CLIFTONVILLE 1-2 LINFIELD 13.1.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three weeks later, Linfield were in crisis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was Linfield 6th successive League win over Cliftonville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY 2-1 LINFIELD 4.1.2019

There is no way to gloss over this result, it was embarrassing.

After a difficult Christmas/New Year period, the Irish Cup offered a respite for Linfield, ahead of a nine day break before resuming League action.

The draw gave them an away trip to Lower League opposition, a great chance of progress and a new ground for fans to visit.

Well, not for all of us.

Due to the capacity of The Dub, Linfield were restricted to 150 tickets. Unfortunately, I missed out on getting one.

Undeterred, I decided to head over and chance my luck.

I asked at Reception and they had no spares, but I found a spot outside the ground to watch from. It was ok, but there some parts of the pitch that were obscured. While standing there, I was offered a ticket at face value so I decided to take it and get a better view.

If you did want to watch the match from outside, you could do so, or you could watch it from a sofa in The Pavillion, albeit with a restricted view.

The Dub is very small with no room for manoeuvre with regards to fitting more fans in. There could have been ways around it though.

They could have closed off some of the Car Park and created a standing area behind the goal at that end. I’m not sure what the feasibility was of playing the game at the pitch beside it, which had a bigger stand and standing area around the pitch.

After a busy run of games, I had expected some changes, with some players being rested and others who had been inactive recently getting some much needed game time.

That was not to be the case, although we did see three at the back getting binned.

It was a big day for Ethan Boyle, recently signed from Shamrock Rovers. Not only was it his birthday, he turned 23, he made his debut at right-back, coming in for Mark Haughey who continues his recovery from injury with a rest.

Do you want to feel really old? The day that Ethan Boyle was born, Saturday 4th January 1997, was the day that David Jeffrey took charge of his first match as Linfield manager.

In a match like this, Linfield had to be on the front foot early on, and not give Queen’s an opportunity to settle in the game. That would not be the case.

In fact, it was Rohan Ferguson who was the busier keeper, making a series of saves to keep it at 0-0.

On 38 minutes, Queen’s took the lead when Marc McKenna dispossessed Bastien Hery and then nutmegged Jimmy Callacher before firing home from outside the box. It was a goal that had been coming.

Once again, it was another poor goal conceded by Linfield. We’ve conceded some absolute shockers recently.

It acted as a wake-up call for Linfield, 38 minutes too late you could say.

Jamie Mulgrew, facing his younger brother Ben, hit the top of the bar as Linfield looked to go in at half-time level.

In the final minute of the half, it looked like Linfield had been given a reprieve with a penalty being awarded for a handball from a corner. However, the whistle was actually blown for a foul in the build-up.

The second-half began, or rather didn’t begin, in farcical circumstances, as the start was delayed due to the net that Linfield were attacking in the first-half being broken. I’m not sure how, as it didn’t see any action.

When the second-half did begin, it did so with Linfield being camped in Queen’s half. For the first time in the match, it felt like a Linfield goal was imminent.

Mark Stafford had a header hit the bar, while Joel Cooper saw his header from the rebound saved. Jamie Mulgrew then had an effort go wide as it looked like Queen’s had seen out the Linfield onslaught.

Joel Cooper was now getting the better of his opposing full-back, but he continued to frustrate with his final ball.

Just before the hour, Shayne Lavery was introduced for Daniel Kearns, and the impact was immediate, as he headed home from a corner to make it 1-1.

That should have been the springboard for Linfield to go on and win the game. However, there would be no onslaught, with Queen’s looking comfortable at 1-1.

On 75 minutes, the match swung in Queen’s favour when Mark Stafford slipped under pressure and handled the ball in the penalty area. After a delay, a penalty was given.

Jonah Mitchell stepped up to put Queen’s 2-1 up. Ironically, he was given his senior debut and then loaned to Queen’s by former Linfield manager Warren Feeney.

