NORTHERN IRELAND 0-0 HOLLAND 16.11.2019

We were 15 minutes away from a 30 foot statue of Josh Magennis being erected in Bangor Marina. It could still happen, but it won’t be in 2019.

Northern Ireland had hoped this Dutch Double Header would become a virtual play-off for 2nd place, though Holland’s win in Germany in early September put a spanner in the works.

As Northern Ireland led 1-0, things were looking interesting, but three late Dutch goals deflated our bubble.

Those two goals in injury time for Holland meant that they not only had three points, but that if Northern Ireland won the return match at Windsor Park, they would have to do so by a score of 2-0, or a three goal margin in order to win the head to heads should the sides finish level on points.

Since then, Michael O’Neill has left his job as Northern Ireland Manager. Well, sort of. He’s going, but not yet.

I was surprised that he chose Stoke, considering their League position and the general downward spiral since relegation from the Premier League in 2018.

However, he would have seen the impact that The Cowleys had at Huddersfield Town, a club in a similar situation, and felt he could do likewise.

There’s no ideal time for a Manager to leave, if they are lucky to leave a job on their own terms.

It is a credit to O’Neill and the IFA that a deal has been done to minimise disruption, as he will continue as Northern Ireland Manager until their Euro 2020 campaign is over.

This could have been his last game as Manager at Windsor Park, it might not be.

We know that Michael O’Neill will be leaving as Northern Ireland Manager, but we don’t know when his last game will be.

Between you and me, I think it might be at Wembley on Sunday 12th July 2020.

To give you a barometer of Northern Ireland’s progress under O’Neill, it was Holland who they faced in his second match in charge, a friendly in Amsterdam as Northern Ireland were cannon fodder in Holland’s farewell party ahead of Euro 2012.

Now they faced them as genuine rivals, having outperformed them in the previous two campaigns.

Holland fans marched to Windsor Park behind an orange party bus playing bad techno music. As I walked to the ground, I saw the bus parked in a street just off Tate’s Avenue. It had the logo of the tournaments it had travelled to, though it hadn’t been updated since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A point at Windsor Park would see them able to add Euro 2020 to the list, and they’d be playing their group matches in Amsterdam.

I’m not sure how it was calculated, but results elsewhere meant that Northern Ireland had already secured a Play-Off spot, though a 3rd place finish should have been enough if the UEFA Nonsense League didn’t exist.

We almost got a dramatic start when Corry Evans charged down a clearance from Holland’s keeper, but was unable to put the ball into the net when he got on the end of it.

Josh Magennis then headed just wide as Northern Ireland chased an early goal.

Holland also had their moments, and Northern Ireland were lucky not the go 1-0 down when a period of pinball in the penalty area saw Holland hit the bar just as the ball looked set to loop in.

Midway through the first-half, Northern Ireland got a penalty for handball. On TV replay, it did look a bit harsh.

Thankfully, Joel Cooper wasn’t taking it, but Steven Davis, Mr Reliable.

Davis stepped up and secured three points. Well, three points at Mount Merrion Avenue rather than Donegall Avenue, as his shot was between the posts but well over the bar.

Yet again in this campaign, Northern Ireland were left to rue a glorious chance gone missing. Ironically, when they needed a goal in Estonia, they got one deflected in when the ball hit Josh Magennis in his Willie John McBride.

The rest of the game drifted towards a 0-0 draw, which suited Holland, as a point would be enough for them to qualify.

The game did finish 0-0, my first 0-0 draw attended this season, and it was enough for Holland, alongside Germany who qualified as a result of this draw.

For stat fans, it also meant that Holland joined England, Scotland, Republic of Ireland and Germany in securing qualification for a tournament at Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland were made to wait on other results to see who their Play-Off opponents are. At the time of writing, it looks like Bosnia away. They finished 4th in a poor group, so we shouldn’t be fearing them.

Plus, we more than matched them in the two UEFA Nations League games.

I’m beginning to think it was a tactical masterstroke to lose twice to them, as we’ll be due a win against them.

Whilst this is taking place, the search for a new Manager will be ongoing. I’m obviously not privy to who has applied for it, but unless a major name (might as well joke about it being Pochettino) applies for it, I would expect it to be Stephen Robinson or Ian Baraclough.

