LINFIELD 0-0 CRUSADERS 13.4.2019

Queen’s Greatest Hits, Track 17. Or, seeing as it’s Record Store Day and you might have it on vinyl, Side 2 Track 9.

Job done. No ifs, not buts. No hoping to avoid a mathematical freak.

The Irish League Champions arrived at Windsor Park today and set up camp in the away dressing room. By 5pm, they were now based in the home dressing room.

A win at Ballymena United the previous week meant that Linfield were virtually Champions but still needed one point to make sure, as they began the first of three successive home games with a game against a side they have beaten three times out of three in the League.

It was a far happier situation for Linfield than when they travelled to Seaview to face Crusaders in this weekend last year.

Having kept a winning team in recent weeks, Linfield had to make a change today with Josh Robinson unavailable. Ryan McGivern got the nod to replace him, surprisingly ahead of Mark Stafford.

Crusaders had the first attack of the game, spending the first few minutes in Linfield’s half, but Linfield were able to clear the danger, the best that Crusaders could offer was a Ronan Hale shot that went over the bar.

Linfield’s first attacks saw a Jamie Mulgrew run try to set up Jordan Stewart but he couldn’t get into a striking position, while a cleared corner fell to Daniel Kearns who fired over.

There was even a bizarre incident where Howard Beverland got a yellow card for fouling Jamie Mulgrew. Nothing new there, but Beverland was off the pitch after receiving treatment. Opposition teams are now finding creative ways to foul him.

Gareth Deane was forced into a save from a Philip Lowry header before Jamie Mulgrew had a penalty appeal turned down.

Linfield had a strong finish to the half, being camped in Crusaders half, but couldn’t get the breakthrough.

0-0 at half-time, job done. Not the three points wanted to do it in style, but job done.

Paul Heatley had the first shot on goal in the second-half, his shot on the counter attack being saved by Gareth Deane from a wide angle.

Soon after, Linfield were presented with the best opportunity of the game when they were awarded a penalty for a handball by Michael Reddy.

Andrew Waterworth, Andrew Mitchell and Jordan Stewart loitered around the ball, with Stewart getting the nod to take it.

Stewart had scored every penalty he’d taken this season which was ominous, which meant he was due to miss one, like when Stephen Lowry missed one against Dungannon Swifts in 2017.

Those fears proved to be right as his spot kick was saved by Gerard Doherty. It was a good save by him, but it was a good height for the keeper.

We probably should have tried to dive and get a penalty when we were 5-0 up at Dungannon recently just so he could miss it and get it out of the way.

Doherty was making another save soon afterwards when Ryan McGivern flicked goalwards from a corner.

David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Stephen Fallon, Kirk Millar and Marek Cervenka in search of a winner.

The closest either of them cam was when Fallon got in behind Crusaders defence and crossing when he perhaps should have shot, taking Daniel Kearns by surprised who would have scored if he ran in, but he stopped having anticipated a shot.

It was a 0-0 sort of game, you know what I mean, both teams were trying, but not really looking like scoring.

With a few minutes remaining, the final whistle blew at Solitude, where Cliftonville held Ballymena United to a 1-1 draw. It meant that Linfield were Champions regardless of the score at Windsor Park, not that they planned on conceding a late winner to Crusaders for the third successive meeting.

They didn’t, it finished 0-0. It wasn’t as dramatic as in 2017, but Linfield were Champions again.

It was a day of draws in the Top Six, much to the frustration of Glenavon who conceded a late equaliser to dent their chances of claiming 2nd and securing automatic European football. The farce that is the UEFA Cup Play-Offs is of no concern to Linfield.

It’s looking likely that the presentation will be next Saturday against Glenavon, even though the protocol is for it to be in the last home game. It makes sense to have it on a Saturday afternoon rather than a Tuesday night when it will be more convenient for more people to attend.

This win wipes away the ghost of the 2017-2018 season. What went wrong? Everything.

It was hard to see it coming. Linfield recruited well, securing three signings in May 2017 while other clubs were playing in the UEFA Cup Play-Offs. Of those three signings – Robert Garrett, Jordan Stewart and Andrew Mitchell – Two had won the title while the other had won the Irish Cup. Josh Robinson was added in mid July, another title winner. The signings were no brainers, and three of them proved to be key players this season.

They came in to replace Sean Ward, Josh Carson and Ross Gaynor, who left in pursuit of first team football (although Gaynor is now playing at a lower level due to employment commitments) and you couldn’t blame them for doing so. The irony is, they probably would have played 30-40 games in 2017-2018 if they had stayed. The team picked itself in the final months of 2016-2017, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Andrew Waterworth and Jimmy Callacher both missed pre-season due to injury, and were always playing catch-up in terms of fitness when they returned.

There were even injuries at the other end of the season, with both Jordan Stewart and Jamie Mulgrew missing the run-in. Linfield were lost without Mulgrew in the final weeks.

It was a perfect storm. We weren’t creating enough chances. When we did we were missing them. We were conceding bad goals due to individual errors. We were losing or drawing games we should have won.

Part of that was remedied in the signings of Joel Cooper and Daniel Kearns, both of whom hit the ground running as part of a 4231 formation forced on David Healy due to a shortage of midfielders on the opening day.

It was obvious from his 45 minute debut in a friendly at Dundela in July that Cooper was going to be a star player for Linfield, even if a title win looked far away during the first-half of that game as we were lucky to be 1-0 down.

I’m going to put 2017-2018 down to us angering the Football Gods with those idiots against Celtic for landing us with a partial ground closure for one European match, expecting to serve it in the Summer of 2018, we’d have to wait a year for that.

Just a heads up about that if you like to sit at the end of the South Stand closest to The Kop.

You could perhaps argue that Linfield had too easy a start in 2017-2018 and weren’t ready by the time the big games came around.

This would not be the case in 2018-2019, with trips to Glenavon, Crusaders and Cliftonville before the end of August.

Things didn’t start great, penned into their own half and conceding a penalty inside the first five minutes of the opening game of the season at Mourneview. Thankfully, it was missed, and when Linfield had a period on top, they scored to win 1-0, but were thankful to their defence for helping to keep a clean sheet. Clean sheets would be a theme throughout the season.

The second match of the season against Institute was scheduled for a Friday night allowed them to get points on board early and put pressure on rivals, which they did winning 3-0.

Having seen Crusaders be walloped in Europe, and then concede twice in both of their opening two League games, Linfield knew they had nothing to fear from Crusaders, and so it proved, securing a 2-0 win, which could have been more.

The following week saw the first points dropped and first goal conceded in a 1-1 draw at Cliftonville, with a late equaliser from substitute Michael O’Connor.

Linfield’s success this season was built on a contradictory mix of having a settled starting eleven, but also utilising the squad.

Mark Haughey missed the season through injury, Chris Casement took his face. Mark Stafford was suspended on the opening day, Josh Robinson came in and never looked back. When Robinson was injured in October/November, Stafford took his place and even produced a late winner at Dungannon. Stafford even filled in when Callacher got injured at Seaview in January. Stephen Fallon broke into the team when Andrew Mitchell got injured, and then Kyle McClean took advantage when both of them were injured. Most famously, Jordan Stewart made the most of his opportunity when Daniel Kearns got injured.