Linfield were in deep trouble and time was running out. Matthew Shevlin and Jordan Stewart came on for Bastien Hery and Mark Stafford in search of an equaliser.

That looked like coming when a through ball saw Matthew Shevline get in behind Queen’s defence, control the ball and go round the keeper, with the offside flag going up as he was putting the ball into the net. He looked onside to me.

Linfield were running out of ideas, and hoping to get lucky with a free-kick. The best they could offer was a header from Jimmy Callacher which was disallowed for offside.

In fact, it looked like Queen’s were more likely to score on the counter attack.

It looked like one of those free-kicks would bring Linfield an equaliser when a headed clearance fell to Kirk Millar, whose cross was headed wide by Matthew Shevlin from a few yards out. He really should have scored. If he hit the target, he would have.

Everybody sensed that was Linfield’s big chance, and it had gone. This was going to be Queen’s day.

Unfortunately, there would be no dodgy 95th minute penalty to save us. I note those days have returned. We would have missed anyway.

And so it proved, as they held on for a famous win. The most damming thing for Linfield was that they deserved it. It wasn’t a smash and grab.

To make it worse for Linfield, Larne and Dungannon Swifts both won, meaning that the free Saturday on Saturday 1st February can’t be used to slot in one of the two games that need rearranged.

Dungannon Swifts and Larne both have winnable ties, meaning the Quarter-Final date of Saturday 29th February probably won’t be able to be used to slot in one of these games.

If you’re a calendar nerd like me, you’ll be especially annoyed at Linfield not having a game on 29th February. Unless we have a midweek game between now and then, February 29th won’t fall on a Saturday until 2048.

So what now for Linfield?

Three trophies have gone and all focus is on the League.

Ironically, in order to over throw Cliftonville, Linfield must now look to Cliftonville’s past as an inspiration.

The important thing is not to panic. Just three weeks ago, Linfield were about to run away with the League, now it looks like the season might be falling apart.

The line-up for this game was totally wrong. There are too many players who have played too much football and need a rest. This game, the fifth in fourteen days should have been used to give some players a rest and others some much needed game time.

Linfield’s results since the 7-0 win over Warrenpoint have followed a worrying trend: 0-1, 1-0, 2-0, 1-1, 0-6, 3-0, 0-1, 2-1, 1-0, 0-3, 1-0, 2-0, 1-1, 0-3, 1-1, 3-0, 1-2.

Far too many 0s and 1s in those first figures.

The games where Linfield have scored more than one in that run have been against Carrick Rangers, Ballymena United, Warrenpoint Town and Institute (twice).

That is quite damming.

Linfield have been too slow starting games, allowing teams to get settled, and against Crusaders and Glentoran, giving away early goals and chasing the game, while also struggling against teams who are well organised in defence.

Even against Warrenpoint last month, we didn’t push on after scoring inside the first minute.

There’s no urgency in attack, teams are allowed to get comfortable.

When we create chances, the final ball goes awry, or we aren’t reactive enough when the ball is loose.

Now the fixture list has calmed down, but not in the way we wanted. We’ll be having a lot of gaps now.

This upcoming nine day gap couldn’t come at a better time. A chance to recharge batteries and get minds focused on the task at hand.

That task now is retaining the League title. It’s the only thing we can do now.

It is so important to be in Europe next season. Linfield gained a lot of co-efficient points this season. It might take a while to see the benefits but we have to continue to be in Europe and keep getting those points in order to secure a favourable draw, that’s how The New Saints got to be seeded when they enter the European Cup.

As said earlier, Linfield can use Cliftonville as a form of inspiration.

January 2014, reigning champions and just dumped out of the Irish Cup at the first stage on the back of a bumpy run of results in the League, although losing a replay to Coleraine is a bit more respectable. Sounds familiar.

They focused their minds and energy on the League and went on a winning run to secure the title.

And that winning run started against Linfield. The task for Linfield is to do something similar, starting against Cliftonville.

