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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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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You sometimes get strange quirks in the Irish Cup. For the second successive season, Linfield hosted opposition from North Belfast who were hoping to avenge a Quarter-Final defeat at home two years previously.

For the first time in a long time, Linfield made several unenforced changes to their starting eleven, Stephen Fallon coming in after injury, and Daniel Kearns and Michael O’Connor were rewarded for changing the game against Glentoran five days earlier with a start.

David Cushley had the first chance of the game, firing wide from an angle. It was never really troubling the goal, but it looked a lot closer than it was from where I was sat, at the other end of the pitch.

Linfield were then forced into an early change after 6 minutes when Stephen Fallon went off injured and was replaced by Kyle McClean. Having to make an early change is never ideal in any game, but especially in one that could last 120 minutes.

Linfield’s first attack came to an abrupt end when a Joel Cooper run was ended by a foul by Rory Hale.

The biggest surprise was that a yellow card was awarded, mainly due to the unwritten rule in Irish League football that referees don’t issue yellow cards in the first 15 minutes of a game. The resulting free-kick from Chris Casement went just wide.

Cooper was then able to get away from Crusaders defence without being fouled but fired wide from a wide angle when a cross to Kyle McClean looked like a better option. This was after he had an early shot from the edge of the box blocked behind for a corner.

Linfield continued to dominate the half but couldn’t get a breakthrough.

That was, when the ball was in play, due to Crusaders timewasting at goal kicks at a level that would embarrass Elliott Morris. Eventualy, 119 minutes, Sean O’Neill was booked for booting the ball into the North Stand when given it by a ballboy. It should have been his tenth of the game.

The Ballboys were, no pun intended, on the ball, making sure a new ball came back into play as soon as another ball went out, but those on the pitch need to start making an issue of it, putting refs under pressure by flagging it up and getting it actioned.

We can’t allow ourselves to be outsmarted by stupid teams, we can’t let opposition dictate the pace of the game and be comfortable doing so. The game should be played at our pace.

There’s not much you can do though when you have a weak referee who is easy to make a mug of, and Crusaders weren’t slow in exploiting it.

At the start of the second-half, Crusaders introduced Jordan Owens from the bench, and in the opening minutes, Ronan Hale volleyed over.

Linfield responded with a Kyle McClean header which hit the post, before Michael O’Connor had a shot saved and then had a header against the bar.

Nobody dared say it, but we were starting to think it, that this was going to be a repeat of the Cliftonville game in the Irish Cup last season.

Linfield now turned to the bench to try and win the game, with Kirk Millar coming on for Joel Cooper. With each passing minute, it looked like Andrew Waterworth was being saved for the possibility of Extra-Time. He ended up coming on quite late in the regulation time, coming on for Daniel Kearns as Linfield went more attacking to try and win the game in 90 minutes.

It was Crusaders who had the best chance in injury time when Kyle McClean was forced to save a goalbound shot on the line.

It finished 0-0 at 90 minutes and went to Extra-Time. Extra-Time in the Irish Cup isn’t a new experience for Linfield in the Irish Cup under David Healy, after needing two hours to defeat Ballymena in 2016 and Glentoran in 2017. Hopefully, this was going to be three out of three.

This looked like the sort of game that was going to be goal the winner. Making that breakthrough would be so crucial.

It looked like Linfield were going to get it when Andrew Waterworth headed over from six yards out. He really should have scored, or at least get the shot on target and make the keeper work.

Soon after Crusaders went 1-0 up in typical Crusaders fashion, a long hoof upfield fell for Jordan Owens to smash home. To be fair, it was a decent strike, but it should have been defended better, to win the original header, and to make sure the second ball was won. That looked like being it.

Linfield responded by bringing on Marek Cervenka for Jordan Stewart. Not through choice though as Stewart was suffering from an injury, watching the remainder of the game from the bench with an ice pack strapped to him.

As the clock ran down, Cervenka gave Linfield a lifeline when a misplaced Crusaders pass played him through to make no mistake to make it 1-1. The ball was in the back of the net as soon as he set himself up to strike.

Now the momentum was with Linfield to go an win the game.