Gareth Deane came in for the injured Roy Carroll at Newry in January, and then filled in when Carroll’s injury was confirmed as season ending. In that game at Newry, Deane saved a penalty.

That same match saw Michael O’Connor come in for the suspended Andrew Waterworth and score twice in a 2-0 win. Suspensions and red cards were a lot rarer this season as well. When somebody came into the team, more often than not, when someone came into the team, they made the most of the opportunity.

That game at Solitude saw Linfield play with ten men after a first-half red card for Jamie Mulgrew. The previous meeting against Cliftonville, four months earlier, saw Linfield capitulate after a first-half red card. Not this time.

September began on a frustrating manner with a 0-0 draw against Ards. Naturally, this is frustrating, but even more so with Crusaders and Coleraine playing each other on Sky on the Monday night after it, and then not having a League game the following weekend due to playing in the Scottish Challenge Cup. It was an opportunity to pull clear of rivals that was missed.

No mistake was made the following weekend, blasting aside Warrenpoint 5-0 though.

A 0-0 draw at Coleraine in mid September wasn’t the worst result in the world, as it kept Linfield five points clear of Coleraine albeit with a game more played, it was frustrating as there was a traffic jam forming in the table when Linfield were looking to pull clear. Those draws allowed Glenavon to take leadership of the League table.

At the end of the month, Linfield beat Ballymena United 2-1 to go eight points clear of them. I thought that would be the last time we’d have to worry about them.

October began with a throwback, a top of the table clash against Glentoran, live on Sky, which Linfield won 1-0 and sent their season into freefall. That was followed by a win over Newry City with a hat-trick from Jimmy Callcher.

Everybody played, eight wins, three draws and no defeats. There were also eight clean sheets in those eleven games.

However, there would soon be a run of no League clean sheets in two months as Linfield entered a sticky period.

October has been a problematic month for Linfield in recent years, so five wins from six matches in all competitions was a miracle.

That one blemish was a shock defeat to relegation threatened Ards. Espeecially frustrating as it was dropped points at the start of a run of games against Bottom Six teams.

November didn’t get off to a good start with a draw against Warrenpoint Town and a defeat to Coleraine, both at home.

The turning point of the season turned out to be a trip to The Brandywell in November to face Institute. It didn’t feel like it when we were 1-0 down. We turned it around and won 4-1. Joel Cooper was dropped for the first time as a Linfield player having lost his way after being kicked out of the game at The Oval in October.

A brief came at The Brandywell saw him regain his form, and an injury gave him an opportunity against Cliftonville the following week. They couldn’t handle him.

It was the start of a run of games at home in the space of four months where four was the magic number, where Cliftonville, Crusaders, Glentoran, Warrenpoint Town and Glentoran again left after picking the ball out of the back of the net four times.

December was full of big games. The first of the month saw Linfield lose to Ballymena who overtook them at the top. Especially frustrating as we were 1-0 up and could have killed off their title hopes. Instead, it gave them the boost of life.

By this point, we were managing a schedule of Midweek-Saturday. Even though our County Antrim Shield game against Ballymena was postponed twice, we were still having to prepare for it, as well as Bank Holiday games taking place on weekday afternoons.

A draw at home to Glenavon on the Saturday before Christmas saw Ballymena go four points clear. They had a generous run of games coming up as well. The only Top Six teams they were facing soon, Coleraine and Crusaders, were both out of form.

However, Coleraine and Crusaders did us a favour, and by New Year’s Day, Linfield were top. By mid January, it was now three points clear. With the superior Goal Difference (from all those scrappy 1-0 wins that those in North Antrim would have you believe), Ballymena needed Linfield to slip up twice.

Crusaders were never in the title race, and a win at Seaview made sure we weren’t going to let them into it. That was followed up by a win at Newry in midweek while Ballymena didn’t play to make the lead six points. Points on the board always trumps games in hand.

February began with an Irish Cup exit and going 2-0 down to Coleraine. Questions were being asked of Linfield. They answered them by coming back to win 3-2.

Ballymena were defeated at Windsor Park to make the gap nine points, having been defeated in the NIFL Cup Final a week earlier.

There was no time for rest as Linfield struggled at Newry the following midweek. A draw would have undone the win over Ballymena and given them a lifeline, but Linfield dug out an injury time winner. You could hear the groans in Ballymena.

You would soon be hearing cheers in Ballymena as Linfield lost at Glenavon, while Ballymena responded with a win at Coleraine. If Ballymena won their game in hand, the gap would be three points, and with Linfield still to come to Ballymena, they were eyeing up being level with four to play.

Thankfully, shock home defeats to Glentoran and Warrenpoint Town for Ballymena saw Linfield arrive nine points clear. A 1-0 win saw them leave twelve points clear. It was almost job done.

This 0-0 draw sealed the deal.

There’s still something to play for as winning our final games will secure a 90 point haul, something Linfield have never done in a 38 game season. The previous best in a 38 game season was 89 in 2017.

And, can we go through a season without losing at home to Cliftonville please? It would be the first time sine 2011-2012 if we do.

Here’s some stats for you:

20 clean sheets out of 35 matches.
Half as many goals conceded as the team with the second best defensive record
3 or more successive clean sheets on 6 occasions
Scoring 4 or more on 8 different occasions
Wins against every team in the League
Clean sheets against every team in the League
A win at Coleraine on the final game will see Linfield win at every ground in the League

Deserving Champions

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BALLYMENA UNITED 0-1 LINFIELD 5.4.2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DUNGANNON SWIFTS 0-5 LINFIELD 22.3.2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LINFIELD 2-0 INSTITUTE 16.3.2019

And relax, all is well. Panic over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GLENAVON 2-0 LINFIELD 8.3.2019

As Linfield fans entered Mourneview Park on the opening day of the season, if you said to them that when they returned in March, a win would put them 12 points clear, they’d probably be a bit disappointed because they believe we should be 20 points clear. We’re a demanding bunch.

Exiting the Irish Cup allowed Linfield to have an unofficial mid season break, with a gap of ten days between this and their last match.

Last time out, they left it late to secure all three points at Newry, to give themselves a nine point lead at the top of the table. With Ballymena having a game in hand, it was always deceptive, you have to always assume that games in hand will be won, meaning it would always be viewed as a six point lead.

Good to have, but not enough to be comfortable, a lot of work still needed to be done to secure the title.

That work for the final run-in began at Mourneview Park on Friday night, for an away match against Glenavon which was selected for live TV coverage. This gave Linfield the opportunity the open up a twelve point lead, and really put the pressure on Ballymena United ahead of their trip to Coleraine.

Glenavon had most of the attacking play in the opening minutes, but the best they could offer was speculative shots on goal, on the stretch.

Linfield’s first attacking moment of note came when Andrew Waterworth dispossessed Caolan Marron, with the Glenavon defender being booked for a foul in the full back position.