If we can get through the game at Solitude, we have a run of games against Bottom 6 opposition coming up, and a great chance of getting a winning run going.

Although saying that, a tie against Championship opposition should have been an opportunity to start a cup run.

It seems a bit coincidental that the lack of goals and dodgy results have come while Niall Quinn has been out injured. Key at both ends of the pitch.

There won’t be any trophy celebrations for Linfield at Windsor Park in May 2020. Let’s make sure there are celebrations for Linfield at Windsor Park in April 2020.

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LINFIELD 3-0 INSTITUTE 1.1.2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GLENTORAN 3-0 LINFIELD 26.12.2019

Well that was shite. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to read on.

Christmas got off to a good start for Linfield, with the Swifts winning the Steel and Sons Cup on Christmas Day, now it was the turn of the first team.

They arrived at The Oval on the back of a late draw against Crusaders. Those two points dropped allowed Cliftonville and Glentoran to cut the gap at the top of a congested table. Victory here could see them pull away from Glentoran and one or both of Crusaders and Cliftonville depending on the result at Seaview.

It was expected that the team that finished the match against Crusaders would be the starting line-up for Linfield. However, that would not be the case with Jordan Stewart and Andrew Waterworth starting ahead of Daniel Kearns and Shayne Lavery.

That meant that Linfield’s starting eleven featured all four of their goalscorers on Boxing Day 2018, as well as their goalscorer in 2016, Mark Haughey.

Their goalscorer on Boxing Day 2017, Cameron Stewart, was also on the pitch, but playing for Glentoran.

Inside the first ten minutes, it was Glentoran who struck the first blow when a long throw wasn’t cleared and a shot flashed across goal and fell perfectly for Elvio Van Overbeek to backheel the ball into the net.

It was a bad goal to concede, and was made worse by the fact the initial throw-in was so cheaply conceded, coming from a clearance out after a Glentoran attack was snuffed out.

Linfield responded with a Jimmy Callacher header that was kicked off the line. Joel Cooper then had a shot saved by Marijan Antolovic before Andrew Waterworth was flagged offside when following up the rebound.

Waterworth then had a header go just wide as Linfield went in search of an equaliser.

The best came when a goalmouth scramble fell for Mark Haughey. He managed to get a shooting opportunity but fired over. He would have been better off firing low into the crowded goal line as only one player could use his hands.

Despite being 1-0 down, there was no need to panic. There were goals in this for Linfield. They just had to keep the pressure on.

The pressure on Glentoran’s goal continued with Stephen Fallon having a shot go just wide before Jordan Stewart hit the post.

That search for a goal resulted in Shayne Lavery being brought in from the bench for Bastien Hery.

Linfield still had to be wary of not going 2-0 down, and they had a warning when Willie Garrett headed a free header straight at Rohan Ferguson.

It looked like that goal when Andrew Waterworth headed home from a Joel Cooper cross but was instantly denied by an offside flag. I didn’t have a clear view of it and the TV replay was inconclusive.

Wether left or right, Cooper was getting a lot of jot out wide and making things happen, but Linfield couldn’t get anybody on the end of his crosses.

You sensed if Linfield could get it to 1-1, they would go on to win the game.

Antolovic was having one of those days, and even when he dropped one, a Linfield player couldn’t get on the end of it.

That was the problem, more often than not, wherever it was on the pitch, when there was a loose ball, there would always be a Glentoran player first to the ball.

One such situation saw Hrvoje Plum run towards Linfield’s goal. Linfield’s defenders kept backing off and you knew what was going to happen as he fired in low from outside the penalty area to make it 2-0.

Up against it, but not out of it, Daniel Kearns and Matthew Shevlin came on Jordan Stewart and Matthew Clarke. Kearns should have been on a lot earlier when the score was 0-1.

Even though they were two goals down, Linfield were still in it. If they could get an instant goal back, there was still plenty of time left to get something from this game.

Joel Cooper was denied from a couple of efforts as Linfield looked to get that goal bad.