But Crusaders went straight on the attack with Gareth Deane saving from David Cushley. From the resulting corner, Billy Joe Burns scored to win the game for Crusaders. It wasn’t the first time a second ball had fallen to Crusaders when they had an attacking set piece. They were two bad goals to concede.

It was an absolute travesty of a result. One team trying to win the game, and another trying to play for penalties.

There still should have been enough time for Linfield to get a second equaliser, due to the amount of stoppages, but the Referee’s watch wasn’t working.

The worst thing about this result, as it was when we lost to Cliftonville last season, is that we all know Crusaders will choke in the Quarter-Finals or Semi-Finals.

The Clean Sweep is over, but nobody was ever really talking about it. The season, however, is far from over.

This was Linfield’s first defeat since early December. We simply have to do what we did then, dust ourselves down and go again.

When we lost to Ballymena in December, we had a game straight away on the Tuesday night. We have that again.

One thing about this result that we can use to our advantage, is that we can use the free weekend at the start of March to slot in our rearranged League match against Newry City, which is currently scheduled for the midweek before.

It makes so much sense for both sets of players and fans for the game to take place on a weekend, hopefully that option gets explored.

We all hoped that February would be the month that Linfield win two competitions and make progress in two others. It can still be a month where Linfield win two competitions and progress in another.

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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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England’s upcoming friendly against Holland dominates the cover of this edition of Shoot, with Ruud Krol and Trevor Brooking occupying the page.

In news, Republic Of Ireland have arranged a friendly against Poland, but may have to field locally based players due to the club commitments of players based in England. Dundee United were invited on a pre-season tour of Bangladesh.

Alex Stepney has been awarded a testimonial by Manchester United, with Benfica, United’s opponents in the 1968 European Cup Final, visiting Old Trafford. It’s part of a series of events, including a concert by Brotherhood Of Man at Fagin’s Club in Manchester.

The big boys joined the Irish Cup this week, with Linfield hoping to win the trophy for the 31st time. They would have to wait until 1978 to reach that milestone.

Birmingham City manager Willie Bell wanted 1977 British Championship postponed in order to avoid player burnout, due to backlog of club games due to postponements, and England and Scotland going on tour to South America.

England’s friendly with Holland gets a double page spread. The match was the first between the sides since a friendly seven years earlier, a 0-0 draw at Wembley with England months away from heading to Mexico to defend their World Cup title. Shoot focused on the change in fortunes for both countries since then, with Holland reaching the 1974 World Cup Final, a tournament which England failed to qualify for.

Kevin Keegan uses his column to comment that England must deliver a good performance in order to ensure fans keep returning to Wembley to watch them.

Shoot gives a full page to a bit of statistical fun, that Millwall have the best goals conceded ratio in the history of the Football League from 1888 to 1977.

Gerry Francis also uses his column to preview the England v Holland game, suggesting that Holland are a better team without their star players.

Alan Sunderland told Shoot that he was glad to be settled in a striker role at Wolves, while Graham Wilkins of Chelsea was talking about emerging from the shadow of his younger brother Ray.

In world news, West German clubs are raking in money from shirt sponsorship, which is still banned in England.

Cesar Luis Menotti, manager of World Cup hosts Argentina, is interviewed, where he revealed that the fear of disappointing Argentina’s fans is giving him sleepless nights.

John Greig uses his column to reveal that Rangers might be making a sensational new signing – former Brentford trialist Rod Stewart, who has approached him about playing for Rangers in his testimonial.


Three was the magic number prior to kick-off at Seaview.

Obviously, three points on offer, with Linfield having a three point lead over Crusaders, looking for their third win of the season over Crusaders, in the first of three games between the sides in eighteen days.

The League table had a familiar theme to the previous meetings, with Linfield looking to extend their lead over Crusaders.

In August, Linfield held a two point lead, became a five point lead at full-time. That five point lead was still in place by the second meeting in December, but was eight by full-time.

By January, it was now three points, but Linfield had a game in hand, due to Crusaders going on a six game winning run since then.

You could argue that run is a bit deceptive. Four of those wins have come against teams in the bottom six, and of those four wins, three of them have been by one goal. They’ve been scraping by.

