BALLINAMALLARD UNITED 1-2 LINFIELD

Matchday 33 is one of the milestone points in the Irish League season. Everybody has played each other three times, and now top and bottom are ready to breakaway, as the final five games of the season approach.

For Linfield, the fixture computer dealt them a repeat of the opening day of the season, an away trip to Ballinamallard.

As well as the fixture being the same as the opening day of the season, we even got August weather. The picnic area at Ferney Park would have been perfect if it had a view of the pitch, although the fact it didn’t would have been definite plus point in the opening 45 minutes.

It wasn’t a day for picnics and sunbathing in the Fermanagh sunshine, it was a day for three points. Vital at any time of the season, especially at this time of year.

Linfield began the game on the attack, Paul Smyth causing problems for Ballinamallard. When Ballinamallard had their first attack, they were more effective, with Ryan Mayse forcing Gareth Deane into a save. Dean was deputising for Roy Carroll, who has been called-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the match against Norway. Shane McGinty also forced him into a save, as Ballinamallard set about reminding Linfield that this was not going to be a stroll in the sunshine for them.

Kirk Millar had Linfield’s first attempt on goal, but his volley from inside the penalty area went over.

Linfield fans went into panic when Gareth Deane went walkabout, losing possession to Ryan Mayse in the left back position, his goalward shot only hitting the side netting.

Jimmt Callacher had a header saved as Linfield looked to find an end product that their pressure and possession had so far failed to provide.

Ballinamallard took the lead when Ryan Curran got enough space to fire a shot past Dean from just outside the penalty area. It had been coming. It was the first time that Ballinamallard had ever led Linfield at Ferney PArk. What a time for it to happen, at both ends of the table.

Linfield responded. They had to. Andrew Waterworth broke into the penalty area and had his shot saved. Mark Haughey had a penalty appeal turned down, before heading over.

Niall Quinn was next to have a header over as Linfield started to play, thirty minutes later than they should have. He was then followed by Kirk Millar. Both should have forced the keeper into a save.

A careless pass set up Ryan Mayse to have another shot. Ballinamallard were making the most of the ball when they attacked, Linfield weren’t. Linfield were relieved to go in at half-time only 1-0 down.

As the left the pitch, news emerged that Crusaders were trailing 1-0 at Coleraine.

It brought back memories of April 1999 (Glentoran 1-1 Cliftonville, Linfield 1-1 Coelraine) and April 2009 (Glentoran 3-3 Lisburn Distillery, Linfield 2-2 Cliftonville), when Linfield had been chasing Glentoran for most of those seasons, waiting for them to slip up, and when they did, being unable to take advantage.

Linfield fans had been marking this game in the fixture list as a potential Crusaders slip-up, and when it came, their side wasn’t taking advantage of it.

David Healy turned to his bench at half-time, bringing on Aaron Burns for Paul Smyth. A bit surprising that Smyth left the field, though it was later revealed by Stephen Lowry that he was feeling ill at half-time.

It was no surprise that Burns would be brought on, perhaps a bit earlier than some would have expected.

The second-half had a flurry of Linfield pressure, the ball was mostly in Ballinamallard’s half.

Linfield got their reward when Andrew Waterworth chased down a through ball and managed to get a cross from the byline, missed by a Ballinamallard defender and fell perfectly for Aaron Burns to finish from close range.

Waterworth giving a lesson as to why you should always chase a “lost cause” and that, if you do, you make your own luck.

Waterworth had a flick saved while Niall Quinn had an effort cleared off the line, as Linfield chased the lead.

David Healy again turned to his bench, bringing on Josh Carson for Kirk Millar. Not that surprising to see Carson come on, I thought it would be for Niall Quinn.

With ten minutes to go, there was almost a dramatic winner …… for Ballinamallard. Mark Stafford left a kick upfield for Gareth Deane, unaware that Jason McCartney was behind him. There might have been twenty-two players on the pitch and hundreds in attendance, but now, there was only two people in Ferney Park, Jason McCartney and Gareth Deane.

Time stood still. McCartney lobbed Deane, but the ball hit the bar. Linfield fans were relieved to see the ball go over.

The incident only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity for both sets of fans.

The game was now at the “goal the winner stage”. If Ballinamallard had scored, there would surely have been no way back for Linfield.

It was surely going to be Linfield day now. There was no way a team could survive a moment like that and not come away with three points.

With just six minutes left, Linfield got the breakthrough. A cross was headed clear, falling to Stephen Lowry on the edge of the box. I screamed for him to keep his shot low, but he fired it high, and into the back of the net. Once again, it was proved that I know nothing about football.

Some people got so excited, they ran onto the pitch to celebrate. They thought it was over, but it wasn’t quite.

You can never settle on a one goal lead, but Ballinamallard never looked like getting an equaliser, as Linfield saw the game out.

As they left the pitch, the full-time whistle blew at Coleraine where the home side beat Crusaders 1-0 to reduce the gap at the top of the table to four points. It was the breakthrough that Linfield had spent months waiting for.

Crusaders are Linfield’s next League opponents on April 8th at Windsor Park, with Linfield knowing that a win will reduce the gap to one point, and really put the pressure on Crusaders.

Linfield will have nothing to fear. They’ve won three and drawn two of the five games against Crusaders. It really should be five out of five.

The remaining fixtures are :

April 15th : Ballymena v Linfield, Cliftonville v Crusaders

April 18th : Linfield v Glenavon, Crusaders v Coleraine

April 22nd : Ballymena v Crusaders, Coleraine v Linfield.

April 29th : Crusaders v Glenavon, Cliftonville v Linfield.

These games were arranged before the split. Using the formula to devise the fixtures, Crusaders should have been facing Coleraine rather than Cliftonville on April 15th.

Call me a cynic, but it seems odd that Crusaders avoid facing in-form Coleraine the week after facing Linfield, but instead will face out of sorts Cliftonville. Odd. Very odd.

Linfield will take a break from League action to face Dungannon Swifts in an Irish Cup Semi-Final at Mourneview Park.

Football is a numbers game. The numbers this morning were seven (points off the top at kick-off) and four (point off the top at full-time). The numbers this evening were seven (hopefully the number of games remaining this season) and three (the number of trophies Linfield hope to win this season)

Linfield still don’t have the title destiny in their own hands, they still have to win and hope. What they are hoping for, is a lot less than it was this morning.

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LINFIELD 5-1 ARDS 18.3.2017

Having scored ten goals in their two previous home games against Ards this season, Linfield were hoping to add to that when the North Down side visited Windsor Park this afternoon.

It didn’t matter how many Linfield scored, as long as it was at least one more than Ards, it’s that time of year. The two magic numbers today were three and four. Three points to cut Crusaders lead at the top.

Despite the previous head to heads this season, today wasn’t going to be straightforward. Gareth Tommons had a half-chance in the opening minutes that Linfield were just about able to clear.

Within the first five minutes, Linfield got the early goal they craved when Cameron Stewart headed home from a corner, his first at Windsor Park, ending a drought in front of goal going back to the County Antrim Shield Final.

In the two big home wins this season (4-0 and 6-1) Linfield got a flurry of early goals and had the game won inside the first twenty minutes.

Ards were not prepared to let history repeat itself. Stephen Lowry was forced into an interception after a neat passing move threatened to bring an equaliser.