Hopefully, whoever it is, will be taking over a team who have just qualified for the European Championship.

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Holland v Northern Ireland 2012

LINFIELD 7-0 WARRENPOINT TOWN 22.10.2019

This was a match that Linfield had to wait two months to play, and it turned out to be worth the wait.

The postponement would have been a source of frustration for those who turn up at the match in their Stiff Little Fingers t-shirt before heading to the Aul Boys Punk Bank Holiday Weekender.

Originally scheduled for August, this match was postponed due to Linfield’s involvement in European competition. As a result of their inactivity, Linfield have been playing catch-up since August.

With each win, they’ve gradually got closer to the top. If they could win this, the first of three games in hand, they would get within two points of the top of the table, and still have two games in hand.

Mark Stafford and Kirk Millar made Birthday Goals quite trendy in August, so the postponement was frustrating for Daniel Kearns, whose birthday was two days after the original date.

He continued to miss out through injury, but this match represented a first League start for Ross Larkin.

He looked comfortable when he had the ball. It was hard to analyse his defending because he didn’t have any to do, apart from blocking a cross out for a corner.

Just like on Saturday, Linfield attacked The Kop in the first-half, meaning a quick change of seat. I missed the opening seconds of the game, but got in just in time to see Shayne Lavery causing trouble for Warrenpoint’s defence

The pressure continued, Warrenpoint couldn’t get out of their own half.

Even though Linfield have an excellent record against Warrenpoint (Fourteen wins and two draws from sixteen meetings), some of the previous meetings had been dicey.

It was easy to forget that Warrenpoint had drawn two of their previous three visits to Windsor Park. Linfield’s 4-0 win on Warrenpoint’s last visit had some nervy moments at 0-0 and 1-0.

The key was for Linfield to get an early goal, so that Warrenpoint wouldn’t anything to hold on to or defend. There wasn’t long to wait, just 6 minutes in when Stephen Fallon curled home from the edge of the box.

It looked like there were only two players on the pitch as Shayne Lavery had a personal battle with Beerat Turker, with Warrenpoint’s keeper denying Lavery three times.

Lavery was only going to have a frustrating evening for so long, and he eventually got his goal when he finished from a Joel Cooper cross.

A 2-0 lead was key for Linfield. At 1-0, Warrenpoint would have been determined to stay in the game and maybe nick something late on. There was no way they going to score two. Two touched in Linfield’s half was looking ambitious.

Kirk Millar, Ryan McGivern and Matthew Clarke all had efforts denied before Shayne Lavery made it 3-0 on the stroke of half-time after getting in behind Warrenpoint’s defence, beating the keeper to the ball, and then backheeling the ball into the empty net. As you do.

Even I, naturally cautious, knew that the points were in the bag.

The only question, was what would the winning margin be?

This was the third of four midweek games in October, a month that would see them play eight games. It would be understandable if they were to take things easy in the second-half, just as they did against Dungannon Swifts earlier in the month.

Nope, was the answer. Within a few minutes, Shayne Lavery cut in from the left and fired home to complete his hat-trick, a bit longer than it took to complete against Glenavon earlier in the season.

You knew it was going in as soon as he set himself up to shoot.

His frustration from earlier in the evening was now gone, although he was probably rueing the double hat-trick that got away.

Job done for the night, Lavery and Jamie Mulgrew were able to put their feet up, with Matthew Shevlin and Jordan Stewart coming on for some much needed minutes.

It was then 5-0 when Joel Cooper headed home, and then 6-0 from Cooper again. Now he wanted a hat-trick.

There was still time for some more saves from Beerat Turket, with Matthew Shevlin being the man frustrated.

By this stage, Trai Hume was now brought on as a substitute for Ross Larkin, who had a slight injury.

It was definitely ok to bring Hume on, there would be no objections from the County Antrim FA.

Just before the end, Cooper made it 7-0 to complete his hat-trick. It was the first time i’d ever been to a match where two players scored a hat-trick, and both of them stayed on the pitch after the final whistle for the obligatory photo holding a matchball in one hand holding three fingers with the other.

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LINFIELD 2-1 BALLYMENA UNITED 19.10.2019

When Linfield fell ten points behind Crusaders at the top of the table at the start of the month, the idea that they could be two points behind them two and a half weeks later seemed far fetched, but that is how Linfield could be kicking off next Saturday.