A draw wouldn’t have been the worst result, but a win represented an opportunity to pull clear of a title rival and have some daylight. Crusaders wouldn’t be out of the title race with a defeat, but you’d have to put across a very convincing argument as to why they were in it.

Crusaders first attack saw a series of attempted shots blocked by various Linfield bodies. Not surprising given the clean sheet run in the League that Linfield are currently on. Crusaders were the last team in the League to score against Linfield. That would still be the case regardless of what happened at Seaview, but Linfield weren’t in the mood for that stat to be updated.

Linfield’s first attack was a lot more effective. A long ball seemed to cause confusion in Crusaders defence, allowing Jordan Stewart an opportunity to nip in and lob the ball over the onrushing Gerard Doherty to put Linfield 1-0 up.

Doherty was one of three former Derry City players making their home debut for a Crusaders side which had Hale but no Pace. There’s almost as many ex Derry players than ex Linfield players. You could do a Venn Diagram of the ex Derry players and ex Linfield players in their squad, and put Philip Lowry and Rory Patterson in the middle.

The first goal was important in this fixture. That isn’t clichéd pundit speak, there is statistics to back it up. The last time a team scoring first at Seaview failed to win was September 2014. The last time a team scored first and lost was April 2014. Linfield last scored first and lost there in January 2013. This is a fixture where the first goal has been key in recent years.

It also kept up a random statistic that all of Linfield’s goals this season against Crusaders have been scored by players whose names begin with J – Joel Cooper (2), Jamie Mulgrew, Jimmy Callacher, Josh Robinson and Jordan Stewart (2)

Hopefully in the upcoming meetings in February, we’ll have goalscoring contributions from Jiall Quinn, Jeven Fallon, Jirk Millar and Jandrew Waterworth.

Cooper and Stewart were getting a lot of joy when combining up front as Linfield took control of the game. It felt like they had fifteen players on the pitch. Any time that Crusaders had an opportunity to get the ball forward, it was usually intercepted by Jamie Mulgrew.

Andrew Waterworth had a header saved by Doherty as Linfield looked to convert their dominance into a two goal lead.

Every time a Linfield player had the ball, they always seemed to have options to pass to and space to operate in. On some occasions, they had both.

Paul Heatley curled wide with Crusaders best chance of the first-half. It was their only chance of note in the half. All their other attempts on goal were speculative efforts which never troubled Roy Carroll.

In the previous two meetings, Linfield got early second-half goals to secure the points, in August going from 1-0 to 2-0, and in December from 2-0 to 4-0. If they repeated it here, it would surely secure the points.

They didn’t get it, but there was no real response from Crusaders. All they offered was an overhit cross from Ross Clarke which was tipped over by Roy Carroll when it looked like it might sneak in.

The only moment of worry came when Mark Stafford intercepted a cross and got the ball stuck between his legs with Crusaders players swarming around him, but he was able to clear at the expense of a corner.

Stafford had come on as a sub for Jimmy Callacher, who went off injured, showing the value of the squad, having players who can fill in when needed.

It would be expected that Daniel Kearns and/or Michael O’Connor would be introduced in the final stages, so it wasn’t ideal having to use a sub so early as there wouldn’t be much room for manoeuvre regarding bringing players on from the bench.

By this point, a quick free-kick set up an opportunity for Joel Cooper, but he fired wide from a tight angle.

Kirk Millar then tried his luck from a tight angle (Think Marco Van Basten v Soviet Union) but was narrowly wide.

Crusaders resorted to trying to wind up Linfield’s players, but only succeeded in winding themselves up, losing their discipline and racking up yellow cards.

Howard Beverland managing to pick up the stupidest yellow card for obstruction, looking to see where the player was and blocking him off, right in the eyesight of the referee. He got booked the second time he was penalised for it.

With a one goal lead, there was always going to be an element of nerves in the final moments, but in truth, Crusaders never looked like scoring, as Linfield held on for the 1-0 win.

That result puts them six points clear of Crusaders with a game in hand, and maintains a three point lead over Ballymena, who won 2-1 at Glenavon.