Andrew Waterworth looked set to score but his header was excellently saved by Ards goalkeeper.

Soon after, Ards got an equaliser when a low cross was finished by Guillaume Keke to make it 1-1. It wasn’t against the run of play.

During the move that led to the goal, Cameron Stewart went down injured and had to be replaced. Kirk Millar came on from the bench for him. Surprisingly for me, when Aaron Burns seemed the logical choice.

The change meant a slight reshuffle for Linfield, with Millar going to his right hand side position and Paul Smyth moving to a central role.

The change brought rewards for Linfield with Smyth thriving in is new central, with his cross after breaking in behind Ards defence eventually falling to Kirk Millar to fire home from close range.

Credit must go to Niall Quinn who shielded the ball away from an Ards defender to give Millar the opportunity to score.

Having lost the lead once, it was not going to happen again, as Linfield sought to increase their lead.

Andrew Waterworth got in behind Ards defence but was let down by a poor first touch while Paul Smyth had a shot go just wide.

As the half neared it’s end, four minutes injury time meant that there was time for Linfield to push for a third.

That came when Paul Smyth crossed for what looked like Matthew Clarke to score, only for Andrew Waterworth to control the ball and finish himself, his 100th goal for the club.

Having taken a goal from one left sided player, Waterworth still had time in the first-half to set up Niall Quinn, but his powerful shot was well saved.

Despite a comfortable lead at half-time, the title momentum swinging 3-3 draw at home to Ards in 2014 was still a recent memory for Linfield fans that they felt another goal for their side was needed, a game that Linfield led 3-1.

Linfield set out at the start of the second-half to get that fourth goal, but couldn’t quite get it. Kirk Millar with a volley and Mark Haughey heading over were the best chances.

Naturally, there was frustration amongst the crowd, especially when Linfield began to have a wobbly spell, Ards getting encouragement to try and get a second goal.

It only lasted for a short time, and Stephen Lowry fired home from close range after a header was saved. It was a third successive game in which he had scored in, securing the points for Linfield.

This lead gave Linfield a chance to give minutes to Aaron Burns and Josh Carson from the bench. Burns had a header over the bar as Linfield searched for a fifth.

That search got a little bit easier when Johnny Taylor achieved the unique feat of being sent-off at Windsor PArk for two different clubs.

Eventually, Linfield got their fifth when a shot fell perfectly for Aaron Burns to fire home.

It maintains Linfield’s impressive record against Ards, an unbeaten run going back twenty years and includes Linfield wins by 5-1, 4-0, 5-0, 4-0, 7-0, 7-2, 5-0, 4-0 and 6-1 margins. I’m sure there’s more that i’ve missed.

Those two second-half goals weren’t vital in the context of the game, but they could be by the end of the season. It means that Linfield’s Goal Difference is 50 to Crusaders 43.

For the title to be decided on Goal Difference, Crusaders would need to draw two games and lose win while Linfield win three in that run.

If Linfield win their last six games, Crusaders win four, draw two and lose one, both teams would be level on points.

Even if those six games were won by one goal, Linfield’s goal difference would be 56. Crusaders would have 42, and would need need to claw back fourteen goals over those four wins. At least.

For every point Crusaders drop, the Goal Difference advantage that Linfield have will put more and more pressure on Crusaders.

Up next for Linfield is a trip to Ballinamallard. Everytime i’ve been there, Linfield have won. The two competitive meetings I haven’t been to, they haven’t won.

I’ll be there even if I have to be stretchered there. I’m going to sacrifice myself for us to get three points if I have to. It’s that time of year.

Other results of interest went Linfield’s way today. Coleraine winning and jumping into 3rd, potentially gaining an automatic UEFA Cup place. They play Crusaders next Saturday. Let’s hope their winning run continues, but ends on April 22nd.

Carrick beat Portadown to put pressure on Ballinamallard ahead on Monday night’s game.

Also next week, Northern Ireland face Norway in a World Cup Qualifier. Next week’s fixture list offers a chance for groundhopping for Norwegian visitors. Glentoran v Carrick on Friday (in the away end), game on Saturday, and then the international match on Sunday.

There are matches on Saturday in Belfast, but i’m sure if you got in touch with a LSC, they’d be more than willing to take some Norwegian visitors.

And how did Crusaders do today? They weren’t playing, as their match at home to Ballinamallard has been moved to Monday for Sky.

I might watch it and cheer on Ballinamallard, but then again, Travel Man is on Channel 4 at 8.30pm, then a choice at 9pm between a documentary about King’s Cross (Yes, I like documentaries about train stations. You probably watch Nolan, so you can’t judge me) and the new series of Family Guy on ITV2.

Hopefully by the time the final whistle blows at Seaview on Monday night, it will be Linfield fans who will be feeling giggidy about their team’s title chances.

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LINFIELD 2-0 CLIFTONVILLE 13.3.2017

In their last league matchday, Linfield reduced Crusaders lead at the top to seven points. They kicked-off against Cliftonville, a side they have lost twice to this season in the league, looking to keep that lead at seven points following Crusaders expected win over Carrick Rangers on Saturday.

The reason why Linfield were playing two days later than Crusaders was that this match was moved for live broadcast on Sky Sports, though with the counter attraction of Chelsea v Manchester United on the BBC, there were probably more people in the ground watching it than watching it on TV.

It’s great that the Irish League is getting this exposure, and we know it’s to fill gaps on FA Cup and International weekends, but Sky should have held off until the FA Cup TV games were confirmed before scheduling this.

It never stood a chance against Chelsea v United, it might have done better when slotted against Brighton v Derby on the Friday.

No doubt there were quite a lot of people in both stands keeping an eye on events at Stamford Bridge. I overheard someone behind me saying that United would take a replay, obviously unaware that FA Cup Quarter-Finals are played to a finish from this season onwards, when Ander Herrera was sent-off.

Even if supporters had an eye on Chelsea v United, Linfield players had to focus on the task in front of them, getting three points to keep the pressure on Crusaders, against a Cliftonville team in a rotten run of form. They were there for the taking, Linfield had to go out and take them.

February and March have been defining months for Cliftonville in recent years, winning runs setting up title successes in 2013 and 2014, while poor runs of form have caused damage to them in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

From the outside, it appears their players have given up following their Irish Cup exit and are fulfilling fixtures ahead of the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, just like last season. The worrying thing for them is, they exited the Irish Cup two rounds earlier this season.

However, Cliftonville’s concerns are not my concerns.

For most of the season, Linfield have been in a sandwich – trying to keep up with Crusaders in front while trying to keep clear of Cliftonville behind them. An eleven point lead at kick-off meant that Linfield had stopped worrying about Cliftonville overtaking them a long time ago,

I arrived at Windsor Park, as I do for most weeknight matches, in a totally shitty mood, after navigating the street from hell known as Elgantine Avenue.

This is a street where the residents have just enough brain power to order a taxi, but not enough to be ready when the taxi comes, meaning that taxis are just parked in the middle of the street, and you have to go around them to get past.When you get to the end of the street, there are the never ending red lights.

The residents and taxi drivers can collectively just fuck right off. Fuck the fucking lot of them.

I arrived at Windsor Park to see signing in the South Stand depicting Linfield glory days past and more recent, such as the County Antrim Shield win last month, the expectant crowd hoping that more glorious images will be added over the coming months,

Cliftonville began the match like a team on a rotten run of form, being defensively nervous and giving away cheap possession when under no or little pressure.