This season has swung from one extreme to the other for Linfield, and today was no different. What looked like being a routine afternoon’s work suddenly became nervous as 5pm approached.

The team news was a mixed bag for Linfield. Niall Quinn was missing, but Bastien Hery was back from injury and Shayne Lavery back after international duty, and there was a place on the bench for Jordan Stewart after injury.

Quinn’s injury meant that Ryan McGivern came in, with Linfield going three at the back just as they did in the League meeting in February.

Though Linfield won that day, the formation didn’t really work.

There was a dramatic shock early on, but it was Linfield’s fans who got caught out, rather than their players.

In the last few years, Linfield usually attack The Kop in the first-half, but today, they were attacking the Railway Stand.

Those of us who like to sit where the team is attacking had to make a quick dash to the other end of the South Stand.

I was one of those, and missed the opening minute, and arrived just in time to see Shayne Lavery hassling a defender and dispossessing him in order to create an opportunity. It was as if he’d never been away.

Linfield had a lot of early pressure, but the closest they came to scoring was a Kirk Millar effort that went wide.

Ballymena rode out that pressure but the best that they could offer was a Leroy Millar shot that hit the top of the crossbar. I was at the other end and it looked closer than it actually was.

After a lull, Linfield got back on top, and took the lead when Joel Cooper created space for himself on the right and fired home with his left foot. That meant he had scored both times he had faced Ballymena at Windsor Park, having scored the winner at Windsor Park last September.

A lot of Linfield’s attacking play was coming from the right hand side, with Cooper and Hery having a lot of joy specifically. Every time they got the ball, there would usually be a Ballymena defender (or defenders, in a lot of cases) bamboozled as to how he got away from them.

As half-time approached, Kirk Millar found himself free on the right hand side. He only had one person to find, Joel Cooper, but he found him, a chest touch from Cooper giving him enough space to fire home and make it 2-0.

Not much happened in the second-half. The only moment of note in the early stages was a Joel Cooper shot that was blocked as he chased his hat-trick.

Cooper didn’t get the full 90 minutes to get a hat-trick as he limped off after a series of robust challenges. At 2-0 up, there was no need to take risks, especially with midweek games over the next two weeks.

The good news, was a return to action from the bench after two months out for Jordan Stewart. He looked like he was going to put Linfield 3-0 up when a clearance landed perfectly for him, only for a Ballymena defender to get in the road and block the shot.

Before that, Andrew Burns hit the side netting after a free-kick was punched away. However, a crowd of Linfield players blocking his sight at goal, it was the only place he could put it.

Linfield responded with Matthew Clarke bursting through Ballymena’s defence, only to shoot over. Clarke was having an enjoyable afternoon playing a lot more forward than he usually does.

Linfield needed a third goal just to be sure, despite Ballymena not offering much of an attacking threat.

For the final minutes, Andrew Waterworth and Charlie Allen came on from the bench.

As injury time approached, the game took a sudden swing when Jimmy Callacher diverted a cross goalwards, his momentum forcing the ball through Rohan Ferguson.

It was a goal that came out of nowhere. Looking at the footage, if Callacher doesn’t go for it, a Ballymena player scores anyway.

Even though Ballymena had a lot of the ball in injury time, they never looked like getting an undeserved equaliser, as Linfield held out for the win.

There would be an injury time goal in Belfast that affected the top of the table, thankfully not at Windsor Park.

Coleraine’s 2-0 win over Crusaders put them top of the table on goal difference.

On Radio Ulster, Liam Beckett said a Coleraine win would have been a perfect result for Linfield.

To be honest, a draw would have been perfect, but a win for either side could have had a spin put on it by Linfield fans, as long as their side did the business, which they did.

The table is now starting to take shape, as the second round of fixtures have kicked off.

The bottom three are who you expect them to be, while Glenavon are stuck in a no man’s land due to their games in hand. If they lose them, they’ll officially be in a relegation fight.

Ballymena United, Larne and Dungannon Swifts are battling it out for 6th. I know I wrote Ballymena United out of the title race after defeat at Windsor Park in September last year and looked very stupid a few months later, I think it is safe to do so this time around.

