne.

For me, that is a mistake that I fear will be very costly.

Mitchell’s place in the starting eleven was taken by Kirk Millar, as Linfield reverted to 4-2-3-1 that served them so well last season.

Inside the first ten seconds of this game, we saw an improvement from Linfield, straight on the attack deep in Glenavon’s half, and demanding that Ballboys get the ball so they can restart the game, not giving Glenavon any chance to get comfortable when defending.

It didn’t take long for Linfield to take the lead from a counter attack. I was screaming for the ball to go left, it went right, to Shayne Lavery, an attempt interception from a Glenavon defender fell perfectly for Stephen Fallon to put Linfield 1-0 up inside five minutes.

You could say there was an element of luck to the goal, but if Fallon doesn’t make the run, he doesn’t get the goal. Linfield had the start their needed.

They were in search of a second goal as soon as they got their first, and almost got it, but Ethan Boyle missed a headed opportunity.

Calum Birney was lucky not to see a red card after a wild and reckless tackle on Josh Robinson. Birney, who has had previous red cards against Linfield in the past, was lucky not to add to his tally.

Within a few minutes, it was Glenavon who were moaning at the Referee when Linfield were awarded a penalty for a foul on Stephen Fallon.

I was sat at that end, and the foul was on the line, but not inside the box.

Who was going to take it? That was the big question.

Andrew Mitchell took Linfield’s last penalty, against Cliftonville earlier in the month, but he has since been sold.

Andrew Waterworth wasn’t on the pitch. Jordan Stewart, Shayne Lavery and Joel Cooper all missed their last penalties.

It turned out to be Kirk Millar. I wasn’t exactly full of confidence that the ball would be hitting the back of the net, especially with the refereeing decision being so generous.

I don’t know why I was worried, as Kirk Millar fired it home to make it 2-0 and give Linfield a significant lead.

Within minutes, that lead got bigger as Joel Cooper cut inside and curled the ball in to make it 3-0.

Just like in the 7-0 win over Glenavon in September, Linfield had an early 3-0 lead, and there was a serious danger that this match could go the same way.

That became even more of a possibility when Robert Garrett got sent-off for something he said to the Referee. Linfield fans will have been used to seeing Garrett getting sent-off, six times across his two spells at the club. However, this time, they weren’t unhappy to see it.

Having scored a hat-trick when the sides met in September, Shayne Lavery wanted in on the act, and did when when he headed home from a corner to make it 4-0.

Soon after, it was 5-0 when a run from Joel Cooper saw his pull back to Matthew Clarke to finish from close range. Glenavon claimed the ball went out before Cooper pulled it back. To be honest, it happened too quick for me to see, and TV replays were inconclusive.

The first-half wasn’t all perfect for Linfield, as Glenavon split Linfield’s defence open for the first time, and were awarded a penalty when Ethan Boyle fouled a Glenavon player after a coming together.

The narrative, should have been that Sammy Clingan would miss it, but he made no mistake to make it 5-1 and start the comeback for Glenavon.

Jordan Stewart had an effort saved in the final minutes of the half as Linfield had to make do with just the five goals in the first-half.

Even someone as cautious as me knew the points were in the bag. It’s a great feeling watching a football match, midway through the first and knowing that the points are in the bag,

Linfield were in a privileged position. You don’t often get to choose how much you win a football match by, but Linfield could. With goal difference as tight as points, they could substantially add to their tally.

With the points in the bag, Linfield could also make the substitutions they wanted. Niall Quinn made a welcome to the match day squad after injury and could be eased in. Kyle McClean needed games as well after signing, while it would be a perfect opportunity to introduce new loan signing Rory Currie.

Shayne Lavery got in behind Glenavon’s defence, initially believing he was offside, before bursting through when he realised he wasn’t, only to see his shot saved.

There wasn’t long to wait for another goal, with Jordan Stewart scoring a penalty after a handball was awarded. For a while after that decision, Glenavon players lost their discipline in spectacular fashion.

Unfortunately, that resulted in Jamie Mulgrew leaving the game early after a late tackle from a Glenavon player, with Kyle McClean, who would have been expected to come on anyway, coming on earlier than expected.