The resulting free-kick was cleared. On a night when clear chances were rare, Linfield had to make the most of their set piece opportunities, especially as Jonathan Tuffey was struggling with the wind at times, nobody was really getting in front of him or near him to cause problems.

Linfield were now having pressure on Glenavon’s goal, but they needed to make it count. If they got the first goal, they could really push forward against a team that was there for the taking.

Their first real strike at goal came from a Jordan Stewart shot from a wide angle, which Tuffey turned around for a corner. Andrew Waterworth had Linfield’s next attempt on goal, flicking on a header from a corner.

Daniel Kearns frustrated when he got the ball in an attacking position, usually taking too many touches meaning the opportunity was missed to take advantage of the possession.

Just before half-time, a neat passing move created Linfield’s first clear chance of the half, but Kyle McClean saw his low shot excellently turned around by Tuffey.

0-0 at half-time, and Linfield were frustrated by not making the most of their set pieces, and having the weather in their favour. However, there was nothing to suggest that Linfield couldn’t go on and win the game in the second-half.

A minute into the second-half, things changed when Glenavon took the lead after a long range shot from Aaron Harmon. The goal came out of nowhere. Suddenly, from trying to win the game, Linfield were now having to turn around a deficit.

Linfield responded immediately, with Jordan Stewart being denied again by Tuffey from a wide angle when a cross to players running into the penalty area.

Jimmy Callacher later headed over from a corner as Linfield searched for an equaliser.

David Healy then turned to his bench, bringing on Marek Cervenka and Kirk Millar for Jordan Stewart and Daniel Kearns. The removal of Stewart didn’t go down too well with some supporters.

Cervenka’s main contribution was to gift Glenavon soft free-kicks in their defensive thirs with stupid fouls, stopping the game when Linfield needed the game to be alive.

Millar endured a frustrating evening, never really getting a clear opportunity to get a cross in.

It looked like Linfield were going to get that elusive equaliser when Andrew Waterworth lined up a shot in the penalty area, only to hit the post.

Marek Cervenka then had a half chance on the edge of the penalty area but he blasted over.

Lorcan Forde was then brought on for Kyle McClean as Linfield chased an equaliser.

It was Marek Cervenka who had Linfield’s next best opportunity, when he was played through on goal but his shot was saved by Tuffey. He really should have scored. On a night of few clear goalscoring opportunities, Linfield had to make the most of the ones that came their way.

You had the feeling if Linfield got an equaliser, they could push on and win it 2-1. With 81 minutes on the clock at that stage, there would have been plenty of time to make it happen.

Jimmy Callacher was next to be frustrated when he headed over from a corner. With 85 minutes on the clock, there would still have been time for Linfield to push on and win it.

Within a minute, Linfield’s task got a lot harder when Josh Robinson misjudged a header, allowing Josh Daniels to sneak in and finish low to make it 2-0.

You shouldn’t allow yourself to think it, but that was it, it was not going to be Linfield’s night.

A frustrating night against a team that were there for the taking. Despite the chances created, Glenavon’s goal was never under siege, which was the most frustrating thing.

With both Linfield and Ballymena United having tricky away games this weekend, you had the feeling there was going to be a plot twist in the title race. It would be Linfield getting pulled back rather than pulling away.

There’s no doubt that this result gave Ballymena a boost before their game at Coleraine, which they won 4-0.

Coleraine will use the red card at 0-0 as an excuse, but in truth, the defending for three of the goals was awful. Ballymena were more alert and eager on every occasion.

Ballymena’s second goal was given despite not crossing the line, much the Coleraine’s anger. Oh the irony of Coleraine complaining about a goal being given despite not crossing the line.

Coleraine fans found out the hard way that bad refereeing decisions aren’t so funny when it affects you’re own team.

It was a game that Linfield were hoping for a favour, but we should know by now that you don’t get any favours in a title race, you have to help yourself. Linfield didn’t do that at Mourneview.

A sense of perspective is needed. It brought to an end a run of 10 League wins in a row. Linfield’s record since losing at Ballymena in December is 16 wins from 19 games in all competitions.

The next eight games will determine if this is just a blip or the start of a slump. It is up to the players to make sure it is just a blip.

However, in recent weeks, Linfield have been getting away with it an scraping by.

The fixture list gives Linfield two games against Bottom Six teams, who must be beaten before the split if Linfield are to have realistic title ambitions.

Even though they have a goal difference in their favour, they don’t want to have to use it.

Crusaders let Coleraine back into it from a similar position this time last year though, but just about managed to get over the line.

Over the next few weeks, our attacking players need to step up. The stats are damming.

Michael O’Connor hasn’t scored since January 28th. Neither has Jordan Stewart. Andrew Waterworth hasn’t scored a League goal since January 12th. Marek Cervenka has only got one goal. Even Jimmy Callacher is experiencing a goal drought.

We just need to get back to basics. Joel Cooper’s absence is a loss but that can be overcome, we have the personnel to deal with it.

We might have versatile players, but we don’t need to constantly change formation and personnel. Our success this season has been based on having a settled line up. Let’s go back to 4231, and if we keep winning, keep the starting eleven.

The squad has served us well this season, but now is the time for minimal disruption.

Elsewhere, in unsurprising news, Larne confirmed their promotion to the top flight. I haven’t been to Inver Park since 2005, so it’ll be good to visit there again. Hopefully, Linfield will be visiting there next season as League champions.

With a County Antrim Shield Final in midweek, hopefully, Linfield will be entering the pitch ahead of their next League game, against Institute at Windsor Park next Saturday with another trophy in the bag.

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NEWRY CITY 0-1 LINFIELD 26.2.2019

There wasn’t much time for Linfield to dwell on the match against Ballymena United, as they were back into League action three days later, as both they and Ballymena played in rearranged games that were postponed due to the League Cup Final.

This was supposed to be the second of two Friday night visits to Newry, but due to postponements and the League Cup Final, it was the second of two Tuesday night visits. Though, with both teams out of the Irish Cup, there was no reason why it couldn’t have been put back to Saturday 2nd March.

Tuesday night it was, and Linfield would have to get on with it, and it would be a Linfield eleven with two enforced changes from the second of those 1-0 wins against Ballymena, with Jimmy Callacher (suspension) and Jamie Mulgrew (injury) missing.

Newry will have been glad to see Callacher not on the field, having scored a hat-trick when the sides met at Windsor Park in October. Though, he is currently experiencing a goal drought recently, having failed to net since scoring twice at Ards on New Year’s Day.

Mulgrew’s absence meant a place on bench for Benny Moller Nielsen, while Andrew Mitchell made a welcome return to bench after a period of Injury and Compassionate Leave. Ironically, it was an injury that he suffered against Newry in late January.

With Jamie Mulgrew joining Stephen Fallon on the injury list, centre midfield was starting to look like a problem position for Linfield, so getting players coming back in that area is always welcome.

I was running slightly late and missed the first couple of minutes. It certainly wasn’t as bad as the time I got stuck in Newry traffic and only managed to get in the ground in time to see Curtis Allen put Linfield 1-0 up, on a day stood in the rain watching Linfield win 6-0, while Glentoran were losing at home to Coleraine by the same score. It was that long ago, Glentoran were defending champions.