Ballymena dropping points would have been great, but it does mean that we can officially rule Glenavon out of the title race, although the ten point gap at kick-off made it generous to consider them still in it.

Up next, is a trip to Newry on Tuesday night. Curiously, due to Institute’s involvement in the North-West Cup Final, Ballymena’s game against Institute has been postponed.

Three points is a must. We can go nine clear of Crusaders and six clear of Ballymena, laying down the challenge to them to catch us if they can. Curiously, Crusaders and Ards are the only teams in the League who don’t have outstanding games to play.

After that, is Glentoran at home on Sky the following Monday night. That was worked out quite well for us, spreading the games around having come through a busy December period and only having one free midweek in that time.

Personally, it also blocks off 29th January as a date for the County Antrim Shield Final, which is good for me as i’ll be in England.

That game, will be against Crusaders, who we’ll face in the Irish Cup three days before. Nothing to fear, as we’ve proved three times this season. There are too many teams in the Irish League who are afraid of Crusaders.

Those games are ticketed, most games are at the moment. Thankfully, we’ve had quite a few Saturday home games for supporters to get tickets. Also, a Ticketmaster outlet has opened up in the Tourist Information Centre in Belfast City Centre if that’s more convenient for you.

There is also the possibility of a Two Ronnies-esque situation at the Ticket Office.

Can I have a ticket of the match? What match? The Crusaders match. Crusaders at Seaview? Crusaders at home? Crusaders at Ballymena? Or the match against Ballymena? Ummmmm

Since I last wrote, there’s been a few ins and outs. Mostly outs, which isn’t surprising given the size of our squad.

Eammon Scannell, Ryan Strain and Jonathan Smith have all left on loan. Not that surprising in the case of Smith. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brandon Doyle joined him going out on loan.

Kyle McClean came in from St Johnstone, and was an unused sub for this game. I don’t know much about him.

That incoming meant that Robert Garrett was allowed to leave, heading to Glenavon. It wasn’t really a surprise to see him leave, but I thought that wouldn’t happen until the Summer. I’m slightly surprised we didn’t “Play the system” and loan him rather than letting him leave, as this would block him from playing against us this season.

It’s absolutely certain if Glenavon were a lot closer to us in the table, there’s not a hope in hell we’d be so accommodating.

Garrett will be facing us on Friday 8th March live on BBC 2, as the latest TV games have been announced. Two Glenavon matches on BBC to go with another one of their games on Sky next month. They might as well have their own channel.

The draw for the FA Cup 4th Round has confirmed that United’s match against Burnley will be on the Tuesday night. As I now have the Wednesday free, i’m tempted to do a day trip to Sheffield, having last been there in 2010.

I was in London on the weekend of the 4th Round last year and went to Millwall v Rochdale. I picked the wrong year.

If I went this year, I could do Arsenal v Man United, day trip to Brighton for Brighton v West Brom and then Palace v Spurs.

I’m actually thinking of doing a London/Brighton double header in July 2020, over the 12th Holidays, catch a pre-season game and soak up the atmosphere of the European Championship Final.

Pre-Season 2020 can wait, the 2018-2019 season is far from resolved.

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Linfield left the pitch after their first League game of 2019 with a one point lead at the top of the table. By the time they kicked off their second game, they were ahead only on goal difference after Crusaders win over Newry City on Friday night.

A home game against Warrenpoint gave Linfield a chance to go clear at the top, but it wasn’t going to be easy, as Warrenpoint had the longest unbeaten run at Windsor Park of any side in the League, stretching back to September 2015, albeit two drawn games.

It was a Warrenpoint side coming off the back of a win at Mourneview Park on New Year’s Day. Having left Mourneview Park unbeaten twice this season, they were wanting to do the same at Windsor Park, having drawn 1-1 there in November.

If people thought Warrenpoint were going to park the bus, they got a shock in the opening minute as they went straight on the attack, firing in a cross which caused enough concern in the Linfield defence.

The opening minutes of the game saw Warrenpoint holding the ball but there was no danger to Linfield as it was all in their own half and not going forward.

Unable to create an opening in open play, Linfield were further frustrated by being unable to take advantage of any set pieces.