Linfield fans were hoping that Mulgrew’s exit was only a precaution. As it turned out, it was an injury that would keep him out of the match against Larne the following Tuesday.

The Glenavon player in question got booked. Not for the foul, but for booting the ball at a team mate’s balls.

Glenavon’s lack of discipline was such, that Andrew Doyle, already on a yellow card, had to be substituted to stop him from getting a second yellow he was only minutes away from getting.

Linfield used their substantial lead to introduce two substitutes, two not unexpected substitutions, as Niall Quinn and Kyle McClean joined the action.

Joel Cooper then cut inside and fired home to make it 7-1, Linfield scoring seven for the third time this season.

With two goals to his name, it was surprising later on when Cooper burst clear only to pass to Kyle McClean who dithered and saw the opportunity to go begging.

To be fair, passing to McClean was the best option, but with a hat-trick for the taking, he was entitled to shoot.

In the game between the sides in September, the Referee took pity on Glenavon by only playing seconds of injury time. In this match, we got two minutes.

As the clock hit 91:30, Linfield went on the counter attack, just 30 seconds to score a goal.

Joel Cooper was played through, a hat-trick awaiting him, he surprisingly set up Jimmy Callacher who was running through to make it 8-1 with the final kick of the game.

A satisfactory afternoon for Linfield, with results elsewhere being a mixed bag.

Crusaders were drawing 0-0 with Ballymena United at half-time but ended up winning 2-1. In the teatime game, Larne beat Glentoran 2-1, a result that was greatfully received by Linfield fans as they tucked into their dinners.

The Monday night game saw Coleraine beat Cliftonville 1-0. A draw would have been perfect, but you could live with their being a winner.

That combination of results meant Linfield had the opportunity to go top of the League when they would play the first of their two games in hand.

Due to being busy and having a backlog of articles to write, I didn’t get this published in time before the trip to Larne.

Spoiler Alert – This match did not kickstart Linfield’s season.

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LINFIELD 0-0 DUNGANNON SWIFTS 18.1.2020

Eighteen days into the year, and 2020 has still to get going for Linfield.

It’s been a case of one step forward and then one step back for Linfield in 2020. Although the steps back have felt like falls or head first tumbles.

One of those tumbles was the Irish Cup defeat at Queen’s, which was followed by a win at Cliftonville nine days later.

That win at Cliftonville looked to be setting Linfield back on track, as they looked to gain momentum to launch a title charge.

Matches against Dungannon Swifts usually go one of three ways for Linfield. There is an outright thrashing, which they have dished out in their last three meetings: 5-0, 4-0 and 4-1. Then there are undeserved scrappy wins, such as last season at Dungannon. And then there are draws, which Dungannon had achieved at Windsor Park in two of the last three seasons. After six defeats in a row to Linfield, they will have felt they were due something in this fixture.

The first result would have been great, the second would have been welcome. The third, well that would have been catastrophic in a season where the title race is so tight.

Linfield’s starting eleven showed only one change from that game at Solitude, with Mark Stafford coming in for Mark Haughey, having come on as a substitute for him in North Belfast.

Partly surprising, that Linfield stuck with the three man midfield they had at Solitude.

Even though none of Stephen Fallon, Andrew Mitchell or Jamie Mulgrew merited being dropped for this game, they were part of a team selected to beat Cliftonville. Linfield needed a team to beat Dungannon Swifts.

Linfield’s first opportunity in the game came when Shayne Lavery got into space and set himself up to shoot, but was denied by a last gasp tackle just as he was about to shoot.

Lavery then headed over under pressure in the six yard box as Linfield searched for an opener.

Any time they tried to start an attack, they were usually denied by a cynical fouls, which were not punished with a yellow card, which only encouraged, emboldened and empowered them to continue with it.

Despite that, it was too pedestrian from Linfield, as Dungannon were allowed to be comfortable when setting themselves up to defend.

It wasn’t until the final minutes of the half that Linfield had a flurry of attacks, the best moment coming when a Stephen Fallon shot from outside the box was tipped over.