Gradually, Linfield took control of the game, the first chance coming when a low Jamie Mulgrew shot was saved by Jason Mooney, while Mark Haughey got in front of Mooney from a cross but couldn’t direct his header in.

Some Linfield fans, dependent on their view, thought it had gone in and began celebrating. Cliftonville fans ironically cheered the premature celebrations. It was the only cheer they had all night.

Recent meetings between the two sides suggested that the first goal would be vital. You have to go back to September 2012 for the last time a team came from behind (Cliftonville at Windsor Park) to win, while Linfield’s last come from behind win was January 2011. You have to go back to April 2005 for the last time Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville.

For clarification, those stats refer to League matches, Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville in a County Antrim Shield match in October 2015.

Linfield got the breakthrough midway through the first-half when a penalty was awarded for a handball by Chris Ramsey. Stephen Lowry stepped up to make it four penalties out of four in the past month and a bit to put Linfield 1-0 up.

That lead almost disappeared soon afterwards when Mark Haughey got caught in possession in his own penalty area to concede a penalty.

Jay Donnelly put the ball wide from the resulting spot kick.

Linfield were in the mood to make Cliftonville pay for their generousity. Cameron Stewart almost made it 2-0 but his shot hit the post.

As the half neared it’s end, Linfield made it 2-0 when Jason Mooney dropped a cross and, after a bit of a scramble, Andrew Waterworth fired home from close range.

Now, i’ve seen Cliftonville fans online complaining about Mooney’s performances, but it really needs to be seen in the flesh how bad he is. He was actually much worse than they said he was.

At one corner, he caught the ball unchallenged, then held it and dropped it. It’s a pity no Linfield players were alert enough to take advantage. They really should have been, considering how bad he was playing.

He even manage to drop kick the ball out for a throw-in on the halfway line. Linfield fans were running low on sympathy for him.

This performance from October is truly astounding. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact it gifted Crusaders three points.

Cliftonville started the second-half having a lot of the ball but not doing much with it. Despite that, Linfield were giving them too much encouragement and needed to quickly improve.

It soon became clear that Cliftonville never looked like scoring no matter how much of the ball they had. Linfield’s full-backs were their most worked defensive players, and that was juts shepherding the ball out for a throw or a goal kick.

Despite recent memories of blowing two goal leads to draw against Cliftonville, Linfield fans were relaxed at 2-0 up. Despite that, they would have preferred their team to make it 3-0.

Mark Stafford thought he did it, but his header hit the post, before a spectacular effort went wide later of.

Mark Haughey had a goal disallowed. There was a bit of confusion as to why. It was either offside against Andrew Waterworth who crossed it, or the ball went out of play before he crossed it. I haven’t seen a TV replay of it yet.

Paul Smyth was running the show for Linfield, and it was no surprise when he was announced as the Man Of The Match.

Up next is a home match against Ards. If we win that, the gap is cut to four, and an opportunity to put pressure on Crusaders before they play on Sky next Monday against Ballinamallard.

If we win all our games, we only need Crusaders to slip up twice. It’s not that inconceivable.

Meanwhile, I got myself a ticket for the Irish Cup Semi-Final against Dungannon on April 1st. Having Ticketmaster is handy, but it should never be the only option. It’s good that the club are able to sell tickets as well to compliment this.

I decided to be a hero and get mine at Monday lunchtime as I work in the City Centre, leaving Windsor Park tickets for those who find it more convenient to get from there, instead of getting one at this match.

Staying at Windsor Park, a new Education and Heritage Centre was opened last week. It’s a Museum. Let’s just call it what it is. I’m hoping to get a chance to visit this soon, though it won’t be immediately soon.

Roy Carroll has been called-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the match against Norway. Hopefully, a deal can be done to allow him to play against Ballinamallard the day before. We only win at Ballinamallard when i’m there, and i’m not sure if I could get to a midweek match.

And finally, the post split fixtures have been confirmed. For Linfield, it is :

H Crusaders (8th April)
A Ballymena United (15th April)
H Glenavon (18th April)
A Coleraine (22nd April)
A Cliftonville (29th April)

Going to be some fun trying to get a ticket if the title race goes to the last day. On the plus side, if Cliftonville’s slide continues, there may be plenty of spaces in the home end that day.

Despite a seven point deficit to make up, things are looking up for Linfield fans. And it just gets better, up next is a Saturday 3pm match at home.

Remember when Linfield played home matches at 3pm on a Saturday? Don’t blame you if you don’t, it’s only our second of 2017.

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GLENTORAN 0-1 LINFIELD 25.2.2017

After yet another disappointing at Windsor Park against Portadown, Linfield will have been glad to be on the road. If they could choose any ground to visit, it would be The Oval. To say that Linfield have a good record there in recent years is a bit of an understatement.

Form in recent years would suggest this good run would continue. In the past two years, Linfield have gifted Glentoran a point at Windsor Park and then won the remaining fixtures. Glentoran’s league position suggested that a fourth League meeting between the sides at Windsor Park in April won’t be happening.

As supporters entered The Oval, there was one name that the away fans were talking about, Alex Moore. Who? I hear you say. Don’t worry, I asked the same thing. He’s an 18 year old goalkeeper making his debut after (i presume) injuries to Roy Carroll and Gareth Deane rather than a pie related disciplinary issue at the club.

To add to the goalkeeper crisis, the unofficial third choice goalkeeper Mark Haughey was also injured. Coincidentally, his penalty heroics against Glenavon was a year ago this weekend.

Haughey missed the Portadown match and was replaced by Chris Casement. Casement was then demoted to the bench and replaced by Reece Glendenning, who scored a hat-trick against Portadown in a reserve game last week. I don’t that that’s what he was in the team for today, but it would be nice if he did that.

Moore played in the Steel and Sons Cup Final over Christmas, so he had some sort of big match experience going into this. It was telling that Jamie Mulgrew won possession in his defensive third in the first minute and headed back to him, just to give him an early touch of the ball.

He would get further touches of the ball in the early minutes by having to keep out a speculative shot from the byline and having to come out and catch a low cross in the six yard box. Jimmy Callacher probably would have cleared, Moore was not taking any chances and dealing with the danger himself.

Linfield were slow getting into the game, but their first moment of quality almost brought a goal when Niall Quinn got clear and his low cross evaded both Cameron Stewart and Andrew Waterworth.

Paul Smyth wasn’t really getting into the game. For some reason, Linfield attack stands rather than sides. For example, left in the first-half and then right in the second, or the other way around. All the attacking in the first-half by Linfield was down the left hand side, meaning Smyth wasn’t involved as much.

Glentoran’s tactic was to stop Linfield by stopping Jamie Mulgrew, usually by illegal methods as he extended his lead at the top of the Most Fouled Irish League Player In History Chart.

They weren’t even honest fouls, they were cynical fouls with no intention of getting the ball, just to stop the man. While the referee’s yellow card stayed in his pocket, it only encouraged Glentoran more.

It was clear that, like in the recent Irish Cup tie, Glentoran were set up to try and snatch a 1-0 lead in the first-half and then hold onto it in the second-half.

That 1-0 lead that Glentoran desired almost came a counter attack when Steven Gordon knocked the ball past Moore, only to see Reece Glendenning get back in time to clear it on the goal-line.