Most attacks were falling just short, the final pass usually being too hard or too soft.

There was a mild panic for Linfield when a cross from Ciaran O’Connor looked like it was going to loop in. Having fallen 1-0 down directly from a corner to Warrenpoint last season, it looked Linfield were going to concede another freak goal to Warrenpoint.

Just before half-time, Linfield went 1-0 up with their first attempt on target, when Joel Cooper was played into space by Jordan Stewart, who finished the eventual cross. He had so much of the goal to aim at, he couldn’t miss.

It changed the dynamic of the half-time team talk.

Linfield weren’t great, but they had a lead. Now they had to go out and finish the game off rather than going out to win it.

While the score was only 1-0, Warrenpoint weren’t out of it, and Linfield would know about this in the early minutes of the second-half with Roy Carroll being forced into a save, while Philip Donnelly got in behind Linfield’s defence but fired just wide of the post.

Niall Quinn had a shot blocked when he looked certain to make it 2-0, but the opportunity to get that decisive lead came when a Jordan Stewart shot was blocked by a handball.

From where I was, I was screaming for him to pass it to Andrew Waterworth, but watching back on the TV replay, it looked like his shot was going to go in.

Stewart made no mistake from the penalty spot to make it 2-0, and surely secure the points for Linfield.

Joel Cooper was given a rest, making way for Daniel Kearns, before Andrew Waterworth made it 3-0, removing any lingering doubt as to where the points were going.

There was still time for one more goal, as Stephen Fallon headed the ball behind Warrenpoint’s defence, with Jordan Stewart pouncing to get a hat-trick, his second for Linfield, after getting one in a 4-0 win against Ballinamallard last season.

The 4-0 lead was a perfect time to blood Lorcan Forde into the game, with him and Michael O’Connor both coming on for the final minutes.

O’Connor might have only had a brief cameo, but it was still a bruising afternoon for him, as Warrenpoint lost their discipline, with Matty Lynch being sent-off for two fouls on him.

Elsewhere, Ballymena United surprisingly drew 2-2 with Dungannon Swifts, meaning that Linfield went three points clear at the top of the table.

Unfortunately, laptop problems meant I wouldn’t be previewing the upcoming trip to Crusaders as I didn’t get this blog finished before that game.

It was a big game for Linfield and it lived up to the hype.

You can read about it in the following post.

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ARDS 0-2 LINFIELD 1.1.2019

New Year’s Day. A new start, and an opportunity to remove any negativity from the year before.

For Linfield, it gave them an opportunity to finally get a win against a team who had been problematic so far this season, managing only one point from the previous two meetings with Ards in front of a bumper Bank Holiday crowd which included Gary Lightbody, as both sides looked for three points to avoide their respective ambitions facing the Final Straw.

Linfield didn’t quite start the game in a new way, making a similar start to the game in October that they lost to Ards.

Ards had opportunities in the opening minutes with Roy Carrroll being forced to save from a Jonah Mitchell shot, before Mark Kelly hit the side netting.

The only positive for Linfield was that they didn’t concede like they did in the early minutes like they did in October.

Jordan Stewart had Linfield’s first attacking moment of note but his shot went just wide.

Every other attacking moment seemed to be lacking. Passes going astray, too short, too long, the run not being made. Ards were quite comfortable when defending against it.

Ards replied with a Kym Nelson free-kick which was saved by Carroll. The important thing for Linfield was not to concede and give Ards something to defend.

Belatedly, Linfield began to put pressure on Ards in the final minutes of the half, but Ards held firm.

Most of the attacks came through Jamie Mulgrew, the only way he could be stopped was by fouling him. It may be a new year, but some things never changes. Kyle Cherry was lucky not to be sent-off for a tackle that was so late, it was in 2020.

0-0 at half-time, but no need to panic, but Linfield needed to step it up.

They did just that in the early minutes of the second-half, with more pressure, but more believable.

A last gasp header denied Andrew Waterworth just as a cross was set to fall to him, before he finally got past Ards defence before firing agonisingly just wide. Nobody in the away support was allowed to think it was going to be one of those days.