Plum then made it 3-0 from the penalty spot to put the game beyond doubt.

Despite that, Linfield continued to attack and continued to be denied, no matter what they did.

Linfield’s poor record in big domestic games (excluding Cliftonville) continues to be poor this season. Bizarrely, they aren’t the only team to be afflicted with this.

Top 5 v Each other (8 games, W-D-L-Pts)

Coleraine 4-3-1-15
Crusaders 3-2-3-11
Cliftonville 3-1-4-10
Linfield 3-1-4-10
Glentoran 2-3-3-9

Coleraine are the only team to have won more than they have lost in this Mini League and yet, they sit 3rd in the actual League. These stats are both worrying and give Linfield hope at the same time.

You can win the League without winning all these games, you can win the League having an inferior head to head against one team, but you won’t do it if you lose more than you win against the Top 5.

Nobody has an excellent record in these games, they all take points off each other and Coleraine have dropped to Bottom 6 teams.

It’s frustrating that everytime Linfield got close to the top, they lost a big game and get held back, then when they reached the top, they can’t seem to pull away.

They had better fix it quick, with a trip to Coleraine coming 46 hours after the final whistle at The Oval.

We’re not disadvantaged as Coleraine have the same turnaround time.

Regardless of the result, I would always have expected changes between the two games due to the turnaround.

I would expect Kirk Millar to come back in. We’ve found out the hard way over the last three games how important he is. Maybe a start for Daniel Kearns, Shayne Lavery to start, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Haughey was rested as two games in such a quick time might be too much for a player just back from long-term injury. Possibly, Andrew Mitchell might come in.

I would expect some rotation for the Institute and QUB games.

Sky Sports have done us a favour moving the Cliftonville away game to a Monday night, to have eight days gap between matches as we recover from a busy Christmas/New Year period.

It’s hard to assess this game. Linfield had enough chances and should have got something from this game, but they didn’t take them. We’ve probably played worse and won comfortably.

There were a couple of worrying trends though.

For the second successive game, Linfield conceded a soft goal in the opening ten minutes. We can’t keep giving teams something to defend so early in the game.

Some of the goals Linfield have conceded this season have been shocking, being punished for basic mistakes.

We have also struggled to break down teams who swarm the midfield and are well set up in defence. This is why it is imperative not to concede the first goal and give opponents something to hold onto.

We also need to be quicker to the ball in attacking situations. Far too often, opposing defenders are the quickest to react in situations.

We’ve let Cliftonville go top and put Glentoran back into the title race when we should have been out of sight. Glentoran have a generous run of games coming up, and won’t face a Top 5 team until February.

Tomorrow is a new day, as they say, and if Linfield can get three wins from the next seven days, this result won’t be forgotten about, but the smell of it won’t be lingering about.

We’d be through to the next round of the Irish Cup, and the worst scenario in the League would be 3 clear of Coleraine and 1 behind Cliftonville with those games in hand.

I’d hoped those games in hand would be used to extend our lead, rather than getting a lead.

Fortunes can change so quickly. Remember, Linfield went from four points behind to one point clear in the space of ten days last Christmas/New Year.

The good news for anyone travelling to Coleraine is that return train travel this weekend is 1/3 off as part of a marketing promotion.

Let’s hope Linfield aren’t feeling as generous as Translink.

Photo Album

2019 IN PICTURES – DECEMBER (SO FAR …..)

December’s photo adventures had to wait a full seven days, when I headed to Windsor Park to see Linfield beat Cliftonville.

A few days later, I headed to Ulster Hall for my final concert of the year, to see Primal Scream.

The following Saturday, I headed to Warrenpoint to see Linfield get a 2-0 win.

That was followed by heading to Windsor Park to see Linfield draw 1-1 with Crusaders.

December so far hasn’t been that busy so far, but there’s still some photo adventures to come in the final week.