Stephen Lowry fired agonisingly wide from the edge of the box while Linfield should have had a penalty for a handball from a Niall Quinn cross. A football match had finally broken out, 40 minutes late.

Despite ending the first-half well, Linfield needed to play so much better to get the points in the second-half.

Linfield were much better at the start of the second-half, not that it was hard. Paul Smyth was getting more and more involved in the game. The correlation between getting Paul Smyth on the ball and Linfield looking more likely to score is a very simple one to understand.

It looked like Jimmy Callacher would be the man to give Linfield that lead when his header came back to him, perfectly set up, but he volleyed the ball over.

Paul Smyth then fired just wide as Linfield’s pressure began to increase.

Ironically, Linfield got the goal just when the pressure had died down, a header from a free-kick falling perfectly to Andrew Waterworth to just about finish from a few yards out. As long as Linfield did nothing stupid in the final half hour, it should be enough to secure the points.

Sean Ward came on as a sub for Stephen Lowry, and he had a header go wide from just inside the box as Linfield looked for the second goal that would secure the points.

Aaron Burns made a welcome return off the bench after a month out through injury, while Ross Gayno came on for Paul Smyth. It seemed that Niall Quinn would be the obvious player to go off for Gaynor to come one.

Quinn did go off. Not subbed or sent-off, but injured. The end result being that Linfield would play the final minutes with only ten men. They started to get defensive, inviting unnecessary onto themselves.

The best that Glentoran could offer were a couple of speculative shots in the same attack, one which was blocked by their own player, and the other saved by Moore.

Thankfully, Linfield held onto the ball and made sure Glentoran couldn’t hurt them, seeing out the game to win 1-0.

It was Linfield’s ninth successive win at The Oval, eight in the League and ten if you include the “home” match against Crusaders in April 2015. Thirteen unbeaten against Glentoran there and fourteen if you consider the 2012/2013 County Antrim Shield Final to be a draw. Isn’t it great to be arguing about winning/unbeaten run stats?

Considering our poor results at Windsor Park in recent months, perhaps we should play all future home games at The Oval. (Clarification. Just a joke. For the avoidance of doubt, just a joke)

The only two teams to win a League match at Windsor Park this season, Cliftonville and Coleraine played out a 0-0 draw at Solitude, meaning Linfield extend their lead over 3rd place Cliftonville to eleven points.

I would expect that even if our title challenge fails, at least Linfield won’t be having to participate in the ridiculous UEFA Cup Play-Offs.

Even if Linfield lose to twice to Cliftonville in the run-in (We won’t. I know we’ve lost twice to Cliftonville this season, but we won’t lose the next two to them. They’ve downed tools since their Irish Cup exit and are preparing for Play-Off games in May, just like last season) it will be hard to see Cliftonville overturn those remaining five points considering they have only won two (five draws and three defeats, if you care) of their last ten games. Two out of twelve if you include friendlies against Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers.

It also maintains Coleraine’s unbeaten run, albeit ending a run of eight successive wins. The only reason I want Coleraine to maintain their good run of form is that they play Crusaders at the end of March.

Just Crusaders luck to avoid playing Coleraine while they are on a winning run of form. Even bigger luck that their postponed (due to Ballymena’s involvement in the League Cup Final) taking place in the midweek before that game.

Talking of Cliftonville, they will be Linfield’s next League opponents, on Monday 13th March, a game you can see live on Sky Sports. The problem is, it’s up against Chelsea v Manchester United on BBC One at the same time.

It’s great that games are on Sky Sports but I don’t think they’ve picked a good one. Unless Glentoran are visiting on Boxing Day, any game at Windsor Park will be showcasing empty seats in the North Stand due to the camera position.

It would have been better if Sky had waited until the live FA Cup games were picked by BT and BBC before picking an Irish League game that weekend to show.

The bad news for Linfield is that Cliftonville had two players, Paul Finnegan and Jamie McGovern, sent-off. For some reason, Linfield always play badly against teams who have multiple players missing through suspension and/or injury

As I type, the teatime kick-off between Portadown and Crusaders finished 1-1. I know, i’m as shocked as you are, that a team who got a heroic result against Linfield followed-up with a result that helps Linfield.

The gap at the top of the table is now back to seven points, as you were from last Friday teatime but two games further on. When you and a rival both drop points in a title race, you’re caught between agonising over points thrown away and relieved at the situation not being worse.

Linfield get a break from League action next weekend, but it’s not a weekend off, as they travel to Seaview in the Irish Cup. It’s a game that Linfield will have no fear in due to the head to heads this season.

If we play like we do in the previous four meetings this season, we’ll be fine.

Linfield have written the book on how to play against Crusaders this season. Other clubs are more than welcome to have a read. Hopefully, there’ll be another chapter added next weekend.

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BALLYMENA UNITED 2-0 CARRICK RANGERS 18.2.2017

When Cliftonville exited the League Cup at the Quarter-Final stage in November, it was guaranteed that the League Cup would be leaving North Belfast after residing at Solitude since 2013. When it was announced that Seaview would be the venue for this year’s final, the trophy would be metaphorically and literally leaving North Belfast.

It wouldn’t be leaving too far, a short journey up the motorway to Ballymena or Carrickfergus.

Carrick were hoping that my presence would inspire them. I’ve been something of a good luck charm for them in recent years, being there when they won the Steel and Sons Cup Final, at Seaview funnily enough, in 2014, and for their penultimate game of the season in 2015 against the PSNI, a vital win which set them up for promotion if they won their final game, which they did.

The early minutes saw Ballymena pressure but nothing come of it. Despite that, there was still no opportunity for Carrick to relax. They didn’t help themselves, creating pressure for themselves when a clearance hit one of their own defenders and put them back under pressure. Later on, Brian Neeson punched a corner away, hitting one of his defenders. Fortunately for Carrick, the ball bounced out for another corner.

Allan Jenkins had Ballymena’s first attempt at goal when his header went over. It was Carrick who had the first real chance of the game when TJ Murray fired over from inside the penalty area when unmarked. It wasn’t a clear goalscoring opportunity but he should have done so much better, keep it low and at least make the keeper make a save.

Ross Glendenning was eventually forced into a save from a long range shot from Carrick’s other Murray, Martin. It was one of those saves usually referred to as a “Photographer’s save”. He did get lucky that there were no Carrick players close enough to capitalise on his parry, as he picked up the rebound.

Ballymena’s first real attempt on goal came when Johnny McMurray’s long range shot had to be tipped over by Brian Neeson. McMurray’s next attempt at goal was a snapshot that went just wide.

It looked like being a frustrating evening for Ballymena, until Willie Faulkner ran at Carrick’s defence to create space to get a cross in, which was finished by Allan Jenkins to put Ballymena 1-0 up. For the second successive Saturday, Carrick found themselves going in at half-time to a goal in the final minute of the half.

Carrick, who were set up to win 1-0, now had to win this 2-1.

Carrick actually made a good start to the second-hal, knocking Ballymena off their stride. Despite that, it never looked like an equaliser was inevitible.

There was more frustration for Ballymena when McMurray, Kane and Jenkins all missed chances to score. A 2-0 lead, no matter how long was left would have been enough to secure the trophy. Jenkins miss was the worst of the lot, firing over from close range when, like TJ Murray in the first-half, all he had to do was keep it low and get it on target.