Eventually, the goal came, from a familiar source, Jimmy Callacher with his eight of the season, but first away from home.

Linfield still needed a second goal to be safe.

Kirk Millar looked like he was going to get it when he was played through, lifting the ball ove the keeper, but over the bar.

Jimmy Callacher headed home to make it 2-0 to ease the pressure and secure the points.

Andrew Waterworth continued to be denied as a last gasp tackle stopped him just as he was about to fire home.

It didn’t matter, as Linfield began 2019 with a win.

By this point, Glenavon were losing at home to Warrenpoint, to fall eight points behind Linfield.

With Ballymena United facing Crusaders, Linfield were going to take advantage with a win regardless. A draw would have been perfect, but Crusaders late 3-2 win means that Linfield now sit on top of the table.

If you want to look at the Christmas/New Year Period as a four game mini league, only Crusaders got more points than Linfield. Most importantly, four clean sheets. Keeping them out boosts the goal difference, which sits at more than ten better than the next best team.

There are good omens in recent years regarding a change of leadership in the early days of a year, with 3rd January 2015 and 1st January 2018 being dates when Crusaders took leadership and stayed there. There is no reason why Linfield can’t do likewise.

Crusaders might be only three points behind Linfield, but they have a played a game more. Linfield know if they win at Seaview in a few weeks time, they can kill Crusaders in the title race. On the basis of the two meetings this season, Linfield know they can beat Crusaders, and beat them well.

That can wait though. Up next is two cup games.

I don’t usually bother with cup ties at home to Lower League teams so I’ll be giving he home game against Ballyclare a miss. If it was away, I’d be all over it.

That is followed by the County Antrim Shield game against Ballymena. If it is postponed again, that could be problematic, as they’ll try to fit it in the midweek before the Crusaders game, which must be resisted. We have to look after ourselves when it comes to fixture management.

After that, our first home League match of 2019, against Warrenpoint. It’s a game we’ve already slipped up in this season.

However, we started 2019 by making up for a game we had previously slipped up in.

That defeat to Ards in October kicked off Linfield’s shakiest period of the season in terms of results and performances.

Hopefully, the win in January against the same opponents can have the opposite and more positive effect.

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To be honest, 2018 was an awful year for Linfield.

However, the Irish League doesn’t run on calendar years, and the second part of the year was a lot better, giving hope that 2019 could be a good year. Linfield arrived at Solitude hoping to make the final week of the year a very good week.

The busiest time of the year, both sides were coming into this game on the back of contrasting fortunes of their games on Wednesday afternoon. The quick turnaround meant there wasn’t a lot of time to analyse the games on Boxing Day, which was probably good for Cliftonville, after a 5-1 defeat at home to Crusaders.

Linfield didn’t really have to do much analysing of their match against Glentoran, they just had to repeat it.

The only positive that Cliftonville had on Boxing Day, was that they conceded less goals than they did in their previous game, a 6-4 defeat away to Institute.

All season, Cliftonville have conceded goals. Linfield know this, they stuck four past them in November, with Andrew Waterworth becoming a trendsetter, as everybody now scores a hat-trick against Cliftonville.

As you entered Solitude, you were greeted with a muted atmosphere amongst the home support, those two results creating a sense of doom and gloom. They looked like a beaten team in the warm-up.

Linfield’s preparations for this game weren’t exactly smooth, on and off the pitch. The lucky cafe I usually go to for lunch before games at Solitude was closed today. Just as big, was the absence of Joel Cooper through suspension, with some supporters who weren’t aware of this getting a shock as they saw him taking his seat amongst the away support.

His place in the starting eleven was taken by Matthew Clarke, when Daniel Kearns looked a more obvious option.

However, when the sides met last month, Clarke came on for Cooper with the score at 3-2 to Linfield, with Niall Quinn being pushed into midfield.

I had my doubts about this substitution, as I thought it was too defensive, but it proved instantly effective as Quinn set up the goal to make it 4-2.

David Healy was hoping for a similar outcome at Solitude.

On the back of the two previous results, Cliftonville were going to go at Linfield early on, and Linfield would have to ride it out.