It’s unlikely that i’ll be at Seaview tomorrow for the Steel and Sons Cup Final, but i’ll be at The Oval on Boxing Day. As if i’d be anywhere else.

Boxing Day is the start of three busy days, as i’ll be heading to Ulster v Connacht the day after, and then Coleraine v Linfield the day after that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed by look back at my photo adventures in 2019. Of course, there’ll be more photo adventures in 2020.

In terms of concerts, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, Blossoms and Badly Drawn Boy are already on the horizon.

Travelwise, Manchester and Bray are confirmed. I’m planning to walk up Bray Head. While in Bray, i’ll sneak in a trip to Dublin. I’m hoping to see a Euro 2020 game while i’m there, but i’ll definitely catch some League Of Ireland action.

May is the new date for Hit The North, so i’ll be photographing that, and any other Street Art I spot during the year.

And i’ll be crossing my fingers for some snow to photograph at some point because i’m a big kid.

Linfield v Cliftonville

Primal Scream live at Ulster Hall

Primal Scream live at Ulster Hall Photo Album

Warrenpoint Town v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

LINFIELD 1-1 CRUSADERS 21.12.2019

The Saturday Before Christmas. It sounds like a novel which has been turned into an animated movie which fills up mid afternoon schedules every year, funnily enough, on the Saturday before Christmas.

For Linfield in recent years, the Saturday before Christmas has usually had a happy ending.

2014 saw a come from behind win (with a last minute penalty save added in) against Portadown which was one of the highlights of Warren Feeney’s brief spell as Manager.

2015 saw another come from behind win, against Ballymena United, which really kickstarted David Healy’s reign as Manager. A year later, came a dramatic and vital injury time win against the same opponents.

Even the wretched 2017-2018 season saw a dominant win over win over Cliftonville.

Last year, wasn’t as memorable, a 0-0 draw against Glenavon as they were trying to keep up with Ballymena United.

On 45 minutes, this was The Nightmare Before Christmas. By full-time, it wasn’t quite a Christmas miracle, but an unexpected and greatly appreciated early present of a point.

The pre-match scenario was similar to when Linfield faced Crusaders in December and January last season, with Crusaders a couple of points behind, and Linfield knowing they could pull clear of them with a win.

Linfield’s starting eleven was the same as the previous week at Warrenpoint, lining up 4-4-2.

The deviation from 4-2-3-1 was not that surprising with Kirk Millar suspended and Daniel Kearns recovering from injury, so they had to make use of the players that were available.

Bastien Hery continued to be rested, having been playing all year with the League Of Ireland playing Summer football.

Linfield enjoyed a lot of the ball in the early minutes, but a free-kick from Chris Casement was all they could offer.

On 7 minutes, Crusaders scored with their first attack when a Philip Lowry cross was headed home by Declan Caddell from six yards out.

The home fans waited for an offside flag. It didn’t come as he wasn’t. Chris Casement and Josh Robinson switched off and left him unmarked.

Caddell became the first opposition player to score a League goal at Windsor Park since August, a goal that was key if recent form in this fixture was anything to go by, as Linfield hadn’t come from behind to beat Crusaders since April 2014.

What we got after that, was a repeat of the bad old days when Linfield go a goal behind against Crusaders, being scared of them and forgetting how to play football.

When Linfield had the ball, Crusaders had everybody defending, and Linfield didn’t have the imagination to break through. They had the players to do it.

When the ball went to them, there were swarms of Crusaders players around them. Far too many times, Linfield players were second to the ball, or when they got it, easily outmuscled in possession.

Most of Linfield’s possession in the first-half saw Josh Robinson and Jimmy Callacher passing it to each other as they had nobody else to pass it to.

Sometimes, they involved Rohan Ferguson, passing it back to him. Every backpass was cheered louder than their goal by the Crusaders fans. Strange bunch.

Hesitancy in defence from Josh Robinson allowed Jamie McGonigle in behind Linfield’s defence. As Jimmy Callacher anticpated a cross, it left space for McGonigle to shoot, only to be denied twice by Ferguson.