It looked like Ballymena were going to be made to pay for it when a header from a free-kick fell to Adam Salley. He got enough to header it over the onrushing Ross Glendenning, but not enough for the ball to loop in. That was Carrick’s big moment. It never looked like Carrick were going to get another chance like that.

It was another set piece which provided Carrick’s next chance, a low shot from a free-kick teed to Nathan McConnell was saved by Ross Glendinning when it looked like it was going to sneak in.

Unsurprisingly, as the team trailing 1-0, Carrick had a lot of the ball in the final minutes of the game, but Ballymena always looked like holding firm, despite their unusually high amount of goals conceded this season for a team in the top half.

The biggest moment of worry for Ballymena came when TJ Murray went down in the box. I was not far from the incident and didn’t think it was a penalty at the time. Looking back at the incident, i’ve seen them given. If you’re Carrick, you’ll scream for it, if you’re Ballymena, you’d be fuming if it was given against you. It’s a decision that would be easier for the referee to give if the ball was in the middle of the park.

The Ballymena defender did just enough to get his body in the road to stop Murray getting through.

As the game approached injury time, Ballymena got a second on the counter attack when Conor McCloskey was played through and smashed it home from a wide position. It was a goal that deserved to have Alan Partridge commentary.

Carrick’s players were fuming as the game wasn’t stopped in the build-up for TJ Murray to get treatment for an injury sustained in the tackle which won the ball for Ballymena to counter.

For the second successive Saturday, Carrick lost 2-0 as a result of goals in the final minute of each half.

Interesting day in the Glendenning household, with Ross winners medal being trumped by Reece’s hat-trick for Linfield Swifts earlier in the day.

Ballymena fans celebrated their first major trophy since 1989, and now both teams turn their attentions to the rest of the season. Ballymena fans dreaming of Europe either via winning the UEFA Cup Play-Off Final or the Irish Cup. Carrick aren’t dreaming of Europe, but rather Linfield, Glentoran, Ballymena and all the other top flight clubs they will be hoping to visit for League games next season.

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LINFIELD 1-1 PORTADOWN 17.2.2017

In the past two years, Linfield’s title challenge has been derailed by defeats to Portadown on a Friday night in February. They avoided a third successive defeat, but it was still a hat-trick of bad results as Linfield commemorated Random Acts Of Kindness Day by gifting Portadown a point, and potentially a third successive title for Crusaders.

The one positive was, that Portadown’s impending relegation means there won’t be any agony against Portadown in February 2018. That, plus INXS were played on the tannoy before the match.

Amongst the crowd at Windsor Park were some Glasgow Warriors fans sat near me making a weekend of their team’s match against Ulster. This, after a group of Dundee Stars fans attended the last Windsor Park game against Ballymena on the same day their team faced Belfast Giants.

It appears that Windsor Park is the go to venue for Scottish sports fans having a weekend in Belfast to see their team.

Even though both teams started slowly, Linfield had the ball in the net in the early minutes when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick but it was disallowed for offside. An early goal was desired for Linfield as they encountered opponents set up to frustrate.

Callacher was having to deal with problems at the other end from Marcio Soares, having a few nervous moments and stray passes.

It was another stray pass, this time from Stephen Lowry, who gifted Portadown their best chance of the night when Marcio Soares was played through and fired straight at Roy Carroll. He really should have scored.

Linfield’s search for the opening goal continued with both Andrew Waterworth and Niall Quinn having shots saved in the same attack.

Towards the end of the half, Waterworth flicked the ball past his man and got to the ball before the goalkeeper, only to see his effort go wide of the post.

Despite their possession, Linfield weren’t doing much with it. Despite the ball being in Portadown’s half, it didn’t look like going into Portadown’s net. It was poor.

David Healy set about doing something about it, bringing on Paul Smyth for Kirk Millar at half-time. Smyth was surprisingly still on the bench after his cameo and goal at Carrick the previous week. The match would take a recurring theme. Linfield trying to get Paul Smyth on the ball and Portadown players trying to cynically foul him.

It wasn’t quite Claudio Caniggia v Cameroon, but it was close. Portadown players did manage to try to recreate the “third time lucky” foul that Cameroon did on Caniggia. Niall Henderson ending up getting a yellow card.

As at any time over the past fifteen months, Linfield are a better attacking force when Smyth is on the pitch and the ball.

As well as cynical fouling, Portadown players were indulging in timewasting. Again, another referee who gestures to tell players to hurry up but doesn’t add the time on. Another mug.

It might sound like a petty thing to raise, but Linfield don’t really help themselves when opponents try to stop the game. With two empty stands and a slope at the end of the pitch, it’s very easy for opposition goalkeepers to timewaste at Windsor Park. Our ballboys should be making sure a new ball is on the pitch as soon as the matchball leaves the field. There was one incident where the ball went into the Railway Stand and the ballboy behind the goal didn’t have a ball and had to go and get the ball that went out. We should be getting our matchday organisation and infrastructure in place to make sure the game doesn’t stop when we are chasing a goal.

No away team comes to Windsor Park to play football. We shouldn’t be facilitating them.

David Healy again turned to his bench, bringing on Ross Gaynor for Niall Quinn as Linfield chased the breakthrough. Gaynor was soon having a shot blocked, as was Stephen Lowry, and then Mark Stafford had a header cleared off the line as frustration began to grow.

Linfield had to be wary of keeping Portadown out at the other end. Marcio Soares got in behind the defence from a goalkeeper’s kick but couldn’t get enough space to set himself up for a clear shot at goal.

Earlier in the game, a Portadown goal might have kickstarted Linfield into life. By this stage, it was too late. Linfield simply had to get the first goal if they were to have any ambition of winning this game.

David Healy then (metaphorically) sacrificed a defender by bringing on Josh Carson for Chris Casement. Casement was a surprise choice at right-back ahead of Sean Ward to cover for the injured Mark Haughey.

Then, came disaster for Linfield, when Portadown went 1-0 up when Sean Mackle dispossessed Jimmy Callacher and did just enough to set up Adam Foley to lob Roy Carroll.

That’s two goals in three games that Callacher could have done better in. I can’t help but wonder if he really is fully fit after going off at Institute a fortnight ago.

As Linfield kicked-off to restart the game, a crossfield pass to Paul Smyth went out of play for a throw. It summed up the night.

Andrew Waterworth had a volley go just wide before Robert Garrett had a great chance to secure the win for Portadown but his shot was saved by Roy Carroll.

To sum up the mood, not even a board to indicate four minutes injury time could raise a roar. One minute into that four, Josh Carson forced home a rebound from close range to make it 1-1. Portadown’s goalkeeper was injured in the incident and required lengthy treatment.

The stoppage killed any momentum Linfield might have had, just when they needed it most. When the game restarted, the correct amount of injury time wasn’t played. It didn’t matter, they didn’t look like getting a second.

This was a game Linfield should have been winning, having beaten Portadown 4-1 and 5-0 this season. They haven’t improved since that 5-0 game in November. If anything, they’ve got worse, if it was possible. You can bet that their defending won’t be as heroic when they play Crusaders next weekend.

Despite our possession and chances, Portadown were never hanging on. Linfield should have had enough over one hundred minutes to beat Portadown.

To compound the misery, Linfield Swifts then showed the First Team how it’s done by beating their Portadown counterparts 9-1.