That would be more because they have conceded early goals in those two games, meaning that it was a case of attack being the best form of attack.

Cliftonville had the first opportunity of the game when Rory Donnelly cut inside only to see his shot saved by Roy Carroll, before Matthew Clarke blocked Joe Gormley’s rebound when he looked certain to score.

Clarke required treatment afterwards, it looked as though he suffered turf burn on the artificial pitch.

It was a painful afternoon for Clarke as later on, he blocked a cross which hit him right inbetween the legs.

Linfield were poor in the opening minutes, giving the ball away with stray passes, and being caught in possession and easily dispossessed when they had the ball.

Too often, Cliftonville were first to every ball, and first in the air. They weren’t doing any damage to Linfield, but there’s no way that Linfield could get away with it for 90 minutes.

Linfield’s first real chance of note came when Jordan Stewart had a shot saved by Richard Brush.

Stewart then set up Niall Quinn, who fired past Brush, who came rushing out, only for the ball to go wide. He really should have scored. Worst of all, I was at the other end, a celebrated prematurely.

A few minutes later, Linfield went in front when a header from Jordan Stewart hit the post and rolled over the line, though from where I was, it looked like it was rolling across the line, meaning my celebrations were delayed, rather than premature when Quinn shot at goal.

Looking at the TV footage, it does look like an own goal by Chris Curran to me. We all know how the Dubious Goals Committee works in the Irish League. If an Attacker shouts loud enough, it’s their goal.

Cliftonville responded with a Rory Donnelly header which hit the post, but fell perfectly for Jimmy Callacher to clear, to remind Linfield that even though Cliftonville’s confidence is low, this game was far from won.

The half ended with a free-kick from Stewart being saved by Brush.

Inside a minute of the second-half, it was 2-0, when Andrew Waterworth got in behind Cliftonville’s defence shot past the keeper who came rushing out, but his shot was going wide, so Niall Quinn made sure from a few yards out.

I’m not sure why the keeper ran out, as Waterworth still had a lot to do to score. By rushing out, he made it so much easier for Linfield to score, not that I’m complaining.

Just like on Boxing Day, Linfield started to really play now they had a cushion. They couldn’t get the third goal they needed to secure the points.

Even though Cliftonville never looked like getting back into the game, Linfield still had memories of blowing two goal leads at Solitude in 2015 and 2017.

Andrew Mitchell came on for the injured Stephen Fallon, while Michael O’Connor came on for Andrew Waterworth.

O’Connor’s afternoon didn’t last that long, as he got sent-off for two stupid bookings. Linfield were comfortable, and didn’t need to give any encouragement to Cliftonville.

The only moment of worry they had was a long range shot from Ryan Curran that was saved by Roy Carroll. Linfield might have had a man less, but they had the ball, and Cliftonville couldn’t score if Linfield had it.

In the end, it was a comfortable win for Linfield.

At one point, in the second-half, with Linfield 2-0 up, Ballymena United, Crusaders and Glenavon were all dropping points. In the end, only Glenavon dropped points.

Three other results going in our favour was hopeful, but we’ll take one.

Next up, is the first game of 2019 on the first day of 2019, a trip to Ards. We’ve already slipped up there once this season.

Elsewhere, Ballymena play Crusaders. One, or possibly two, teams below us will be dropping points on Tuesday. A win at Ards is a must.

Linfield can’t influence other results, but we can take advantage of them.

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There is a thing called Whamageddon. The objective is to avoid hearing Last Christmas by Wham. Linfield were also hoping to avoid Last Christmas, but it was nothing to do with George and Andrew. They wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2-1 defeat at The Oval, which killed off their title hopes, if they weren’t already dead by the time they arrived in East Belfast 365 days ago.

A defeat today, or even a draw, wouldn’t have been fatal to Linfield’s title hopes, but it certainly would have been a result they could do without. In the end, they produced a performance that left their fans on The Edge Of Heaven.

Having fallen four points behind Ballymena on Saturday, Linfield couldn’t afford to let the gap get any bigger.