0-0 at half-time, but no need to panic. However, there was a need to step things up and have more urgency in their attacks. Scores elsewhere saw Coleraine, Glentoran and Crusaders all winning, while Cliftonville were drawing.

Linfield’s pressure early in the second-half saw Mark Stafford head over from close range when he really should have scored. In a game where Linfield had created very few clear scoring opportunities, they really had to take them when they came their way.

Linfield’s next moment of frustration came when Shayne Lavery headed against the post. It looked like being one of those days for Linfield.

In order to avoid it being one of those days, David Healy turned to his substitute’s bench, bringing on Kirk Millar for Jordan Stewart, a like for like change.

One of the three centre midfielders should have been sacrificed instead to give Linfield more of a presence and more options in the final third.

Millar almost had an instant impact with a low cross which agonisingly evaded everybody, after an earlier cross for Shayne Lavery where he just couldn’t get his header across Dungannon’s keeper, the ball landing safely in his arms.

Mark Stafford then had a volley go just wide as Linfield searched for the goal that didn’t look like coming.

In fact, it was Dungannon who should have scored when the ball fell perfectly to Daniel Hughes after a counter attack, volleying over when he had (a short amount of) time to set himself up and then shoot.

By then, Daniel Kearns had come on for Andrew Mitchell to give Linfield more presence up front. He would be joined by Matthew Shevlin, who had come on for Ethan Boyle.

It looked like Shevlin was going to score a dramatic late winner when he was played through, only to be denied as the game was pulled back for a foul, and a yellow card to be awarded to a Dungannon Swifts player. Of course.

Shayne Lavery headed over in injury time with Linfield’s last chance on a day of frustration where they had to settle for a 0-0 draw.

It was a game that Linfield deserved to win, but one that they didn’t do enough to win.

There was a lack of urgency in attack and Dungannon were able to get comfortable when defending.

On a day when it wasn’t happening for Linfield in open play, Linfield had to make the most of their set pieces. They didn’t.

It didn’t help that they only had one player taking them. Dungannon knew what to expect and could defend accordingly. I find it incredible that Matthew Clarke or Joel Cooper can’t provide a left footed option at set pieces.

This match reminded me of the draw against draw against Portadown in 2017. Hopefully, Linfield will have a similar response as they did in the aftermath of that match.

Of the other four games that day, only one provided a result of benefit to Linfield, with Cliftonville losing to Carrick Rangers. Wins for Glentoran, Crusaders and Coleraine meant that Linfield dropped to 3rd.

Those games in hand that they have, were now only giving them an opportunity to sneak ahead at the top, rather than consolidating a lead.

The week following this match saw some transfer activity at Windsor Park. Daniel Reynolds left on loan to Carrick Rangers to get some gametime, while Rory Currie came in on loan from Hearts.

Even though I hinted that I wasn’t happy with the selection of Andrew Mitchell for this match, I wasn’t suggesting that he be sold. I have a horrible feeling that we may regret this.

After this match, I headed to a concert, then I was off to England for a few days, so I didn’t get to finish this blog until after Linfield’s next match, against Glenavon.

It was a game that Linfield needed to win and perform far better in.

Spoiler alert, it was better. Much much better.

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CLIFTONVILLE 1-2 LINFIELD 13.1.2020

After five games in fourteen days over the Christmas/New Year period, a nine day break allowed Linfield to get the benefit of the Three Rs ahead of the second half of the season as they looked to win back to back titles – Rested, Refreshed and Ready.

You could add a fourth R to that list – Reds Beaten Again.

To say that the Christmas/New Year period did not go well for Linfield is a bit of an understatement, as they looked to bounce back from their Irish Cup defeat to Queen’s University, the biggest shock in Irish League Football since Liam Beckett started up an ASMR Channel.

Bizarrely, Cliftonville would have been perfect opponents for Linfield on the back of the game against Queens, having beaten twice after cup exits, in September after exiting the UEFA Cup and then in December after going out of the NIFL Cup.

Now, Linfield need to invent a cup competition that they can go out of just before they play Cliftonville in April.