Back to the present day, and as I arrived, Marek Cervenka was being played through to finish, only to be denied by and offside flag.

It was one of many frustrating moments in the first-half for Linfield, the ball being mostly in Newry’s half, but not near enough near Newry’s goal.

Ryan McGivern, playing in his home city, couldn’t twist to put the ball home from close range, while Mark Stafford was denied by the crossbar from a header after a corner.

The only chance that Linfield’s pressure could bring, was a Marek Cervenka shot that was fired over under pressure.

As the half-time whistle blew, with the score at 0-0, Linfield knew they had to step it up, especially with Ballymena beating Cliftonville 1-0.

This combination of results would have undone to good work by beating Ballymena the previous Saturday. Even though we’d be a point better off than we were two games previous, we’d be letting Ballymena back into the title race instead of keeping them at arms length.

Whatever was said at half-time, it was brief and to the point, as Linfield’s players were back out while Newry’s were still in the dressing room.

Linfield were straight on the attack in the opening minutes of the second-half, already showing more attacking intent than they did in the first-half. It looked like getting an instant reward when Andrew Waterworth headed home, but he was denied by the offside flag.

The closest that Linfield came to legally scoring was when Mark Stafford headed over from a corner.

Newry rode it out, and suddenly, Linfield were running short of ideas. Usually, it was kicking it out wide to Kirk Millar and hope that he won the flick, but not knowing what to do if he won it.

Andrew Waterworth got in behind Newry’s defence and was fouled. From where I was, it looked like the Newry defender just about won the ball just outside the penalty area. There was a bit of commotion between Newry’s protest, and the issue of a yellow card. During this, Josh Robinson placed the ball on the penalty spot in anticipation of a spot kick, only for it to be a jedi mind trick, as the referee pointed for a free-kick.

It was on the line, as close to the penalty area as possible. The only option was to smash it low and see if the keeper can get down quick enough. Chris Casement tried to place it, and it was blocked.

On a night that Linfield weren’t creating many chances, they had to make the most of those that came their way.

David Healy turned to the bench, bringing on Michael O’Connor and Jordan Stewart for Daniel Kearns and Marek Cervenka.

However, it was Ryan McGivern who had Linfield’s next big chance, firing just wide.

Kyle McClean then had a shot blocked from the edge of the box, unable to recreate his recent heroics against Coleraine, setting himself up when he needed to shoot instantly, giving Andy Coleman a chance to get into position.

Newry began to grow in confidence, and sensed they could win this 1-0. They almost did but Gareth Deane had to rush out of his goal and intercept a through ball.

Even though it was 0-0 rather than 1-1 going into the final minutes, this game had similarities to trips to Ballinamallard (2017) and Dungannon (2018) in recent years, being frustrated, out of sorts at times and having to guard against conceding on the counter attack.

Linfield won those previous two games, and were hoping to do likewise in this.

On a night when they were struggling in attack, it seemed strange not to introduce Lorcan Forde from the bench, to offer something different.

Having failed to score in 90 minutes, Linfield would have 5 more, as the board for injury time came up.

They only needed 2, as a Niall Quinn cross was headed home by Chris Casement, to ecstatic scenes in the away support.

It was only his third goal of the season, but the second time in 2019 he has come out of nowhere to score a vital goal, having put Linfield in front when they were struggling against Glentoran in January.

By this point, Ballymena had left the pitch having beaten Cliftonville, this goal maintained Linfield’s nine point lead, deflating Ballymena’s hopes of cutting the gap before Linfield travel to Mid and East Antrim Council Stock Car Arena in April.

It was a goal cursed by one former Linfield manager but celebrated by another, with David Jeffrey and Warren Feeney keeping an interest in this result, a game which affected both ends of the table.

Linfield’s current manager seemed quite happy with the goal.

It is unknown what Trevor Anderson, Eric Bowyer or Roy Coyle made of the goal.

There was still time remaining in the game, but thankfully, Linfield were able to see out the game and win 1-0. It was their third clean sheet in a row, after conceding six in their previous three games.

Late goals, wins, clean sheets. All good habits to have at any time of year, but especially in the run-in.

This will be Linfield’s last match in Newry and Mourne this season, but i’m already looking to next season’s visits, crossing my fingers that Linfield will be away to Warrenpoint Town on Saturday 5th October, so that I can go to the John Power concert after the match.

As said earlier and in recent weeks, I was hoping this game would be on the following Saturday as both teams are free.

However, we can use this to our advantage, having a break to rest legs and get players in condition for the run-in, after a demanding run of games over the past three months, including a lot of away games, six pointers, and Cup Finals/Semi-Finals.

As the teams were leaving the pitch, the floodlights started to dim. Linfield’s title ambitions are very much still shining bright.

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LINFIELD 1-0 BALLYMENA UNITED 23.2.2019

For Linfield, it was one in the bag and two to play for. Ballymena United also had two to play for, but they had two gone.

Those two that were gone (County Antrim Shield and League Cup) came courtesy of defeats to Linfield. A third defeat to Linfield wouldn’t have seen a third trophy slip from Ballymena’s grasp, but it would put them up against it in the race for the Gibson Cup.

Linfield kicked off six points clear of Ballymena United but with a game more played. Even though points in the bag trump games in hand, when evaluating a League table, you should always assume that a team will win their game in hand. Effectively, Linfield had a three point lead.

A win here would make it a nine point lead, but with a game more played, making it effectively six points. But, as said earlier, points in the bag trumps games in hand, especially as it isn’t for another month. A whole month where Ballymena would be trying to keep up with Linfield and have no margin for error.

Pre-match, I didn’t expect anything dramatic in terms of Linfield’s team selection. If there was to be a change from the League Cup Final, I thought it would have been Joel Cooper (if fit, it turned out he wasn’t) for Matthew Clarke.

Matthew Clarke would find himself on the bench for this game, but it would be Ryan McGivern who replaced him for his debut, his only previous appearance coming in a Friendly on the day he signed, against the PSNI in July, his time at Windsor Park being blighted by injury.

There were also starts for Daniel Kearns and Marek Cervenka at the expense of Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart.

McGivern was involved in the opening minutes, having to hook clear a goalbound effort from Andy McGrory, after he got in behind Linfield’s defence and flicked it past Gareth Deane, the effort didn’t have enough power to go in, making it easy for McGivern to clear.

Despite Ballymena having a lot of the ball, Linfield had two opportunities to score, both involving Andrew Waterworth.

In the opening minutes, he hit an instinctive shot which just went wide, before a half chance was blocked by a Ballymena defender and then bounced off another defender and then over for a corner. The second incident came around the same stage of the game that he scored last week.

Waterworth was then involved in another incident where Linfield almost scored by accident, when Jamie Mulgrew ran towards goal after getting to a ball first that he was the underdog to get, his shot at goal hit Andrew Waterworth and changed direction, but Ross Glendenning was able to get across to the ball, with the deflection off Waterworth taking the sting out of the shot.

