PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : DECEMBER

December’s football watching began with a trip to Ballymena on the first of the month and a top of the table clash, which Linfield lost 2-1.

Thankfully, the rest of the month did get better, including the following Saturday, where Crusaders were disposed of 4-1.

Postponements meant I wouldn’t be at another match for two weeks, as Linfield drew 0-0 with Glenavon, though it was still better than Crhistmas shopping.

The next match was a bit decent, as Linfield thrashed Glentoran 4-0 on Boxing Day.

The month, and the year, of football watching ended with a trip to Solitude to see Linfield secure a 2-0 win.

Ballymena United v Linfield

Linfield v Crusaders

Linfield v Glenavon

Linfield v Glentoran

Cliftonville v Linfield

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PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : NOVEMBER

November 2018’s football watching began with a trip to Windsor Park with a trip to Windsor Park to see Linfield scrape a late draw at home to Warrenpoint Town.

It didn’t get much better the following Saturday, as I headed back to Windsor Park to see Linfield lose to Coleraine.

The weekend after, was a double header, the first of which was a first trip to The Brandywell, to see Linfield take on Institute. The next day, I headed to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Austria in the UEFA Nations League.

The following weekend, it was yet another trip to Windsor Park, but finally a home win, as an Andrew Waterworth hat-trick saw off Cliftonville.

My football watching for the month ended with a midweek trip to Old Trafford to see Manchester United take on BSC Young Boys in the European Cup, my first visit to Old Trafford of the season.

Linfield v Warrenpoint Town

Linfield v Coleraine

Institute v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Austria

Northern Ireland v Austria Photo Album

Linfield v Cliftonville

Manchester United v BSC Young Boys

Manchester United v BSC Young Boys Photo Album

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : OCTOBER

October’s football watching began at The Oval, to see Linfield get a win over Glentoran.

That was then followed by Newry City’s first League visit to Windsor Park since 2011, and we were treated to a hat-trick from Jimmy Callacher.

That was then followed by two road trips, firstly to Clandeboye Park, where Linfield suffered their first defeat of the season, and then to Stangmore Park, where Linfield came from behind to beat Dungannon Swifts.

Glentoran v Linfield

Linfield v Newry City

Ards v Linfield

Dungannon Swifts v Linfield

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : SEPTEMBER

I didn’t have to wait long for some football action in September, with Linfield taking on Ards on the first day of the month. I would have to wait a while for a first goal of the month, as that match finished 0-0.

The goals flew in during my next match, as Linfield beat Warrenpoint 5-0, before taking in Northern Ireland’s first ever UEFA Nations League match, a 2-1 home defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The month ended taking in three further Linfield matches, home wins against Dungannon Swifts and Ballymena United, as well as a draw at Coleraine.

Linfield v Ards

Warrenpoint Town v Linfield

Northern Ireland v Bosnia-Herzegovina

Northern Ireland v Bosnia-Herzegovina Photo Album

Linfield v Dungannon Swifts

Coleraine v Linfield

Linfield v Ballymena United

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : AUGUST

August began for me with the opening game of the 2018-2019 season, as Linfield travelled to Mourneview Park to take on Glenavon.

My next match was in the Scottish Challenge Cup, taking in Edinburgh City v Albion Rovers during a short break to Edinburgh.

Upon my return, it was back to Irish League football for me, with successive trips to North Belfast for Linfield, against Crusaders and Cliftonville.

Glenavon v Linfield

Edinburgh City v Albion Rovers

Edinburgh City v Albion Rovers Photo Album

Crusaders v Linfield

Cliftonville v Linfield

PHOTO DIARY OF A FOOTBALL SEASON : JULY

2018-2019 began for me in the middle of the World Cup, giving England v Sweden a miss to head to Wilgar Park to see Linfield start their pre-season against Dundela.

The following weekend, I headed to Dublin for a short weekend, taking in a match, Shelbourne v Drogheda United.

After that, was a ground being visited for the first time, Breda Park, to see Linfield take on Knockbreda.

That was then followed by a trip to Newforge as Linfield continued their pre-season preparation with a friendly against PSNI.

Dundela v Linfield

Shelbourne v Drogheda United

Shelbourne v Drogheda United Photo Album

Knockbreda v Linfield

PSNI v Linfield

MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : WHEN SATURDAY COMES – JULY 2012

England are at the European Championship, with Ashley Young on the cover of When Saturday Comes confidently predicting that England will do better than they did at Euro 2008.

He has good reason for his optimism, as England failed to reach Euro 2008.

There is a review of the recent Scottish Cup Final, where Hearts beat Hibs 5-1, including a feature on 102 year old Hibs fan Sam Martinez, who says he hopes to see Hibs win the Scottish Cup before he dies, with their drought now at 111 years.