Linfield’s run of results over Christmas/New Year showed how quickly fortunes can change in football. After victory at Warrenpoint, taking advantage of draws from Coleraine, Glentoran and Crusaders to pull clear at the top. The title was in the bag and the open top bus was ordered.

Three weeks later, Linfield were in crisis.

Yet on Sunday afternoon a Tweet of the recent form in the Irish League made for interesting reading. Linfield sat 4th in the Form Guide, over the last ten games, just two points behind in-form Cliftonville and only four less points than unstoppable Glentoran, both of whom only managed one more win that crisis club Linfield in that period.

There have been times in recent years where Cliftonville have went on winning runs, but that has been as a result of a generous run of games. Their current winning run of four League games saw wins over Coleraine, Crusaders and Larne, a statement of intent that they believe they can win big games.

A win over the reigning Champions, who they lost to in their last five meetings, would be the biggest statement, even though all the post match coverage would be of the continuing crisis at Windsor Park

It wasn’t quite a must win game, but it definitely was a must not lose game for Linfield. Defeat wouldn’t have been fatal to Linfield’s title hopes, but it wasn’t a conversation they wanted to be having.

Two televised games meant that this matchday would be staggered across four days.

Friday night saw Coleraine take on Crusaders on BBC Two. Whatever happened, at least one of Linfield’s rivals would be dropping points. A draw would have been perfect, but I could live with a Coleraine win if it meant Crusaders getting adrift. As it turned out, Crusaders won, but Linfield could live with it, as we could pull clear of Coleraine instead.

That defeat for Coleraine allowed Glentoran the opportunity to go top on Saturday afternoon.

If you find Saturday afternoons without a Linfield match to be unbearable, you had better get used to it, as a combination of cup exits and TV scheduling means that was the first of five Saturdays over the next eight weeks where Linfield would be inactive.

Glentoran took their opportunity to go top of the League with a 2-1 win over Warrenpoint. Just about. They were 1-0 down with 15 minutes to go when Warrenpoint’s keeper got sent-off, the third successive Saturday they’ve enjoyed a bit of luck (after goalkeeping error and then a dodgy penalty). I see those days are back.

Glentoran’s reign at the top would only last 48 hours, as the result of this match would see new leaders. Avoiding defeat would do the job for Cliftonville while only a win would do for Linfield.

Storm Brendan, it turned out, was not a Glentoran supporter. If he was, he would have got this match postponed to let them enjoy being at the top of the table for a little longer.

Other TV options on Monday fitted in nicely with this match. Getaways on BBC, which is what Linfield want to be doing in July and August, jetting off around Europe, ideally in the European Cup.

Cold Feet on ITV was what the crowd got, as they watched this match in chilly temperatures. Though, if you wanted to watch something that would make James Nesbitt grumpy, Coleraine’s defeat a few days earlier would have been a better option.

For me, this was my first night visit to Solitude. It meant a change to my pre-match superstitions.

Usually, I go to Papa Drew’s on Oldpark Road for lunch prior to a Saturday game, but it was closed. As was Cod Almighty a few shops down.

So, I had to make do with a Chinese. Not ideal. Though, if we won 10-0, it was have been Chinese all the way in future.

Despite Christmas being long gone, Linfield set up with a Christmas Tree, with a midfield three of Jamie Mulgrew, Stephen Fallon and Andrew Mitchell being a midfield set up for a battle.

For the first time in a long time, Linfield had a bench with a lot of attacking options – Andrew Waterworth, Matthew Shevlin, Kirk Millar, Daniel Kearns and Bastien Hery being on call should they be needed.

It was Cliftonville who had the first shot with a Conor McMenamin shot from outside the box that was easily saved.

Ruaidhri Donnelly then headed against the bar. However, it was the top of the bar so it looked closer than it was. However, it was worrying that Cliftonville were winning headers in Linfield’s penalty area.

Linfield’s first real spell on the ball saw them get a penalty when Liam Bagnall handled a goalward shot.

Jordan Stewart looked as though he wanted to take the penalty, but it was left to Andrew Mitchell.

I was slightly worried when he stepped up as he was due a miss. Cliftonville fans were hoping that would be the case. They would be left disappointed as Mitchell put Linfield 1-0 up.