Every time Crusaders counter-attacked, Linfield’s defence was stretched and had no support. You would have been happy to take a 0-1 scoreline at the break, and get it remedied in the second-half.

However, Linfield would turn out to be disappointed by that score as they finished the half showing more of an attacking threat than they had previously.

Joel Cooper had a shot spilled by Gerard Doherty, who was able to recover with Shayne Lavery sniffing around.

Cooper would then have Linfield’s best chance of the half when the ball fell to him six yards out but he smashed it against the bar. Even though there were a lot of Crusaders bodies in the penalty area, he really should have scored.

Like in other recent matches, the presence of Shayne Lavery in the six yard box at corners had an offputting effect on defenders and goalkeepers. Linfield couldn’t exploit that, usually not beating the first man.

With no opportunities being created in open play, Linfield simply had to make the most of set piece opportunities that came their way.

The highlight of Linfield’s corners came when they got one, everybody was waiting in the penalty area but nobody was going over to take it so the ball just sat by the corner flag.

0-1 at half-time, and probably thankful to still be in the game. There was no need to panic. When Linfield did attack Crusaders, Crusaders looked shaky, they just weren’t attacking them enough. There were goals in this for Linfield, they just needed to step it up.

The lack of urgency was summed up by two minutes of injury time being signalled, but they were seeing out the half instead of pushing for a late equaliser that would change the mood in both Dressing Rooms.

This was summed up by Gerard Doherty having to play the ball outside his penalty area, but nobody putting pressure on him.

Linfield responded at half-time by making two substitutions, with Mark Haughey coming on for Chris Casement and Daniel Kearns coming on for Andrew Waterworth.

It was Haughey’s first appearance since May 2018, and the biggest compliment you can pay is that it looked like he had never been away. I thought it might have taken a few games to ease him back in. Especially when there were four Linfield players on the pitch when he joined the action who he had never played alongside before.

Waterworth had needed treatment during the first-half, so his withdrawal may have been due to injury, but the switch allowed Linfield to revert to 4-2-3-1, which they enjoyed so much success against Crusaders last season.

There was no immediate pressure on Crusaders goal. Joel Cooper had a speculative shot from a wide angle saved by Doherty before Stephen Fallon hit the bar, the ball didn’t come down quick enough for Shayne Lavery to head in, a Crusaders player managing to clear.

With each passing minute, it became obvious that Linfield needed Bastien Hery from the bench.

He is supposed to be getting rested, but unfortunately, Linfield keep needing to get him out there.

It looked like Matthew Clarke was going to equalise when he went for a loose ball in the penalty area, but was denied by Billy Joe Burns at the expense of a corner.

Burns was involved from the resulting corner, conceding a penalty after handling.

When conceding the corner, it looked like Clarke had fouled Burns. Finally, a stroke of luck which went in Linfield’s favour.

When a penalty is awarded, you can sometimes get a sense what the outcome will be. You didn’t get the sense that a goal was incoming when Bastien Hery stepped up.

And so it proved, as Gerard Doherty saved his low effort, at the same end where he saved a penalty from Jordan Stewart last season.

Whenever a penalty is missed, the team who survives the penalty miss is usually galvanised. Unusually, it was Linfield who were galvanised by the penalty miss, the crowd urging them on in search of an equaliser.

They didn’t have long to wait, as Joel Cooper picked up the ball and fired home spectacularly from outside the penalty area to make it 1-1.

Literally just seconds earlier, across Belfast, Cliftonville had gone 1-0 up against Coleraine in the other match between teams in the Top 4.

Midway through the second-half, I had a feeling that Crusaders would tire, and Linfield could capitalise, as they had conceded decisive late goals in their last two matches against Ballymena United and Glentoran.

Linfield fans were immediately thinking of winning the game. Apart from me, I was immediately having flashbacks to the Irish Cup game in February when Linfield conceded a late winner just after scoring a late equaliser.

