Football has a strange way of repeating itself. In 2015, Linfield arrived at Seaview with a perfect record (six wins out of six) and a lead over Crusaders, knowing that a win would open up a gap between them at the top of the League.
In 2017, the same thing happened, although this time, it was five wins out of five for Linfield.
In 2015, Linfield lost that day. They recovered quite well after that, winning their next two matches, scoring nine goals in the process, but it was one of three defeats to Crusaders that cost them the title.
The following season, roles were reversed, with Linfield won the head to heads and the title.
Recent form suggests that whoever wins the head to heads between these two wins the title. However, this season, there’s a third party wanting to muscle in on the title race, with Coleraine looking down on everybody after winning all six of their opening games.
It wasn’t about getting an advantage over the other, Crusaders wanted to keep in touch with Coleraine while Linfield wanted to draw level with them. Linfield knew that a win would open up a six point lead over Crusaders, even at this early stage.
If things had worked out differently over the Summer, Linfield could have been lining up against PSG instead.
There was a change in personnel and formation for Linfield with 451 becoming 442 but not completely more attacking, as Jordan Stewart was sacrificed for Matthew Clarke, while Louis Rooney came in for Kirk Millar.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in Irish League football that players are immune from getting booked in the first fifteen minutes, a rule that Crusaders players were willing to exploit with a series of cynical and tactical fouls with the only cost being a free-kick.
It was no coincidence that the first yellow card came after sixteen minutes, when Louis Rooney was dragged down as he went down the right wing.
Jordan Forsythe and Aaron Burns both fired over in the early minutes as they looked to score spectacularly, an overhead kick and a chip respectively.
Despite the more defensive nature of the starting eleven, Andrew Mitchell and Jamie Mulgrew were making Linfield tick, running at Crusaders defence, both of whom fired wide as Linfield looked to get the breakthrough.
On 25 minutes, Crusaders took the lead when Jordan Forsythe fired home.
On 32 minutes, Crusaders made it 2-0 when a header upfield allowed Paul Heatley to fire home from outside the box.
As good as the finish was, it was a poor goal to concede, route one assist.
Linfield fans were hoping for half-time as Crusaders looked to make it 3-0, with Jordan Owens and Rodney Brown both having chances to do just that.
It was a big half-time talk in the away dressing room but all hope wasn’t lost. You never write off Linfield when they attack their fans. An early goal, and it was game on.
Getting that early goal, as each minute passed, a Linfield comeback was looking less likely.
They were helped by the fact that Crusaders were stepping back, happy to hold what they had.
Linfield’s search for a goal saw Kirk Millar and Brandon Adams introduced from the bench. The most obvious introduction, Jordan Stewart, was made to wait.
With twenty minutes to go, Paul “Not that kind of player” Heatley went in recklessly on Aaron Burns on the halfway line. He knew what he was doing, and he wasn’t going for the ball. The referee bottled it and only showed a yellow card. That’s twice in successive seasons referees have let him away with it.
Within minutes, Linfield pulled a goal back when Aaron Burns crossed for Mark Stafford to put the ball into the empty net.
If there was any justice, Linfield’s search for an equaliser would have been against ten men.
For all there pressure, Linfield couldn’t get an equaliser, as Crusaders held out for the win.
It was a silly spell midway through the second-half that did it, Linfield gave themselves too much to do.
In truth, the performance wasn’t good enough, just like on Saturday. A wake up call. It’s never too early for one.
A sense of perspective is needed though, it was Linfield’s first domestic defeat in eight months. Not only that, Linfield have three more points this season than they did after six games last season.
The next two games against Ballinamallard and Warrenpoint represent an opportunity to amass six points and keep the pressure on at the top.
We’ll need those points with a run of games against Cliftonville, Coleraine and Crusaders to come, as well as a rearranged game against Glenavon to fit in as well.
Talking of rearranged games, the League Cup match against Ballinamallard has been brought forward a week. No idea why, and the away match against Ballymena has been brought forward to the Friday night.
It’ll be some fun if Northern Ireland’s World Cup Play-Off (providing the next two matchdays don’t go wrong) at home is that night. Expect another rearrangement, although, this is Irish League football, don’t expect logic to be followed.
Anyway, that Ballymena game will be postponed because we’ll be playing in the Quarter-Final of the Scottish Challenge Cup. Got to be optimistic.
Up next, Ballinmallard, the first of two meetings in two and a half weeks. The second game, away from home, will be sandwiched inbetween away games against Cliftonville and Dundee United.
It says something that the trip to Cliftonville will be the hardest to get to of those three.