Cliftonville had the next attacking moment when a Joe Gormley cross went tantalisingly across the six yard box, but Ryan Curran couldn’t get on the end of it.

It was Gormley who made it 1-1 when Ethan Boyle was disposed and he ran through to score, despite protests for offside from Linfield.

It was Gormley’s first goal against Linfield since since November 2018. His record against us is bizarre. He either goes ages without a goal against us or scores in successive matches, so this is a bit ominous ahead of future games.

That goal seemed to make Linfield lose their discipline and shape, running about after the ball as if somebody had thrown a toy into a Dog Pound.

They were glad to get in at half-time at 1-1, to calm themselves down and go at it at half-time.

The half-time break saw a change for Linfield, with Mark Stafford coming on for the injured Mark Haughey.

The second-half saw a lot of early pressure, which got rewarded when Mark Stafford jabbed the ball home after a flick on from Ethan Boyle.

It wasn’t what he was brought into the team to do, but just like at Dungannon last season, it was a contribution that was welcomed. Just like at Dungannon last season, it was a goal that came when Linfield really needed it.

The goal came from an outswinging corner. It’s always good to have a bit of variety at corners instead of always going for an inswinger. That was probably due to them always being taking by a right sided player. It has been a bit surprising that neither Matthew Clarke or Joel Cooper have taken corners in the absence of Niall Quinn.

You got the feel that if Linfield made it 3-1, that would be the points in the bag.

It looked like they were going to get it when Shayne Lavery burst clear after a defensive mistake, only to be denied by a save from Richard Brush, with the rebound going out for a corner after the ball went to wide to stick the rebound in.

Joe Gormley then left the pitch to ironic cheers from Linfield fans, as he made way for Michael McCrudden to make his debut for the club. It turned out that Gormley was injured, as it seemed odd that he would be substituted when they needed a goal most.

Linfield turned to their bench and freshened things up with a like for like change up front, with Kirk Millar coming on for Jordan Stewart.

Despite the narrow lead, Linfield were mostly comfortable and never really troubled in defence.

Jamie Mulgrew was having what I thought would be described as a silent influence on the game, the sort that goes unnoticed. However, a quick browse through Social Media proved me to be wrong, the general consensus that this was his best performance in a long time.

Every time Cliftonville got near or over the halfway line, they were usually to get the ball off Jamie Mulgrew within the next five seconds. Thou shalt not pass.

Not tonight lads, you’re not getting near our goal.

Despite holding out for most of the second-half at 2-1, it was only natural that Cliftonville would have more of the ball in the final minutes, as they had the greater need.

And so it proved, as Linfield had to survive a flurry of corners.

And penalty shouts. Well, you know what I mean. I’ve been to Solitude enough times to know that Cliftonville fans claim for everything when they attack their fans, it still makes you nervous.

That flurry of corners and possession would bring one big chance for Cliftonville, when a cross set up Aaron Donnelly perfectly for a header, but he made no contact with the ball.

Rohan Ferguson looked well positioned if he did, but Donnelly should have been asking the question.

As the ball went out, the clock hit 94 minutes. That was it, the game was gone. Rohan Ferguson completed the formalities, the final whistle blowing as soon as he took his goal kick.

At 2-1, Cliftonville looked short of ideas and self belief against a team they have struggled against in recent years. It was like watching this fixture between 2012 and 2016, but with the roles reversed.

If you like stats, here’s some for you.

This was Linfield’s 4th win in their last 5 games at Solitude, the other being a draw.

Since Cliftonville’s last title in 2014, Linfield have played 13 games at Solitude, winning 7 drawing 4 and losing just 2.

This was Linfield 6th successive League win over Cliftonville.

Most importantly, this was a result that saw Linfield go top of the League on goal difference ahead of Glentoran and Cliftonville.

If the result against Queen’s taught us anything, is that you can’t take any win for granted. However, upcoming games give Linfield an opportunity to go on a winning run and build momentum, putting pressure on the teams below us, as five of the next six games are against teams in the bottom half.

I didn’t want to say it at the time, but I was hoping that the free weekend in February could be used for a friendly away to a League Of Ireland side. No footballing value to it, I just wanted the prospect of a trip away somewhere to cheer me up.