Crusaders win at Dungannon means they are nine points clear. With Linfield playing Crusaders in April, we need two teams to beat Crusaders. It’s hard to see. Despite writing the book on how to beat Crusaders this season, nobody else in the league seems interested in reading it. Too many teams in this league simply do no believe they can beat Crusaders.

Sadly, it looks like Linfield will be gifting the title to a bunch of hoofers and thugs for the third successive season.

However, there’s no point feeling sorry for ourselves. We must dust ourselves down and continue to get the points on the board just in case, starting at The Oval next weekend.

The future is bright at Windsor Park and we’re on the right track, it’s just taking us a bit longer than expected to get where we want to be, but we’ll get there in the end.

Naturally, with each bad result, there will be analysis of Linfield’s home form. The truth is, it’s no worse than in any of the past four seasons, and it has cost us in each of those four seasons. A statistical analysis can be found here.

Getting settled in the redeveloped Windsor Park was always going to be trial and error. It’s a lot more error than hoped at the moment.

It must be worth the club having a consultation from fans as to what they want from their matchday experience. One suggestion i’d have is to trial having Linfield fans in the Railway Stand. It’s very easy to organise logistically, and has already happened, in a County Antrim Shield tie against Cliftonville in October 2015.

I remember joking that the Coleraine game took place on the wrong day of the week. Linfield have won on every Saturday they’ve played since November 19th. The good news is, the game against Glentoran next weekend will be on a Saturday.

That triggered a little thought in my head, so I decided to dig a little further. Linfield have won only two of their last seven home games on a weekday (excluding Bank Holidays) including all three this season. I’m not sure if that stat serves any relevance.

Meanwhile, this week, saw Northern Ireland announce a friendly against New Zealand at Windsor Park in June. Undecided at the moment, but i’ll probably end up going for the curiousity factor. And yes, i’m aware that they don’t do a haka pre-match. I was hoping for a random friendly at a random EFL ground, like the game against Qatar in Crewe in 2015.

Up next, a trilogy of Belfast derbies. Thankfully, the next two are away from home.

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CARRICK RANGERS 0-2 LINFIELD 11.2.2017

After winning the County Antrim Shield on Tuesday, it was back to the League for Linfield as they travelled to Taylor’s Avenue to take on Carrick Rangers as they aim to keep up the pressure on Crusaders in the title race.

It wasn’t just Carrick that Linfield were up against, it was also the elements, as a constant wind caused problems for Linfield when they attacked into it, causing passes to be either overhit or underhit. Linfield’s players weren’t quite mastering conditions. Niall Quinn was denied an opportunity to set himself up for a shot when the ball held up in the air just as he was setting himself up.

The early minutes was all Linfield pressure. At the same time, it felt like it was a matter of time before Linfield scored, and it felt like a goal would never come, as both Jimmy Callacher and Niall Quinn had close range efforts saved. Quinn’s effort came after a Cameron Stewart shot was saved.

Carrick also had a couple of breaks which caused Linfield’s defence and keeper to have to be on alert.

Already a difficult afternoon because of the weather, it was important for Linfield not to concede during Carrick’s rare attacks. It was already a difficult afternoon, giving Carrick something to hold on to would have made it even more difficult.

Brian Neeson’s save filled afternoon was about to come to a premature end due to injury. With no goalkeeper on the bench, Mark Surgenor went into goals.

Linfield fans knew better than most that an outfield player having to go into goals doesn’t always result in a heavy defeat. Linfield still had to create the chances to score past him.

Those chances didn’t come as Carrick’s defence held firm, as the first-half looked set to end goalless, a first-half which mirrored my only previous visit to Carrick, in August 2015, where Linfield won 3-0 but took a long time to get the breakthrough.

As first-half injury time approached, Linfield got their best opportunity when a penalty was awarded after a Niall Quinn shot was blocked by a Carrick defender’s hand.

Penalties against Carrick have proved problematic in the past two seasons with Aaron Burns (October 2015), Andrew Waterworth (December 2015) and Ross Gaynor (September 2016) all having penalties saved by Brian Neeson.

Neeson wasn’t on the pitch to try and get a quadruple. This penalty incident was to be dominated by men who weren’t on the pitch. As on Tuesday night, with Ross Gaynor and Aaron Burns not on the pitch, it was left to Stephen Lowry to take the kick for Linfield.

Quite how it will be decided who takes the penalty if Linfield are awarded one when all three are on the pitch is anyone’s guess.

Like on Tuesday, Lowry sent the keeper the wrong way, but going to the keeper’s left this time.

It wouldn’t have been a disaster for Linfield to go in 0-0 at half-time, but going in 1-0 was a lot better. It could even have been 2-0, but Cameron Stewart’s headed chance went just wide.

The second-half got off to a slow start. Stephen Lowry had a long range shot go over, while a volley from the edge of the box went just wide.

Mark Stafford had a flick which hit the post while Niall Quinn also hit the post. Even when Mark Surgenor flapped at a cross from Matthew Clarke, he managed to get away with it.

If you were doing text commentary of this match, you could have just cut and pasted the phrase “Linfield should be 2-0 up, ……”

As each minute passed with the score at 1-0, you began to get that horrible feeling that Linfield would be made to pay for their missed chances. Even though Carrick didn’t look like scoring, when there’s only one goal in it, you always have a chance.

You could just see it, a cross that would normally have gone over gets held up in the wind and falls straight to a Carrick player to score.

David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Paul Smyth as he continues his recovery from injury.

Linfield fans horrible premonition almost came through when Roy Carroll had to save a long range shot after a Carrick break.

Linfield tried for the second goal that would make the final minutes more relaxing. Andrew Waterworth thought he was going to get it as he lined up a shot, only for a Carrick defender to get in and block.

Eventually, Linfield got the second goal. Appropriately, it came after two glorious missed chances, Mark Stafford having a header saved and then Cameron Stewart hitting the woodwork from that rebound before Paul Smyth eventually finished.

That was the game won, and some supporters headed for the exits just as injury time started, content that Linfield had the job done.

Without playing fantastic, Linfield were deserved winners. The elements could have been a leveller. Linfield made sure that it wasn’t.

A curious fact was that this was Linfield’s ninth successive away win. Ten if you change the stat to “Games away from Windsor Park” to include neutral matches. The good news is, there are two successive away games coming up after next weekend. The even better news for those who want to save on petrol, is that they are both in Belfast.

Next Friday is a home match against Portadown. Even though Linfield have lost Friday night games to Portadown in the last two years, a third is unthinkable. It’s a game we should be winning and winning comfortably. Wed need to finish a bit better than we did today though.

Between now and the split, Linfield will only face one team in the top half of the table. This represents an excellent opportunity to get points and momentum ahead of the split.

Unfortunately, the gap at the top remains seven points. That might seem like a lot but Crusaders can still be overtaken. They’re more disappointed when we win than we are when they do.

Cliftonville lost today, meaning that Linfield now have a nine point lead from 3rd place, now freeing them to concentrate on overtaking Crusaders, and not have to worry about dropping into 3rd.

While at Taylor’s Avenue, I got a ticket for next weekend’s League Cup Final, meaning I have football matches on Friday and Saturday. It could have been some fun if I had decided to head over for Man United’s UEFA Cup tie against St Etienne on Thursday as well.