By this point, Tony Kane was booked for a foul on Jamie Mulgrew, but it wasn’t tactical fouls that Ballymena were using to deny Linfield, it was the winning of cheap free-kicks, engineering soft free-kicks any time a Linfield player went near them.

In the final moments of the first-half, Ballymena had a glorious opportunity to score when Scott Whiteside headed over unmarked from a few yards out. He really should have scored.

Despite Ballymena having a lot of the ball, and a lot of attacking situations, Gareth Deane didn’t have a save to make.

Linfield wouldn’t get away with another 45 minutes like that though, they had to step it up.

And that is what they did, attacking at Ballymena, who couldn’t get the ball off them. They had to make the most of it.

Josh Robinson ran forward with the ball, similar to what he did for the winning goal last weekend. With Ballymena getting ready to defend his pass, space began to open up for Linfield, with Chris Casement free in a crossing position on the right hand sand.

Robinson ignored him and hit a shot at goal. Before you could scream “What are you doing?” at him ignoring a team mate in space, the ball crashed off the bar.

From the resulting play, Ballymena could only concede a corner, which Robinson headed home, instantly forgetting about his near miss.

Even though the first two games this season between the sides saw the team who conceded first recover to win, you had the feeling that this would only be a one goal game, and Linfield had got it.

But they wanted more, and they needed more to be absolutely certain.

They almost got that much needed second goal when Andrew Waterworth flicked goalwards, but Jim Ervin, lucky to be available for selection for this game after his tackle on Jamie Mulgrew last week, took the sting out of it, meaning that Ross Glendenning was able to make an easy save.

With only one goal in it, Ballymena always felt like they could get something out of it.

With minutes remaining, Shane McGinty headed against the crossbar. You felt that was Ballymena’s best chance gone.

There was still time for some late drama, as Ballymena claimed for a penalty for a handball by Jimmy Callacher. Players and fans shouted for it in unison. It’s one of those that you will appeal for if you’re the attacking team, but they were never going to get it.

It was blasted at him from a few yards away, his hands weren’t in an unnatural position and he wasn’t looking at the ball. They were never going to get it. It was an ambitious appeal based on desperation.

Linfield won 1-0, with a win will be looked back on as pivotal if they go on to win the League. For the first time since October, there is daylight between Linfield and Ballymena United.

Ballymena’s game in hand makes the nine point lead deceptive. Even if it is cut to six, that is still a healthy lead and a good foundation for Linfield to see the job out. If we don’t, a lot of serious questions questions will have to be asked.

As well as a healthy points lead, we have a goal difference advantage of eighteen over Ballymena, though that could be overtaken in nineteen games (ten for Ballymena and nine for Linfield).

There’s no time to reflect on this result, with both Linfield and Ballymena back in League action on Tuesday night, in rearranged games that were postponed last weekend due to their involvement in the League Cup Final.

It’s a bit disappointing that Newry game isn’t put back to the Saturday, as both teams are out of the Irish Cup.

But you can flip it around, and we can use the enforced break to rest legs ahead of the final run-in.

Ballymena will face Cliftonville. I would expect Ballymena to win that, even though Cliftonville have won both their games and kept clean sheets under their new manager. In truth, they were two games they should be winning, but hopefully the new manager bounce will continue for a few more days.

On Friday night, Crusaders and Glenavon drew 1-1 in the live TV game, a bit of a surprising choice as you would have thought this game would have been chosen for live TV from this weekend’s fixture list.

That result means Crusaders are eleven points behind Linfield with a game more played. In truth, they’ve been an irrelevance in the title race for a long time. It was only the fact that they got games played while others had games postponed and got points on board which made them seem closer to the top of the League than they really were.

At this time of year, you start looking at fixtures coming up, and the form of teams playing you or your rivals. Glenavon are on a run of form after a Winter slump, while Institute have won two in a row, while Dungannon were on a decent run of form until defeat at Institute.

No points will be given out free to Linfield, but we’re on a decent run of form ourselves – eight wins in a row now.

And that’s all we can do, keep winning. If we do that, nobody can deny us the title.

A familiar face returned to Irish League football, with Warren Feeney being appointed manager of Ards.

The last time he managed a team in the Irish League, he sat on top of it, but he began his return at the bottom, but ended the day second bottom.

If you’re a fan of subplots, he won’t be making an impact on the title race, as Ards have already faced Linfield and Ballymena three times this season.

It will be him hoping for a favour from Linfield rather than Linfield getting a favour from him, which hopefully Linfield will deliver against Newry. They’ll be looking to help themselves. If anyone else benefits, so be it.

As a side note, the Irn Bru Cup Final will be held in Inverness, meaning a 10 mile trip for one team, and a 300 mile trip for the other. I’m not an active follower of Scottish football, but i’m starting to sense they make it up as they go along.

Surely somewhere in the Central Belt would have been an option?

Despite that, i’m looking forward to Linfield more than likely being back in the competition next season.

The weekend of that game, Linfield are away to Dungannon in a game that will be live on BBC Two on the Friday night, the second of two Friday night games in March.

That scheduling gives Linfield a chance to get more points on the board and really put the pressure on a Ballymena side who will have no margin for error.

That’s all we have to do, keep winning.

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LINFIELD 1-0 BALLYMENA UNITED 16.2.2019

Linfield fans aren’t really that used to seeing their team in the League Cup Final. I wouldn’t be surprised if some went to Newry on Friday night for a League game and were wondering where everybody else was, their last win coming in their last Final back in 2008.

Ballymena fans are a lot more familiar with the League Cup Final, with this being their third successive appearance, reach four of the past five overall.

Of those previous three finals, they had won one (2017) and lost two (2015, 2018) with the two defeats being at Windsor Park, an omen that Linfield would hope would continue.

Curiously, David Jeffrey was manager and Jim Ervin was playing the last time both Linfield and Ballymena United won this competition.

Even more curiously, the two were in the Linfield camp when the two sides met exactly eleven years to the day, Saturday 16th February 2008, a 4-0 win for Linfield.

It would have been greedy to ask for a repeat, just 1-0 would have done.

Having changed formation last week, Linfield reverted back to 4231, which meant a change in personnel. There was a shock in the starting eleven, as the absence of Joel Cooper from the matchday squad, presumably due to injury, meant a starting place for Matthew Clarke, with Niall Quinn pushed into centre midfield.

It was Ballymena who had the first meaningful attempt on goal in the game, when a James Knowles shot was deflected onto the post.

Linfield responded with a Kirk Millar cross causing panic in Ballymena’s defence, where a header just about denied Niall Quinn a certain goal.

Linfield were in the mood for an early goal and got it when Josh Robinson ventured forward only to see his attempted pass to Andrew Waterworth be blocked, before Niall Quinn made it second time lucky, for Waterworth to finish low into the corner.

A frustrating thing about Waterworth is that he sometimes doesn’t shoot until there is an absolute certain clear shot at goal. He made enough room for himself to fire home. I was in The Kop in the first-half, and it was in from the moment it left his foot.