Cork possibly, so I could lay flowers at the site where Billy Murphy fell and died and his brains were coming out of his mouth.

Derry City had similar ideas, with one paper running a story about a possible friendly between the sides after Declan Devine said they were trying to face an Irish League side that weekend.

It’s hardly an earth shattering revelation that League Of Ireland sides monitor the Irish Cup to see who is free in early February.

Such a game wouldn’t have been that appealing to me. I don’t usually bother with home friendlies, and I’ve already been to The Brandywell this season, so as a trip it didn’t offer me somewhere I hadn’t been before. As it turned out, Portadown got that honour.

As it turned out, Linfield are using that free Saturday to play midweek games around it. They’ve been a bit crafty about it. Other clubs have been happy to manipulate the fixture list for their own agendas, so why not Linfield?

We’ll be facing Larne on the back of games against Crusaders and Glentoran and just before their Irish Cup tie, which is what their season is about now. If they are the slightest bit tired or off focus, we must capitalise on it.

The following Tuesday, is Dungannon at home, with Dungannon coming off the back of an Irish Cup tie against Newry, which let’s be honest, has extra-time and penalties written all over it.

Midweek football is going to be quite frequent for me during January, as next week I head to Manchester to see United take on Burnley.

While i’m there on the Tuesday, Salford City face Accrington Stanley in the EFL Trophy, and FC United face Sheffield in the Integro Cup, the Northern Premier League’s version of the League Cup. Might take in one of those games.

Talking of football trips, the League Of Ireland First Division fixture list was announced and Bray won’t playing at home when i’m staying there during Euro 2020. I’ll have to make do with a Dublin game on the Monday night.

St Patrick’s Athletic v Cork is looking likely as Richmond Park is easier to get to, although it is tempting to get one last game at Dalymount Park, although I thought that when I visited it in 2016.

Coincidentally, government funding was announced this week for that redevelopment. I didn’t realise they had to wait for the Northern Ireland Assembly to get back together to release funding.

You’d think there was an election in the Republic of Ireland next month.

I’m still looking for somewhere to go over the July Holidays. I spent a miserable Sunday night looking for somewhere to go and got nothing. Estonia might night be happening.

Waterford might, it is very tempting. They play at home over that weekend too, against Cork. I know, what is it with this urge to see Cork City?

More immediate, is Linfield v Dungannon Swifts on Saturday, as part of a busy day where i’ll be going to see Badly Drawn Boy in the evening.

Hoping that the Linfield match can be described as Something To Talk About rather than a Silent Sigh or Pissing In The Wind.

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LINFIELD 3-0 INSTITUTE 1.1.2020

New Year’s Day, time to make some resolutions and make a new start. Well, that’s what Linfield were hoping after a disappointing run of results over Christmas.

In terms of wanting to change the habit of not winning, Institute would have been perfect opponents if Linfield had to choose.

It wasn’t the fact that that Linfield haven’t lost to Institute since 2003 (or at Windsor Park since 2002, last dropping points to them there since 2009) or the fact that Linfield have won the last nine meetings.

It was the fact that twice last season, games against Institute, in November and then in March, saw Linfield come out of a bumpy spell of results to recover their composure and start a run of wins.

Even earlier this season, victory over Institute, coming off the back of a 6-0 defeat to Dundalk, began a run of five wins out of the next six League matches.

Sandwiched in the middle of a busy run of games, it was unsurprising that there were changes to Linfield’s starting eleven.

What was surprising was the way they lined up, 3-5-2 with Matthew Clarke one of those three in defence.

With no Mark Stafford or Josh Robinson on the bench, it was a case of making the most of the players who were available.

I’d be slightly worried if we lined up like that against Cliftonville on 13th January, as when Institute attacked, Linfield’s defence looked exposed and open.

Unsurprisingly, Linfield had a lot of the ball in the early stages of the game, the game mostly taking place in Institute’s half. It looked like it was a matter of time until Linfield scored.

It looked like that goal came when Andrew Waterworth finished from close range but the goal was disallowed as the cross from Daniel Kearns was just out of play.