Carrick will have a break from League duty next weekend as both clubs try to amass as many points between now and the end of the season for differing reasons. Carrick for the right to be hosting Linfield in the League next season, and Linfield to be able to travel to various grounds as champions.

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CRUSADERS 1-3 LINFIELD 7.2.2017

It was the same competition, same venue and the same opponents as the last time Linfield won a trophy in 2014, David Jeffrey’s last as Linfield manager. If you believe in things going full circle, you could say that the Post Jeffrey Era ended, and the David Healy Era truly began. That will be for future historians to decide.

It could be Linfield’s only trophy this season, it could be the first of two. It could even be the first of three. That outcome will decided over the next three months.

The final of the County Antrim Shield isn’t a new experience for Linfield fans, it was the seventh time in nine years they had reached the final of the competition. Mostly, they hadn’t been positive experiences though, only celebrating a win in 2013-2014, their first since 2005-2006, and having to watch opponents lift the trophy in 2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2010-2011, 2012-2013 and 2015-2016.

There were two names that stood out in the pre-match teamsheets. Colin Coates back for Crusaders after injury and Gareth Deane in goals for Linfield, taking some pundits in the media by surprise (though, there were people sitting behind me in the first-half who were shocked to see Roy Carroll not playing).

It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise to see Deane on the pitch, as he had played in every round of the competition so far.

The occasion wouldn’t have overawed him, having played in last season’s Irish Cup Final, and been thrown in against Cliftonville at The Oval, and played at The Oval during the run-in at the end of last season. Despite his lack of games of Linfield, he doesn’t lack big match experience.

Crusaders had the first attack of the game, snuffed out by Matthew Clarke in the full-back position.

Linfield then took control of the game, as Crusaders couldn’t defend a free-kick and had to concede a corner. They couldn’t defend that corner and had to concede another corner.

It was third time lucky for Linfield as Cameron Stewart headed home from the corner. Three was very much the magic number, as the player wearing 3 scored for the third successive match.

Before anyone complains about a Forward wearing 3, we had a Defender wearing 11 for years. Linfield don’t do numerical convention.

It was a unique achievement for Stewart, having scored in the Steel and Sons Cup Final on Christmas Eve, meaning he had scored in both of the County Antrim FA’s showpiece finals in the same season.

I have a lot of useless football stats in my head, but I don’t know if he is the first player to achieve this in the same season or even in a career. Feel free to leave a comment if you know.

Stewart almost had a second soon after but he couldn’t get his head onto a cross. Paul Heatly hit a shot wide at the near post but it was a rare Crusaders attack in the opening minutes.

Kirk Millar had a goalward shot blocked after a corner was cleared before Mark Stafford soon afterwards bundled the ball into the net from close range after a corner to make it 2-0.

It was a pefect start for Linfield. Jamie Mulgrew was running the show. Crusaders players couldn’t even get close to him to cyncially foul him and get a final final final final warning from the referee.

Andrew Waterworth was played through but couldn’t get a clear strike at goal, eventually firing over.

2-0 down, Crusaders responded in the way they know best, with thuggery. Paul “not that kind of player” Heatley got sent-off for elbowing Mark Stafford.

It was his second red card against Linfield, having been sent-off when the sides met at Seaview in April 2014. It would have been his third red card against Linfield if the referee had done his job properly in the final minutes of the League match at Windsor Park in October after his excuse of a tackle on Andrew Waterworth. I’m sure there’s more lucky escapes that i’ve missed.

Things were going perfectly for Linfield. Almost too perfectly.

It looked like Crusaders would be going down to nine men when Howard Beverland grabbed Cameron Stewart after an aerial tussle. The referee booked both players under the “I haven’t a clue so i’ll just book both of them rule”.

Beverland chanced his arm by dragging down Cameron Stewart as he looked to head goalwards. No free-kick was awarded, and within seconds, a long hoof upfield saw Jordan Owens head home.

As good a header as it was, it was unstoppable – going in from the moment it left his left, Jimmy Callacher shouldn’t have been beaten to the ball so easily.

Instead of having a free-kick in an attacking position and facing nine men, Linfield were now pulled back to 2-1.

Linfield had a few wobbly moments after that goal, but there was never a moment when Crusaders looked like equalising.

Defenders didn’t help themselves by passing it back to Gareth Deane’s weaker left foot (after passing it back to Ross Glendenning’s weaker right foot when he was playing for the club – they’ll get it right some day) which resulted in cheap throw-ins being conceded. It was especially dangerous on a pitch as bumpy as the Ballymena Showgrounds was.

Michael Carvill almost made history by being sent-off in two County Antrim Shield Finals, but the referee bottled it after his late challenge on Matthew Clarke when he was already on a yellow card.

Jordan Owens hitting the side-netting was the best moment Crusaders had in the final moments of the first-half. Linfield were more than happy to go in at half-time 2-1 up and have a chance to clear their heads. If they kept their heads in the second-half, they secure the win.

Naturally, Crusaders went out at the start of the second-half in search of an equaliser. They had a lot of the ball, but the best they could offer was a speculative long range shot from David Cushley. This was one of the ninety-nine out of a hundred that fly over the bar.

Jamie Mulgrew also fired over as he ran goalwards, continuing where he left off in the first-half. Andrew Waterworth and Cameron Stewart both had chances to kill off the game as Linfield searched for that third goal that would clinch the game.

They had a glorious chance when Sean O’Neill misjudged the ball as he tried to shepherd it out for a goal kick, pulling back Andrew Waterworth as he tried to put the ball in the net, before Howard Beverland lunged in an fouled him. Take your pick as to which foul the penalty was awarded for.

And yet, there was still no second yellow card for Beverland. If you’re partial to a bet, stick some money on Michael Carvill or Howard Beverland to score the winner for Crusaders on Saturday. Free money.

With Ross Gaynor and Aaron Burns not on the pitch, all eyes were on who would take the penalty for Linfield. It was Stephen Lowry, who made no mistake, to make it 3-1.

That was it, game won for Linfield. Crusaders barely looked like scoring at 2-1, they were never going to come back at 3-1.

Things got even better for Linfield, with Paul Smyth now being introduced from the bench after missing two months through injury, and he picked up where he left off, running at Crusaders defence, causing them panic. Just like Jamie Mulgrew, they couldn’t get close enough to kick him.

Before the final whistle, there was still time for one more act of thuggery, as Jordan Owens barged Jimmy Callacher from the touchline onto the tarmac at the side of the pitch. There’s nothing Crusaders players specialise in more than a barge on the touchline designed to cause injury.

During the final minutes, Linfield continued to attack as they sought a 4-1 lead that would not have flattered them.

Linfield sent out a message to the rest of the league. Not about their own capabilities, but that Crusaders can be beaten if you stand up to them. Crusaders seven point lead has been partly due to too many teams not believing that they can beat them.

That attempt to overtake them will continue at Carrick on Saturday. Hopefully, another road trip as productive as the ones to Dungannon, Drumahoe and Ballymena over the past ten days.

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INSTITUTE 0-2 LINFIELD 4.2.2017

It was the Irish Cup for Linfield today, and a trip to Drumahoe to face Institute, with a place in the Quarter-Finals up for grabs.

Having successfully negotiated lunch at Applegreen without children holding up the queue, I found roadworks to be a much bigger obstacle, causing me to miss the opening ten or so minutes.