As the teams entered the pitch, there wasn’t many players on the pitch at the start who had scored in this fixture. Linfield only had Niall Quinn (2015) and Andrew Waterworth (2013) while Glentoran had Stephen Gordon (2014), with last year’s matchwinner Curtis Allen being on the bench.

It was clear early on that Linfield were planning on giving it to Joel Cooper as much as possible, with good reason, having set up the winner when the sides met in October.

Having seen off early Linfield pressure, Glentoran had a bit of the ball in Linfield’s half, too much for Linfield’s liking, even though they didn’t do much with it.

On 15 minutes, Linfield got the breakthrough when Jimmy Callacher scored after a free-kick. It was his third goal in front of The Kop for the third time in four games. The only difference this time was that it was with his foot rather than his head. Linfield might as well be 1-0 up already in their Irish Cup tie against Ballymena in a few weeks time.

It was a perfect time to score as it wasn’t too early, as Linfield have tended to struggle in recent years when they have scored early against Glentoran.

All that Glentoran could offer in response was a free-kick from Willy Garrett that was easily saved by Roy Carroll.

Linfield were determined to get a second goal before half-time. Kirk Millar fired across goal from a wide angle, before a flicked header went agonisingly wide.

A neat passing move resulted in a Joel Cooper low cross just miss Andrew Waterworth when the slightest contact would have resulted in a goal.

Joel Cooper then had a shot saved, with Elliott Morris getting to the round ahead of Andrew Waterworth who had sniffed a goal, before the half ended with a ball in from Niall Quinn evaded everybody and hit the post.

In the 2016 fixture, Linfield could have had the game won in the first-half, before hanging on for a point. They had to be on it from the very first kick of the second-half.

They weren’t. Curtis Allen, now brought on as a substitute, headed over from the close range. Jimmy Callacher was forced to stick out a leg and concede a corner when intercepting a pass to Allen.

Glentoran were having a lot of the ball but not doing much with it. Despite that, your natural pessimism makes you fear they will get a goal.

The second goal that Linfield needed came from a counter attack from a Glentoran corner, when Joel Cooper and Jordan Stewart ran at pace at Glentoran’s defence, those that were behind them couldn’t get back in time to help out.

Eventually, Cooper crossed for Stewart to finish from a few yards out. If Stewart didn’t get there, Kirk Millar would have had a empty net to put the ball into.

That was it, game over. Any fear there was of conceding a soft goal and dropping cheap points was now gone. Now that the game was won, Linfield were ready to put on a show.

A few minutes later, Cooper had his goal, volleying home from a corner. At 3-0, even I was able to relax in the knowledge that the points were secured.

Linfield were now showing off, playing ole football, keeping the ball like Institute, with Glentoran’s players too downhearted to put a tackle in.

When they did, Robbie McDaid got himself sent-off for kicking out at Jordan Stewart before squaring up to Andrew Mitchell, who had come on as a substitute for Jamie Mulgrew.

It was the fifth red card in the last six Boxing Day fixtures between Linfield and Glentoran.

By this point, Andrew Waterworth had made it 4-0 to Linfield with his last kick of the game before being replaced by Michael O’Connor. Personally, with the game won, I would have let Daniel Reynolds get some minutes.

Daniel Kearns was brought on as he continues to make his recovery from injury. He almost made it 5-0 but his shot was saved by Elliott Morris. Morris was beaten again, by Michael O’Connor, but the goal was disallowed for offside, as Linfield had to make do with just a 4-0 win.

Elsewhere, Ballymena drew 3-3 with Coleraine, meaning the gap is now back down to two points. Linfield couldn’t afford to let the gap get bigger, they reduced it within one game.

Crusaders beat Cliftonville 5-1. Do Cliftonville fans call 26th December St Stephen’s Day as it’s usually a day when Stephen Baxter is smiling?

Just like last month, Linfield will be facing a Cliftonville side who have lost their last two games.

Hopefully, like last month, we’ll show no mercy.

This match will be Linfield’s last game of 2018. Let’s be honest, it’s been a bloody awful year, but three points can lay the foundation to 2019 being a lot better.

Oh, and of course, don’t forget, jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.

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Boxing Day 2016

Boxing Day 2015

Boxing Day 2014

Boxing Day 2013