Linfield couldn’t quite kick on from this and get a second, though Niall Quinn and Andrew Waterworth had shots saved by Ross Glendenning, they were saves you would expect him to make.

Ballymena almost immediately responded to Linfield’s goal when Josh Robinson lost possession trying to shepherd the ball out for a goal kick, the ball going across the goalmouth, though thankfully, there wasn’t a Ballymena player following up.

The big flashpoint of the half came in the final minutes of the half when Jim Ervin was booked for a reckless tackle on Jamie Mulgrew. It should have been a red. The referee was sure of his decision, brandishing a yellow card immediately.

Due to this, the match threatened to boil over. It was lucky that half-time was approaching.

The half-time whistle came with Linfield 1-0 up. Slightly better but not dominant, Linfield offered more of an attacking threat going forward, and were good value for their 1-0 lead.

If they could make it 2-0 early in the second-half, there would be no way back for Ballymena.

However, it was Ballymena who were the more likely to score in the early moments of the second-half.

That pressure on the Linfield goal resulted in a glorious opportunity for Cathair Friel, who managed for fire over when faced with an open net from three yards out.

I was at the other end, the corner of The Kop and Railway Stand by this point, and it looked bad. Seeing it again on TV replays backed that up. It defied science. It could easily stand up to anything on a Danny Baker Own Goals And Gaffes video.

It was the sort of miss that would make you want to hide in a darkened room, which is certainly a better option that staying up all night throwing tantrums on Twitter.

Even though they were struggling to get out of their own half, Linfield were able to create opportunities, with Kyle McClean having a shot blocked by a Ballymena defender, denying a certain goal.

Having missed from three yards out, Cathair Friel tried to use his head, nipping in ahead of Chris Casement, only to see his header turned around for a corner by Gareth Deane.

Ballymena had all the momentum by this point. There was a danger that if they did score, Linfield would be playing for extra-time and hope to get themselves together for those thirty minutes.

Ballymena needed to score for that situation, but Linfield held firm.

Linfield’s first, and as it turned out, only substitution of the game, saw Michael O’Connor come on for Jordan Stewart, an extra body up front giving them more of their attacking threat, as they looked to extend their lead rather than hold on to it.

A Niall Quinn cross saw a hooked clearance deny Kirk Millar a certain goal as Linfield looked to make it 2-0, while a Josh Robinson header from a corner went agonisingly wide.

With each passing minute, Ballymena’s belief drained. With every block by a defender or save by Deane, they knew they weren’t going to score.

Gareth Deane’s match ended with a yellow card in injury time for “Timewasting”.

And yet, apart from Sean O’Neill a few weeks ago, when have you ever seen an opposition goalkeeper booked for timewasting?

A bit of consistency isn’t too much to ask.

As Linfield held out for the 1-0 win, Deane was celebrating a first clean sheet since it was confirmed that Roy Carroll’s season was over, which will be a good confidence boost.

Not that he needed it, as he was happy to lambast his defence when he felt they were making him exposed.

Despite Ballymema’s possession and attempts on goal, a lot of the saves that Deane was making were saves you would expect him to make.

The award for Man Of The Match was announced over the tannoy as Jimmy McLean of Linfield, whoever he is.

That announcement was later corrected as Jimmy Callacher. Part of his prize is a trip to London. If you’re reading Jimmy, feel free to take me.

This match was the first of two successive meetings at Windsor Park between the sides. If the Irish Cup tie against Crusaders had worked out better, it would have been the first of three meetings between the sides at Windsor Park in fourteen days.

Next week’s game is in the League. This result will have no bearing on that game. It represents a great opportunity to really get a stranglehold on the League title, to go nine points clear (albeit with a game more played) and put the pressure on Ballymena to keep up with us.

There will be no time to dwell on the result, with midweek games following that. Ballymena face Cliftonville. Hopefully, they’ll still be enjoying a new manager bounce. They kept a clean sheet in Paddy McLaughlin’s first game in charge, that practically makes him a miracle worker.

Linfield are away to Newry that night. There’s no reason why that can’t be moved to Saturday 2nd March as both teams are out of the Irish Cup. Cliftonville face Glenavon that day, a match that would only have been confirmed last Tuesday, so there’s no reason why the match can’t be moved. Hopefully, the Weather Gods intervene.

If there was a complaint about the marketing of this game, it would be that no tickets were available on the day. Also, that a lot of the communications regarding tickets referred people to Ticketmaster, but didn’t list where Ticketmaster outlets were based. It’s the little things.

Later that night, Edinburgh City went out of the Irn Bru Cup. I was at their First Round game and was hoping they’d go all the way.

Hopefully, Linfield will be back in the competition next season. Without being rude, but if Connah’s Quay can reach the Final, why not Linfield?

This week, it was announced, somewhat prematurely it would seem, that there will be and Irish Champions League clash in November between the Irish League and League Of Ireland Champions. Hopefully, Linfield will be involved. I’ll comment later regarding this idea once Linfield’s destiny for this season is confirmed.

And finally, work started this week on Harland and Wolff Welders new ground, due for completion in January 2020. I’ve had a wee look at it already and hope to get some photos as it progresses and then visit it when it is completed.

So, one trophy in the bag, two more to go for.

Onto the next game.

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LINFIELD 3-2 COLERAINE 9.2.2019

After exiting the Irish Cup last weekend, it was important for Linfield to bounce back as quickly as possible. The weather denied them the opportunity to do it in the County Antrim Shield Final on Tuesday, which meant they had to wait seven days. As a quirk, they would be facing a side they had a score to settle with, as Coleraine were the only team Linfield had yet to beat this season.

The postponement of the County Antrim Shield Final can be looked two ways. As a positive, it gave Linfield players a free midweek to recover from that cup tie, the final minutes saw Niall Quinn struggling to move while Jordan Stewart watched the final minutes from the bench with an ice pack strapped to him. As a negative, an opportunity to put Crusaders back in their place and get a trophy in the cabinet was delayed.

While Linfield and Crusaders were putting their feet up on Tuesday night, Coleraine were winning a rearranged League game at Dungannon to move them up to 4th, their highest position since the early months of the season.

After a slow start under new manager Rodney McAree, Coleraine had experienced an upturn in form in recent weeks, with only one defeat in their last ten matches. After going so close to the title last season, Coleraine’s struggles this season will have been seen as a shock by many, or maybe not, having been a victim of their own success by losing four key players to clubs on the Mainland, with Darren McCauley (Inverness Caledonian Thistle) joining Martin Smith (Swindon Town), Stephen Dooley (Rochdale) and Brad Lyons (Blackburn Rovers) in professional football, as well as losing manager Oran Kearney to St Mirren.

Linfield made a few changes to their starting eleven, with Marek Cervenko, Andrew Waterworth and Kirk Millar coming into the side.

Coleraine had the better of the opening minutes with Ben Doherty having a free shot from outside the box easily saved by Gareth Deane when he really should have made him work, before Jamie McGonigle hit the post.

Linfield came more into it and had their first chance when Niall Quinn’s cross, deliberately bypassing those waiting in the middle, fell to Kirk Millar who fired over when he needed to go low.