In Northern Ireland, Linfield won their sixth double in seven years, to some apathy from fans, with one fan arguing that history will be a lot kinder to David Jeffrey in the future than it is now.

To cover the full length of the UK, we then move to Wales, where Cardiff City fans are upset at an attempt to rebrand the club, including a change of colours by Vincent Tan.

At Aston Villa, there is an article on the future of manager Alex McLeish, whose time was believed to up when he celebrated a draw at home to Stoke.

Match Of The Month is the Championship Play-Off Final between Blackpool and West Ham, two clubs aiming to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

There is also review of the season in all three divisions of the Football League.

On the continent, Serbia’s Cup Final was held outside Belgrade and ended up in a riot, while Auxerre have been relegated from France’s top flight.

LINFIELD 5-1 CLIFTONVILLE 23.4.2019

Linfield should ask to play Cliftonville at home on 23rd April every year. This decade has already brought wins in 2011 and 2016, and 2019 brought another three points, in the most spectacular fashion of those three wins.

Linfield went into this game on the back of a 4-0 defeat against Glenavon, which though didn’t ruin the mood during the trophy presentation, it was unwelcome.

Linfield made changes from that game, reverting to close to the eleven that saw them through the final weeks to secure the title, the only two of note that were missing were Gareth Deane and Andrew Waterworth, with Conor Mitchell coming in for a League debut, while Michael O’Connor came in for a start, while Stephen Fallon and Kirk Millar came in for Andrew Mitchell and Joel Cooper.

Cliftonville’s interest in trophies ended in January, which resulted in Barry Gray being replaced as manager by Paddy McLaughlin.

McLaughlin’s start looks decent, with seven wins out of ten matches. I could be cynical that four of those wins came against bottom six teams, plus it is really hard to assess wins against Coleraine and Crusaders, who are seeing out the League season.

They did beat Glenavon, which is something that Linfield haven’t done in their last three matches though.

Whatever your take on Cliftonville’s form, they had momentum, which is handy as they aim to get ready for the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.

Even though the result wouldn’t affect either team’s position, they both had reasons for winning. If Linfield avoided defeat, if would be the first season since 2011-2012 that they didn’t lose at home to Cliftonville. Cliftonville wins at Windsor Park have been far too common in recent years.

Another one, would represent a change in fortune against Linfield this season for Paddy McLaughlin. His previous three games as manager of Institute have seen 0-3, 0-5 and 1-4 defeats.

It felt like a County Antrim Shield game, such was the sparseness of the crowd. I even helped myself to a padded seat in the second-half. If I hadn’t seen such riches ………

It wasn’t that surprising, with the trophy presentation already taking place.

The protocol was that it should have taken place after this game, but having it against Glenavon was the right choice, though I think TV might have had a say (No complaints there) as a Saturday afternoon made it easier for families to attend, and people would have longer to enjoy the celebrations in an afternoon than an evening.

I was a bit surprised when the split games were announced that Games 37 and 38 weren’t switched, so that both Linfield and Ballymena United would be at home on the final game on a Saturday, to make it easier to present it to whoever wins it.

The early minutes of the game saw a lot of Linfield pressure, which was rewarded when a cross from Jordan Stewart was headed back by Michael O’Connor, who was in too wide a position to score, to set up Daniel Kearns to put the ball into an almost empty net.

There may be a dispute (I think it was officially awarded in Joel Cooper’s favour) about a goal against Dungannon Swifts in September, so this was officially his first goal at Windsor Park, as a Linfield player.

Linfield continued to dominate but needed a second goal, especially when Cliftonville had a few shots on goal.

That second goal came from a Jordan Stewart cross where a Cliftonville defender seemed to leave the ball when he should have headed it away, while another stood there to let Michael O’Connor get in front of him to finish.

Soon after, a second for O’Connor and a third for Linfield when he got in behind one defender, flicked the ball past another, made himself a cup of tea, did The Times crossword and then waited for his laptop to update before finishing to make it 3-0.

A game that Linfield fans might have been worried about pre kick-off was now won just before half-time.

If there was any small amount doubt, that was eroded minutes into the second-half when Jordan Stewart dispossessed a Cliftonville defencer, ran circles around the others, before firing home.

It was a good job that he did score, Cliftonville’s defence was so focused on Stewart, they left Michael O’Connor unmarked throughout the whole move, a simple pass would have brought a certain hat-trick.

Cliftonville claimed for an offside against Daniel Kearns, it didn’t hit him. The North Stand chanted “Cheat cheat cheat”, because Cliftonville were on the verge of a comeback to win the game 4-3.