Both teams had late chances to win it.

Jamie McGonigle had a shot saved by Rohan Ferguson at the expense of a corner, and a corner was awarded. You weren’t too sure, considering the last time a Linfield player denied McGonigle from scoring in injury time, a goal was awarded anyway.

With just 30 seconds left in injury time, Linfield had a free kick out wide. It was set up perfectly for Josh Robinson or Jimmy Callacher to power home a dramatic winner.

Santa would not oblige, as Crusaders cleared the danger to secure a 1-1 draw.

It was a day of mixed emotions for Linfield. Frustration at not being able to pull clear of Crusaders and Coleraine, but relief that Crusaders haven’t pulled closer.

Glentoran have pulled the gap to five points, which will give them encouragement ahead of Boxing Day.

Just like this match, it is don’t lose, but let’s go and win it. No point being in a traffic jam when we can charge ahead, especially with Crusaders and Cliftonville playing each other, and Coleraine facing an in-form Ballymena United.

How very convenient that Ballymena hit form just as they are due to play Coleraine and Glentoran.

This week, it was announced that the County Antrim Shield Final on 21st January will be held at Windsor Park.

Not ideal, as it rules out that date for scheduling in the rearranged home match against Dungannon, even though that would mean two home games against the same opposition in four days. We could still schedule in a trip to Larne for that date.

Handy for me personally though as i’ll be in England that date and won’t miss a home game.

There’s no need to panic regarding the two outstanding games, there’s still plenty of time to slot them in.

Even though it disappointed me from a travelling and groundhopping point of view, the decision not to enter the Scottish Challenge Cup has been totally justified.

Without the nine points acquired against Cliftonville, Dungannon Swifts and Institute, we’d be 5th, seven points off the top with five games to schedule in. Possibly a sixth if we reached the Semi-Final.

Elsewhere, Friday saw the release of the 2020 League Of Ireland fixtures.

It works out well for me, as there’s a full fixture list on the Monday night that i’m in the Dublin Area next June. I’ll have the choice of St Patrick’s Athletic v Cork City or Bohemians v Shelbourne.

First Division fixtures are yet to be announced, so i’m hoping that Bray are at home that night.

I’m toying with the idea of a break in Tallinn over the July Holidays. They play Summer football so I can take in a game, and sneak in a day trip to Helsinki. Will definitely be giving that serious consideration.

More immediately, I probably won’t be going to the Steel and Sons Cup Final on Christmas Day. Of course, good luck to Linfield Swifts.

I can’t sign off without wishing you all a Merry Christmas. Even to Glentoran supporters, but I hope they have shitty Boxing Day.

Dare you ask what I want for Christmas? I’ll give you a clue, i’m happy to wait until April and May 2020 for it.

Would it be rude to ask Santa for a pre-season trip to Stranraer?

Photo Album

2019 IN PICTURES – NOVEMBER

November 2019 began with a trip to Windsor Park to see Linfield get a win over Carrick Rangers.

A few days later, I made my first trip of the season to Old Trafford, to see United beat Partizan Belgrade in the UEFA Cup.

While I was there, I got photos of Street Art in Manchester, and then visit to Rochdale in search of Street Art, after there was a festival held there in August.

The following weekend, I headed to The Brandywell to see Linfield take on Institute. While I was there, I was able to get some photos (from a fence outside) of Institute’s abandoned former stadium, Drumahoe.

Later that day, on my return from the North-West, I took in a second football match, Northern Ireland’s European Championship Qualifier against Holland.

Six days later, I was on the road again, to see Linfield lose 1-0 to Glenavon.

A few days later, I headed to Vilnius in Lithuania for a very short, very cheap and very cold break. Unsurprisingly, I was out snapping with my camera.

On the last day of the month, I got up early and walked up Cavehill, my first time doing so. Later that day, I headed to Windsor Park to see Linfield face Larne.