Jordan Stewart then fired over from outside the box. He had options to pass but he is justified to shoot considering the form he is in. Coleraine goalkeeper Chris Johns berated his defence. There may have been a double motivation, as it killed the game.

It was Coleraine who took the lead when Gareth McConaghie scored from close range after a cross from Jamie Glackin. It was poor from Linfield, who all switched off believing that the ball was going out for a goal kick, and couldn’t recover by the time the cross came in.

It wasn’t the only time that Linfield were slow to react in the first-half. Coleraine almost counter attacked because Jimmy Callacher was trying to shepherd the ball out for a corner, while Coleraine went on a counter attack as Jamie Mulgrew was second to the ball from a Linfield throw in Coleraine’s half.

Throughout the first-half, Linfield were sloppy in possession. Jordan Stewart conceding a throw straight from kick-off, the clock on the scoreboard wasn’t even running yet so I couldn’t tell you how many seconds it was into the game, was a ominous warning.

The only moments of joy they had was trying to get Marek Cervenka in behind Coleraine’s defence. The joy was limited though, as he couldn’t get a clear goalscoring opportunity, often being denied by Chris Johns clearing it or a Coleraine defender shepherding the ball out.

A big improvement was needed from Linfield. As my DAB could only pick up the Rugger and I have no data on my phone, so I was unaware of scores elsewhere. Regardless of what was happening elsewhere, Linfield had to win this.

Within a few minutes of the second-half, the task got harder for Linfield, when Dean Shiels made it 2-0 to Coleraine. Wether it was a goal, was up for debate.

I was sat at the other end and it didn’t look over the line. The TV footage, looked inconclusive, and that is being generous.

This game was heading the same way as the fixture in November. They didn’t look like scoring, but they had over 40 minutes to rectify the situation.

Immediately, Daniel Kearns, Michael O’Connor and Joel Cooper were sent to warm up. David Healy had options to change it, unlike in November when he had to throw on youngsters Daniel Reynolds and Brandon Doyle.

Just before the hour, Linfield got a goal back when a free-kick was headed back into the six yard box by NIFWA January Player Of The Month Jimmy Callacher and it fell to Josh Robinson.

He couldn’t quite control of the ball, it looked like one of those days, but he managed to get enough space to smash the ball into the back of the net.

In November, Linfield only had a couple of minutes left after pulling a goal back to make it 2-1, now they had over half and hour, and they were determined to make every second count.

The atmosphere at Windsor Park lifted, Linfield fans knew their team needed their backing, and they were up for it.

More pressure continued from Linfield, and they got an equaliser when Niall Quinn started and finished a move by firing home from just beside the penalty spot.

Linfield fans weren’t sure how and why he was in such a central position, but we were all thankful that he was.

68 minutes on the clock and still plenty of time to win the game, Linfield now had all the momentum.

2-0 has been a dangerous lead in this fixture in recent years, with Coleraine and then Linfield blowing 2-0 leads at home to draw 2-2 last season.

That wasn’t what Linfield wanted, they wanted a repeat of the game in February 2016 when Linfield came from 2-0 down to win 3-2.

By now, Ballymena United were winning at Institute, but only 2-1, while Crusaders were 1-0 down at Dungannon Swifts. There was no point in going a point further clear of Crusaders if Ballymena United were going to get two points closer to us.

Andrew Waterworth (goal) and Jordan Stewart (clean through on goal) were both denied by the offside flag as Linfield went in search of a winner.

Michael O’Connor came on for Marek Cervenka and Joel Cooper came on for Andrew Waterworth as Linfield searched for the winner.

On 83 minutes, it looked like it would be O’Connor who would get it when a Joel Cooper flick fell perfectly for him, only to be denied by the post. A shot from him was then blocked by a Coleraine defender and looped up onto the bar.

Linfield had to be careful they weren’t caught out by attacking so much, and got a reminder of this when Gareth Deane was forced into a save from James McLaughlin.

We then entered three minutes of injury time. It should have been more due to the amount of timewasting by Coleraine. And yet, the only time you ever see a goalkeeper get booked for it, it’s Roy Carroll.

It was enough time for Linfield to win the game thankfully, as a corner fell to Michael O’Connor, who saw his shot blocked, only to fall to Kyle McClean who fired home low to give Linfield the lead.

It wasn’t quite the points secured, as Coleraine still had one last attack, which resulted in a corner that Linfield just about cleared, learning their lesson from last week, and seeing out the game to win 3-2.

Ballymena United and Crusaders results stayed as they were, meaning that they remain six points clear of Ballymena, albeit with a game more played, and twelve clear of Crusaders. I think we can safely rule Crusaders out of the title race, if they were ever in it.

Ballymena’s game in hand isn’t until mid March, so if Linfield keep winning, Ballymena will have to keep up. Especially if Linfield win their next League match, against Ballymena on 23rd February.

That can wait, as it will be the second successive Saturday they meet, as they meet in the NIFL Cup Final next weekend. It’s been so long since Linfield won it, Glenn Ferguson scored the winner off the bench. As a substitute for Joe Bambrick.

The truth is, the first match won’t have any impact on the second. Winning one won’t automatically mean you win the other. Hopefully, next week, we’ll be celebrating a trophy. Hopefully, the first of three.

Hopefully, Linfield won’t turn up at 4.10pm and start playing next week. Obviously, that would be a waste of time because the match kicks off at 5.30pm.

Remember, if you can’t go, it’s on Sky Sports. As is Glentoran v Glenavon on Monday 18th, while Glenavon are on TV again on BBC on Friday 22nd. They’re on TV more times than Aston Villa these days.

At the moment, it looks like the away game against Newry is still going to be on February 26th, which is disappointing as Saturday 2nd March is now free. It was also space the games out better, meaning we don’t travel to Mourneview Park on 8th March after ten days without a game.

Guess what? That Glenavon match is live on TV. Just give them their own channel.

That rescheduling for TV works out well for Linfield as it gives them an extra day’s rest ahead of the County Antrim Shield Final on 12th March, which is now the provisional date for it.

That works out handy for me, as I have Chvrches (19th February) and KT Tunstall (5th March) over the next few Tuesdays, and was worried about a clash.

There are Irish Cup ties on Monday, with Ballymena involved. Hopefully, a heavy pitch and extra-time ahead of the NIFL Cup Final.

I’m not sure why they can’t play on European nights when three postponed Quarter-Finals were played on a European night last season.

After sorting out fixture scheduling in the Irish League, I now turn my attention to Scottish football.

Disappointingly, Bohs have had to pull out of the Irn Bru Cup after their game against East Fife was postponed last week.

Why not play it on the Semi-Final weekend, and there is still five weeks until the Final to slot the other Semi-Final in.

When it was announced that League of Ireland teams were entering the competition, the obvious thing that stood out was when the Quarter-Finals would be played if an Irish team was involved. Surely they could have made contingency plans?

It’s looking like Linfield will be in the competition again next season, but if we’re drawn away to Spartans or Edinburgh City, we may be subject to a Tourist Tax.