Cliftonville players started to lose their discipline. What was a relatively uneventful game was now a yellow card fest.

A 4-0 lead allowed Linfield the opportunity to make some changes. There were a few youngsters on the bench for this game, Caomhin McGuinness (First League appearance) came on for Mark Stafford, Trai Hume came on for Chris Casement, while Daniel Reynolds, who scored for Cliftonville against Linfield on the final day of last season, came on for Michael O’Connor.

Cliftonville pulled a goal back when Conor McMenamin poked home a Ryan Curran shot. They almost made it 4-2, like the score in November at Windsor Park, when a long range effort from Chris Curran hit the bar.

There was a danger that the scoreline was almost going to be respectable for Cliftonville.

In the final minutes, Kirk Millar gave the scoreline a realistic reflection of the game, finishing after being played through by Jordan Stewart to make it 5-1.

It would be the last goal scored by a Linfield player at Windsor Park this season, and a good way to sign off for the home season. Certainly a better outcome than the previous home game.

With the trophy presentation having already taken place, Linfield players stayed on the pitch for not quite a lap of honour, but an opportunity for fans to show appreciation to the players for their efforts this season.

For me, it would be my last Linfield match of the season, i’ll be giving the trip to Coleraine on the last day a miss. If it’s still on, I write this on Saturday morning and it has been pissing down constantly since I’ve got up.

Glentoran v Institute has just passed a pitch inspection as I write, so a potential fall-out from a postponement was avoided.

Elsewhere, there should be a battle on the last day between Glenavon and Crusaders for 3rd place and automatic entry to the UEFA Cup, but unfortunately the Irish League doesn’t believe in meritocracy, and instead has a Play-Off for the last League place, a reward for mediocrity.

No offence to Glentoran, Institute, Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town, who were all in contention for 7th, but it is an absolute mockery if a team can be in the bottom half all season and qualify for Europe by winning two matches.

My attitude to this has been consistent since it was introduced in 2016, it’s not because Linfield missed out last year. Thankfully, Linfield won’t have to worry about this charade.

You heard it here first, Crusaders will lose the Irish Cup Final because they’ve taken their eye off the ball for five League matches.

One of Newry City and Ards will go down automatically, while the other will face Carrick Rangers or Portadown in a Play-Off. I’ve no preference regarding who goes down, stays up or goes up.

In terms of ins and outs at Linfield, that will probably be dictated by injuries and loans. If Roy Carroll will miss the start of next season, we’ll need a back-up to Gareth Deane. Alex Moore is capable of the role, but he could benefit from another loan, so if we can get a back-up for Deane, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore went out on loan again.

Mark Haughey missed the entire season through injury, so that situation will need to be monitored if we need another defender to come in.

I was pleasantly surprised that Mark Stafford signed a new contract as I thought he might have wanted to leave due to a lack of games. That means he won’t have to be replaced.

If Kyle McClean’s loan isn’t made permanent, we’ll need a replacement there.

I’d expect Marek Cervenka to return to his parent club at the end of his loan.

I’d expect to see Cameron Stewart to leave at the end of the season. It’s hard to see him getting many games. He’d be a handy option off the bench, but it’s probably best for both parties to part ways. We’d need another forward in that case, mainly as a third striker, as back-up to Andrew Waterworth and Michael O’Connor.

In terms of loans out, i’d expect to see Caomhin McGuinness, Ryan Strain, Daniel Reynolds and Brandon Doyle getting loaned out.

Pre-season wishlist, all away, ideally to grounds I’ve never been to or haven’t been to for a while, so any of – Moyola Park, QUB, Sirocco Works or East Belfast.

I wouldn’t mind one last trip to Tillysburn Park before Harland and Wolff Welders move to a new ground in 2020.

Would hoping for Stanraer or Ayr United away be too ambitious?

I’m heading to Dublin in July, the only confirmed match while i’m there is Bray Wanderers v Limerick, though there may be a UEFA Cup tie for Shamrock Rovers and/or St Patrick’s Athletic while i’m there, while i’m keeping an eye out if any English clubs announce friendlies.

Off to Old Trafford in a few weeks for Manchester Untied v Cardiff City. Now, I enjoyed making a weekend of it when United were in the UEFA Cup in 2016-2017, but it’s not something I want to repeat.

If Watford win the FA Cup, the 6th place team in the Premier League enters the UEFA Cup in July, so i’m already trying to get a ticket for Ballinamallard United v Manchester United on Thursday 25th July 2019.

2019-2020 will hopefully end for me in July in London. I’ll be making the most of being off for the July holidays by planning to go to London. I’ll chance getting a ticket for the European Championship Final, but i’ll hope to take in a Pre-Season Friendly on the Saturday before I head to Brighton for a few days. That’s the plan.