Linfield v Carrick Rangers

Manchester Street Art

Manchester Street Art Photo Album

Manchester United v Partizan Belgrade

Manchester United v Partizan Belgrade Photo Album

Rochdale Uprising

Rochdale Uprising Photo Album

Drumahoe

Drumahoe Photo Album

Institute v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Holland

Northern Ireland v Holland Photo Album

Glenavon v Linfield

Vilnius

Vilnius Photo Album

Vilnius Street Art

Vilnius Street Art Photo Album

Cavehill

Cavehill Photo Album

Linfield v Larne

2019 IN PICTURES – OCTOBER

October 2019 began with a trip to Seaview to see Linfield take on Crusaders.

A busy month of concerts began a few days later with a trip to Ulster Hall to see The Divine Comedy.

There was even some Street Art spotted during the month, heading to Stephen Street to see a mural of The Joker and Catwoman

The next day, I was on the road to Dungannon to see Linfield beat Dungannon Swifts 4-1.

From there, it was another concert, a first visit to The Telegraph Building, to see Two Door Cinema Club.

The flipping between football and concerts continued as I headed to Windsor Park to see Linfield take on Ballymena United. The following midweek saw a football/concert double header, seeing Linfield take on Warrenpoint Town, before seeing OMD at Ulster Hall.

October’s photo adventures ended with a trip to see Linfield take on Coleraine, the month beginning and ending for me with a 1-0 defeat.

Crusaders v Linfield

The Divine Comedy live at Ulster Hall

The Divine Comedy live at Ulster Hall Photo Album

Joker and Catwoman Mural

Joker and Catwoman Mural Photo Album

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

Two Door Cinema Club live at The Telegraph Building

Two Door Cinema Club live at The Telegraph Building Photo Album

Linfield v Ballymena United

Linfield v Warrenpoint Town

OMD live at Ulster Hall

OMD live at Ulster Hall Photo Album

Coleraine v Linfield

2019 IN PICTURES – SEPTEMBER

My first photo adventure of September 2019 was a trip to Solitude to see Linfield get a 1-0 win on their return to domestic competition after their European adventures the previous month.

That was then followed by a Windsor Park double header, taking in Northern Ireland v Germany and Linfield v Glentoran.

The day after that match saw me have an adventure, taking in some Street Art in Belfast, and Edwyn Collins doing an instore gig at Strange Victory.

My next adventure came the following Friday with Culture Night.

It was then two football matches, seeing Linfield get wins over Carrick Rangers and Glenavon.

The month ended with a trip to Yorkgate to check out a new mural.

Cliftonville v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Germany

Northern Ireland v Germany Photo Album

Linfield v Glentoran

Belfast Peace Wall Art

Belfast Peace Wall Art Photo Album

Ulster Sports Club Street Art

Ulster Sports Club Street Art Photo Album

Edwyn Collins live at Strange Victory

Edwyn Collins live at Strange Victory Photo Album

Culture Night

Culture Night Photo Album

Carrick Rangers v Linfield

Linfield v Glenavon

Yorkgate Street Art

Yorkgate Street Art Photo Album

2019 IN PICTURES – AUGUST

August 2019 began with a bit of a bang, it was hard to keep up.

On the 1st of the month, I went to see Linfield take on HB Torshavn in the UEFA Cup.

A few hours later, I headed to Edinburgh for a break, taking in two football matches, some Street Art and a walk up Arthur’s Seat

Upon my return from Edinburgh, it felt like I was having a permanent residency at Windsor Park for the rest of the month, taking in Linfield’s matches against Institute, Sutjeska, Coleraine and Qarabag.

Linfield v HB Torshavn

Edinburgh Street Art

Edinburgh Street Art Photo Album

Dunfermline Athletic v Dundee

Dunfermline Athletic v Dundee Photo Album

Hibernian v St Mirren

Hibernian v St Mirren Photo Album

Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat Photo Album

Linfield v Institute

Linfield v Sutjeska

Linfield v Coleraine

Linfield v Qarabag