Robbing bastards. If i’m paying £2 for every day i’m in Edinburgh, i’m entitled to make a few demands of Edinburgh City Council.

1. Total smoking ban in the city. 2. Signage telling people to walk on the left of the footpath. 3. Jimmy Chungs to return to Waverley Train Station.

Just introduce a Flyer Tax and a Poster Tax if you’re that short of money.

Scottish Challenge Cup can wait, it’s about what we want in February 2019.

That’s a nine point lead at the top of the table and the NIFL Cup in the bag.

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LINFIELD 4-2 GLENTORAN 28.1.2019

It had been one month and two days since Linfield beat Glentoran 4-0 on Boxing Day, as Glentoran returned to Windsor Park in order to avenge that result. Linfield scored four again, but it wasn’t as comfortable as it was when we were still digesting out Christmas Dinner.

Since that day, Linfield have continued winning, and then winning some more, while Glentoran kept on losing, then they started winning under new management, arriving at Windsor Park on the back of two successive League wins since Gary Smyth replaced Ronnie McFall.

Linfield’s success this season, especially since mid December, has been due to having a settled starting eleven. However, that was disturbed in their previous League game at Newry when two enforced changes were made with Michael O’Connor and Gareth Deane coming in for Andrew Waterworth (Suspension) and Roy Carroll (Injury) and proved how valuable a squad is by scoring two goals and saving a penalty to give Linfield the three points.

Despite those two goals, O’Connor had to make do with a place on the bench, with Andrew Waterworth returning. Roy Carroll didn’t return to the starting eleven, and won’t be doing so any time soon, as it was announced during this match that he has suffered a season-ending injury. There’ll be more on that later.

Andrew Waterworth wouldn’t be the only change for this game, as injuries to both Stephen Fallon and Andrew Mitchell giving Kyle McClean the opportunity for his first start, with Robert Garrett probably cursing his decision to leave in search of first-team football just as an opportunity would have presented itself.

There was also a place on the bench for new Czech loan signing Marek Cervenka, who was joined by Ryan McGivern, making his first appearance in a matchday squad after injury.

It wasn’t just Linfield who were missing their first choice goalkeeper, with Elliott Morris missing this match through injury. Despite that, his replacement Dwayne Nelson still took Morris-esque lengths of times at goal kicks at 0-0 and 2-2.

With this match taking place on a Monday night, it presented Ballymena United and Crusaders and opportunity to close the gap on Linfield with wins on the Saturday, which they did, not that surprising as they faced Bottom Six opponents, with Linfield looking to restore a six and nine point gap respectively.

If Linfield had ambitions of finishing top of the League, Glentoran had ambitions of finishing top of the bottom half, with 7th giving them a chance of European football in the reward for mediocrity that is the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.

After defeat to Dungannon Swifts on New Year’s Day, the possibility of Glentoran getting sucked into a relegation battle was an actual discussion. It didn’t last for long as wins over Institute and Newry, as well as upturns in form for Warrenpoint Town and Dungannon Swifts have seen those three pull away from Newry City and Ards, to join Institute in a four team battle for 7th, with Glentoran knowing that a win would put them there, though a ten goal defeat would drop them down to 10th, appropriately enough.

Linfield thought they were going to get an opportunity to take the lead in the early minutes when a Joel Cooper shot was saved, but fell to Jordan Stewart, who was setting himself up to shoot only to be brought down for one of the clearest penalties you’ll ever see, only for the referee to turn down the appeals.

The ball didn’t change direction as it would have done if won by a Glentoran player, and Stewart didn’t get booked for a dive. Quite why a player on form certain to score a goal would dive.

Moments later, a Joel Cooper attack was pulled back for a foul on him just as he got past his man and ran into the penalty area.

Frustrated by bad refereeing as much as Glentoran defending, Linfield couldn’t make the most of their early pressure as the game started to even out, Glentoran’s best change being an attempted lob from Curtis Allen. Linfield weren’t helping themselves with final passes being agonisingly short or astray.

Eventually, in the 36th minute, Linfield had an opportunity to take the lead when they were awarded a penalty for a foul by Joe Crowe on Josh Robinson.

The way the game had gone, you felt that Linfield had to score this. If they missed it, you felt there was going to “One of those nights” vibe. That would not be the case, as Jordan Stewart stuck the ball into the back of the net to go 1-0 up.

A few minutes later, Calum Birney diverted a cross into his own net to give Linfield a 2-0 lead, and surely the points.

The points would surely have been in the bag in the first-half if Andrew Waterworth was able to finish when a Joel Cooper shot was parried out to him, but it hit him and went wide.

The game changed in the early minutes of the second-half with two quickfire Glentoran goals, with Curtis Allen nipping in front of Gareth Deane to make it 2-1, before Robbie McDaid made it 2-2 from close range after a Darren Murray effort was saved.

The McDaid goal was particularly bad, as it came from Linfield losing cheap possession in their own defensive third when they had the opportunity to clear. There’s a time and a place to take on two players. In your right-back position is not it.

Even though I wasn’t at that match due to being at Noel Gallagher, it had the same vibe as the UEFA Cup Play-Off game last May which Linfield lost 4-3.

Linfield were struggling and crying out for Daniel Kearns and Michael O’Connor. It took until the 71st minute for them to be introduced, with Joel Cooper and Kirk Millar making way.

That move had an instant impact with Kearns making space for himself in the box and pulling it back for Chris Casement to make it 3-2. The game had swung back in Linfield’s favour.

It continued to go that way when Joe Crowe got sent-off for kicking out at Michael O’Connor. Glentoran were racking up the yellow cards throughout this game, it was no surprise that one of them became a red card.

With five minutes to go, Michael O’Connor finished after a Jordan Stewart shot was saved to make it 4-2 and secure the points for Linfiedl this time.

This allowed Linfield an opportunity to give a debut to loan signing Marek Cervenka off the bench.

In the limited time he had, he had an opportunity to shoot low and surely score, but he played in Daniel Kearns, who was set to make it 5-2 only to be denied by a goal saving tackle.

4-2 was enough, and another three points for Linfield as they lay down the challenge to Ballymena Untied and Crusaders.

During this game, it was announced that Roy Carroll’s season is over due to a Cruciate injury suffered against Crusaders the previous weekend. And yet, they still couldn’t score against him.

With Alex Moore on loan to Dungannon Swifts, Linfield needed to bring in a keeper, and they acted quick, bringing in Conor Mitchell from Burnley on loan.

Going out of Windsor Park on loan is Cameron Stewart, which is and isn’t a surprise. He’s only recently recovered from injury that has kept him out this season. I thought he would have been loaned out in January when he recovered and then released in the Summer.

He probably will be released in the Summer. The game against Coleraine in November when Linfield ran out of ideas and were relying on youngsters from the bench when chasing the game.

That game made me think he would be worth keeping, as an alternative option from the bench.

That role will now be taken by Marek Cervenka, freeing up Stewart to move to Glenavon.

I can’t back it up with logic, but I had a hunch that he might get us a big goal in the run-in. If he does, it will be in the colours of Glenavon.

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