If I do go anywhere in the Summer of 2020, hopefully it will be after witnessing Linfield win the League for the second successive season.

Photo Album

LINFIELD 0-4 GLENAVON 20.4.2019

Let’s not mention the score.

After 35 matches trying to win the League, Linfield had done just that, and now came the presentation.

Glenavon had the greater need, chasing every point as they aim to overtake Ballymena United into 2nd place and automatic qualification for next season’s UEFA Cup.

With the title won, David Healy took the opportunity to give games to players who haven’t featured regularly all season, or in recent weeks, such as Mark Stafford, Kyle McClean, Stephen Fallon, Kirk Millar and Marek Cervenka.

In the early minutes, Linfield had a lot of pressure on Glenavon’s goal, with Stephen Fallon having a shot go wide while Ryan McGivern had a header go just wide.

However, it was Glenavon who took the lead with a long range shot from Robert Garrett, the second time he had scored a spectacular goal at Windsor Park as an opposition player, having done so for Portadown in September 2016.

Curiously, Garrett has played enough games for Linfield to get a title medal, though he wasn’t involved in the post-match festivities.

He left in January in search of games, a bitter irony is if he stayed he would have got them due to injuries presenting an opportunity, which was taken by Kyle McClean.

It wasn’t that surprising that he was allowed to leave, it was more surprising that it was permanent rather than on loan, as a loan would have stopped him playing against us, but freed him to play against Crusaders and Ballymena United.

Garrett didn’t play when Glenavon faced Linfield in March, and his goal in this game wouldn’t be costly for Linfield in terms of the title race.

However, Linfield didn’t want to lose on their big day, and set about finding an equaliser.

Kirk Millar had a shot go just wide while Marek Cervenka fired over from close range.

It felt like it was only a matter of time before Linfield equalised, so naturally, Glenavon made it 2-0 when Conor McCloskey fired home.

The scoreline was harsh on Linfield, but the truth was, Glenavon were more ruthless with their finishing.

Josh Daniels then hit the bar as Glenavon looked to go in at half-time 3-0 up.

Despite being 2-0 down, Linfield hadn’t played that bad.

However, they needed to step it up if they were to produce a Champion comeback.

It didn’t come. Glenavon went 3-0 up around the hour when Eoin Wearen waltzed through Linfield’s defence to fire home.

Michael O’Connor had only just come on for Marek Cervenka, a welcome return to action for him, David Healy responded by bringing on Jamie Mulgrew and Jordan Stewart for Kyle McCelan and Joel Cooper.

The game was already over, the substitutions didn’t inspire a comeback. Glenavon made it 4-0 when Rhys Marshall smashed home from close range.

A day to forget for Linfield. Having made positive records all season, this was a negative record breaker, as this was Linfield’s biggest League defeat since 2009, and worst home League defeat since 1995

It was now time for the presentation.

For a change, and a good change, it was close to the touchline at the South Stand end of the ground, which was an improvement on previous presentations which have taken place on the halfway line with the photos showing the players in front of an empty North Stand.

Everybody got a chance to see the trophy, and fans got to get their photos and selfies, etc, if you’re that way inclined.

This week, saw the finalisation of an Irish Champions League style competition, with Linfield taking on the 2019 League Of Ireland Champions, most likely Shamrock Rovers or Bohemians in November.

I was hoping it would be Waterford, so I could revisit the city like I did in November 2018.

It’s looking like Waterford won’t be given a licence to play in next season’s UEFA Cup, and their place will be taken by St Patrick’s Athletic, which is handy as i’ll be in Dublin on Thursday 11th July, so would hope to take in their tie if they are at home.

Linfield, of course, will be in the European Cup. If you’re into forward planning, the Final will be in the Ataturk Stadium on Saturday 30th May 2020.

Elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Crusaders 2-0. You may be interested to know that Crusaders have lost as many games this season as Linfield did last season,

You have heard it here first, that Crusaders chopping and changing their team for the final five matches of the season will spectacularly bite them on the arse on 4th May.

Ballymena beat Coleraine, meaning the race for 2nd is between them and Glenavon.

Up next for Linfield, is a home match against Cliftonville.

Let’s make it through a season without losing at home to Cliftonville, for the first time since 2011-2012, and not have a great season end in a sloppy manner.

Overall, today was a good day, from 5pm onwards. 3pm to 5pm was a bit forgettable.

Photo Album

2017 Title Celebrations

2012 Title Celebrations

LINFIELD 0-0 CRUSADERS 13.4.2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This 0-0 draw sealed the deal.

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

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

Here’s some stats for you:

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

Deserving Champions

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