As I walked down the hill towards the ground, I could see an Institute player on the ground and the referee blowing his whistle. I feared a penalty. The referee said it was a dive. TV replays proved it to be a correct decision.

Linfield then began to dominate the first-half, Stephen Lowry having a shot saved from the penalty spot, Cameron Stewart having an attempt at goal just wide before setting up Andrew Waterworth, whose shot was saved when he really should have scored.

It wasn’t all one way traffic, as Chris Casment was forced into a block to deny Institute on one of their rare attacks.

Not even a succession of corners late in the half could bring a Linfield goal, as they had to make do with a half-time score of 0-0.

There wasn’t long to wait for a goal in the second-half, as a quick free-kick from Lowry found Niall Quinn in acres of space, his cross was deflected goalwards, Institute’s keeper palming it away, but only to Cameron Stewart who made sure from close range.

It was Stewart’s second goal for Linfield, coming from a combined distance of one yard out. It doesn’t matter how and how far they go in, as long as they go in.

Linfield were finding it out the hard way as they failed to get a second goal that would kill the tie, Institute knowing that while there was one goal in it, the tie was still very much alive.

A header from a free-kick appeared to level the scores for Stute, until their players started to surround the referee, the crowd only realising that the goal was disallowed.

I was at the other end of the pitch and couldn’t see why it was disallowed. TV replays showed it to be for a push. Soft, but the correct decision.

Aaron Harkin took his protests too far and got a second yellow card.

Chris Casement had a free-kick well saved as Linfield looked to take advantage of their extra man. There wasn’t long to wait as Andrew Waterworth was played through and made it 2-0.

It was job done. A lot later than hoped, but job done, despite Institute having some attempts at goal in the final minutes.

The only concern was Jimmy Callacher going off injured ahead of the County Antrim Shield Final on Tuesday.

Talking of Cup Finals, there is one which might be taking place at Windsor Park in 2019. It appears to have snuck under the radar of the Northern Ireland Media, but Windsor Park has submitted a bid to host the European Super Cup Final.

This has come as no surprise as it was previously reported that a bid would be made as soon as the redevelopment was complete.

That would be fantastic. I went to the European Super Cup Final in Cardiff, and really hope this event comes to Belfast.

It’s a game UEFA want to bring to “smaller” stadiums. Capacity isn’t an issue. Windsor Park is only sightly smaller than Eden Arena which hosted the final in 2013.

The competition comes in the form of Tirana, Toulouse, Budapest, Haifa, Astana, Gdansk, Warsaw, Glasgow and Istanbul.

The first six cities have never hosted a European final, so they have that as a USP, though Tolouse hosted Euro 2016 and Budapest will host Euro 2020 games. That may count against them.

One of the Polish bids will have to be withdrawn, while Glasgow, Istanbul and Astana may withdraw to apply for the UEFA Cup Final or the Women’s European Cup Final.

Suddenly, the shortlist could be very short.

Hampden Park is also in the running for that year’s UEFA Cup Final. Sounds like a good excuse for a trip to Glasgow.

If Hampden Park hosts the 2019 European Super Cup, I could console myself by basing my trip to the Edinburgh Festival around being in Glasgow in this day.

Bids have to be submitted by 6th June and the winning bids will be known in September 2017.

Forget about 2019, it’s 2017 that matters, and up next is the County Antrim Shield Final against Crusaders. The past three meetings this season have shown that Linfield have nothing to be afraid of (well, apart from Raymond Crangle influencing the game from 4th Official) and if they play like they have in those three games, they’ll get their rewards.

There won’t be long to wait for the next meeting against Crusaders, with the sides being drawn together in the Irish Cup Quarter-Finals. Linfield fans have good memories of Irish Cup Quarter-Finals in North Belfast, and a packed crowd willing their team on just as they did at Solitude last year gives us more than a chance.

Hopefully, by then, there’ll be nine more points on the board from wins against Carrick, Ards and Glentoran, as well as the County Antrim Shield.

If there is, the final months of the season could be very interesting indeed.

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DUNGANNON SWIFTS 1-4 LINFIELD 28.1.2017

Four as very much the number that mattered today as Linfield began the first of four games on the road, hoping that results would go their way and the gap at the top of the table would be reduced to four points. The got four goals, but the gap remained at seven.

It was Dungannon who had the better of the play in the opening minutes, causing Linfield more problems with their attacks than Linfield were causing them, a couple of corners having to be cleared and Ryan Harper firing a shot just wide.

However, it was Linfield who took the lead with their first attack when Mark Haughey headed a Stephen Lowry freekick into the net. As soon as it left his head it was going in, Dungannon’s keeper didn’t stand a chance.

Haughey had put Linfield 1-0 up when the teams met in August, but Linfield put in a disjointed performance and only managed a 1-1 draw. Their performance today prior to the goal mirrored the performance that day. They were hoping this time they would kick on and put in a performance similar to their visit to Dungannon in November.

Unfortunately, we got a repeat of the performance in August, the biggest moment of worry coming when a misplaced Jimmy Callacher pass almost presented Dungannon with an opportunity.

Linfield were dealt a blow just after the half hour when Aaron Burns came off with a shoulder injury. Surprisingly, it was Cameron Stewart who got the nod to play upfront ahead of Kevin Amuneke.

A few minutes later, they were dealt and even bigger blow when Dungannon equalised after Ally Teggart scored from close range. It was too easy for Dungannon, from playing it out from the left-back position, to getting the ball crossed from a right wing position. It was deserved for Dungannon.

The only positive for Linfield was, that this situation came in the first-half when they could do something about it at half-time, instead of in the second-half when there was no chance to rectify the situation, as when the sides met in August.

Linfield had their chances to go in at half-time in front when Mark Haughey headed over from a corner, while Andrew Waterworth had a shot blocked behind by a Dungannon defender, but for some reason a goal kick was awarded.

Unsurprisingly, Linfield’s performance improved at the start of the second-half, with Andrew Waterworth volleying over in the penalty area, before getting on the end of a Stephen Fallon cross to fire home from close range to put Linfield back in front.

Within a minute, Cameron Stewart took advantage of a mix-up in Dungannon’s defence to head home from close range to make it 3-1.

That was the game almost won for Linfield. They had to make sure they did nothing stupid in defence to make the final moments more exciting than they should be.

With just over 20 minutes to go, Jimmy Callacher finished from close range to make it 4-1. That definitely was the game won for Linfield.

The game became a non event in the final minutes, as Linfield ran out 4-1 winners.

Wins for Crusaders and Cliftonville meant hat nothing changed at the top of the table, Linfield sit 7 points off top and are 6 points clear of 3rd.

Next week (for everyone barring Ards and Carrick) the league takes a break. Linfield face the bottom five in five of their next six games. That is an opportunity to go on a winning run and gather some momentum. If we don’t, we don’t deserve to win the league.

All we can do is keep winning and hoping. The title race is far from over.

Next Saturday, is Institute away in the Irish Cup.

For me, there is a midweek trip to England to see Manchester United take on Hull on Wednesday night. I’ll be there from Tuesday to Thursday. I’d planned on going to Wigan v Norwich on Tuesday night but that has been postponed, but now i’m toying with the idea of Burnley v Leicester. Still undecided.

I know what you’re thinking, BURNLEY CAN FUCK OFF.

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