As with most games this season, Linfield’s best moments came when Joel Cooper got on the ball. Institute couldn’t handle him. However, the final ball usually went to an Institute player, or Institute were able to get a body in the way and thwart him.

Bastien Hery then had a shot from outside the box as Linfield continued to be frustrated as they searched for the opening goal.

That came when Linfield were awarded a penalty for a foul on, who else, Joel Cooper. Having scored two penalties when the sides met in November, Andrew Waterworth got his third penalty goal of the season against Institute to put Linfield 1-0 up.

This was a game that Linfield were never going to win 1-0. You got the feeling that once they got one, the floodgates would open.

Within a few minutes, it looked like that was going to be the case when Shayne Lavery got in behind Institute’s defence, but his shot was turned over by Institute’s keeper Rory Brown, being watched by his proud mother Agnes.

The respite was brief for Institute, as the resulting corner was flicked on by Andrew Waterworth for Mark Haughey to finish from close range to make it 2-0.

It seemed that Kirk Millar was the only person taking corners, which meant we were treated to outswinging corners for the first time in a long time.

It’s always good to mix and match at set pieces, and outswingers seemed to be working for Linfield, with Shayne Lavery having gone close with an earlier effort.

The half-time whistle blew with Linfield in a commanding lead, which they needed on a day when the Top 6 faced the Bottom 6, and all of the Top 6 teams were winning.

Linfield just needed another goal just to be sure, and not give Institute any encouragement that they can get back into the game.

They had enough opportunities to get it in the opening minutes of the second-half.

Shayne Lavery got played through but dragged his shot wide, the finish of a man in a goal drought. In September or October, the ball would have been blasted into the back of the net.

A few minutes later, a pull back from Joel Cooper saw Lavery shoot goalwards, but his effort was blocked at the expense of a corner.

Mark Haughey was then denied by the post from a set piece as Linfield searched for a third clinching goal. Andrew Waterworth was then denied from a wide angle as he got in behind Institute’s defence.

Having scored in Institute’s last two visits to Windsor Park, it was no surprised that Jordan Stewart was introduced from the bench, coming on for Daniel Kearns.

Stewart was involved in Linfield’s third goal, when his saved shot fell perfectly for Shayne Lavery to finish from a few yards out, the perfect sort of goal you want when having a drought. Hopefully, the start of a run.

With the game won, Linfield now had the opportunity to make changes, with Matthew Shevlin coming on for Andrew Waterworth, and Ross Larkin coming on for Mark Haughey. Larkin had a chance to score in injury time, but his close range effort was saved by Brown, who made himself big.

An easy win for Linfield on a day when they had to win. There would be no favours elsewhere in the League, as all of the Top 5 won.

Assessing the Christmas period over a four game basis, it was disappointing for Linfield, missing an opportunity to kill off three rivals, and allowing Cliftonville and Glentoran to make up ground on them.

The League is getting parked this weekend, as Linfield enter the Irish Cup, with a trip to Queen’s University, where they’ll be hoping to graduate into the next round. Apologies.

I’m still trying to get a ticket for that one, so if you know of one going, get in touch.

After a busy run of games, I would expect some changes to be made, with Kyle McClean and
Ethan Boyle getting some minutes.

As said earlier, the Top 6 met the Bottom 6, and it was a clean sweep for the Top 6, so it’s as you were at the top.

The next Matchday, January 10th to 13th is very interesting, as Coleraine face Crusaders and Cliftonville face Linfield in televised games, while Glentoran should be beating Warrenpoint Town.

Like recent games, it’s not quite must win, but it’s do not lose. Let’s be ruthless and burst a hole in Cliftonville’s balloon. The nine day break coming up will be beneficial to us, a change to recharge and get ready for the run-in.

So, 2020s football watching has already started, and trips to Manchester and Dublin are already scheduled in.

I’m still thinking about a Tallinn/Helsinki double header in July.

Also, in 2020, Harland and Wolff Welders will move to a new ground, so i’ll hope to get a visit there when it opens.

But what I really want to see in 2020, is another League title for Linfield. Oh, and another Irish Cup.

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