Despite only getting one point from four games against teams above them, somehow, Glentoran are only six points off the top. I would expect that gap to increase by the time we get to Matchday 22.

Despite only one point from three games against the Top 4, Cliftonville are only one point off the top. Like with Glentoran, I would expect that gap to increase by the time we get to Matchday 22.

Crusaders are there for the taking and have hit a brick wall. That makes the defeat to them even worse. Out of them and Coleraine, Linfield should be more than concerned about Coleraine,

On Tuesday night, Linfield are at home to Warrenpoint in the first of their three rearranged games from late Summer.

If Linfield can win that (they should, even though Warrenpoint have drawn two of their last three visits), they will be only two points off the top with two games in hand.

It will be a huge psychological blow to strike, as for the first time since the opening weeks, Linfield will be in touching distance of the top, and Crusaders, Coleraine and Cliftonville will start having to worry about us.

That would set things up nicely for next Saturday’s trip to Coleraine. Six points over the next week would send out a message to the rest of the League, especially with the next two League matches coming against two of the bottom three.

With one game in hand set to be played, another will have to be rearranged due to the Unite The Union Cup.

That means the home match against Dungannon will have to be postponed.

To be honest, the matches against Dundalk feel like an unnecessary distraction.

I’ve not sure if there is a TV deal for it, but I thought such a fixture would have been played in May, at the end of the Irish League season, which would be more attractive for broadcasters.

Unfortunately for me, i’ll miss the game at Windsor Park on the Friday night as i’ll be flying back from Manchester. Hope it finishes 0-0, with Linfield winning at Oriel Park obviously.

I’ve never been to Oriel Park, but i’ll wait on the arrangements before I decide if I go.

Talking of United matches, the game against Burnley i’m going to has been confirmed for Wednesday night at 8.15pm. It means I won’t have a day trip with a free Wednesday as I did earlier this year.

Thankfully, it wasn’t moved to Thursday night like Wolves v Liverpool, as I would have missed out altogether. I’ll keep an eye out for a game in Greater Manchester on the Tuesday.

The next Football Trip for me is Coleraine away next Saturday, i’ll be getting the train. How very exciting.

Linfield will be hoping to reach their destination at the top of the table. They’ll need other results to go their way to get their on Saturday, but hopefully, they’ll be on track.

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LINFIELD 7-0 GLENAVON 28.9.2019

With three matches postponed due to European involvement and international call-ups, Linfield’s season got off to a false start, hoping that a run of wins in September would kickstart their season.

Glenavon would say that their season also got off to a false start and were hoping that a run of September wind would kickstart their season.

Their circumstances were different to Linfield’s, as it was a series of dropped points and one postponement due to the Scottish Challenge Cup (Ironically, because Linfield declined to take part) have seen them be closer to the Relegation Zone than the top of the League, which is why they were looking for a (late) September run of form to kickstart their season.

They got one of those wins as a starting point, last Saturday against Ballymena United. A bit of a shock to this Observer, as I had expected Ballymena to leave Mourneview Park with three points.

Linfield had two changes to their starting eleven from their last outing, with Jamie Mulgrew coming in for Andrew Waterworth as Linfield reverted to a 4-3-3/4-5-1.

That meant Ryan McGivern dropped to the bench to make way for Matthew Clarke, with Niall Quinn moving to right-back.

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about that as i’m not a fan of playing left footed players at Right-Back, Andrew Mitchell would have been a better option to slot in there instead of Clarke.

As it turned out, Glenavon barely got a chance to attack Quinn. Anyway, he will argue that he’s not too bad on his right, having used it to open the score at Carrick on Monday night.

Linfield’s first two games upon return from Europe were 1-0 wins. We wanted more goals. Be careful what you wish for, we got five at Ballinamallard, but at the cost of four goals conceded at the other end. Linfield fans were waiting for their side to get the balance just perfect.

Linfield were straight on the attack and were rewarded on three minutes when Shayne Lavery poked home from twelve yards after a cross from Joel Cooper.

There was an element of luck to the goal as the ball came to Cooper after his pass to Matthew Clarke was intercepted. From where I was sat, it looked like Clarke was offside, but the ball never got to him. Cooper made the most of his second chance.

It was Linfield’s first goal against Glenavon at Windsor Park since Andrew Waterworth scored a pointless consolation goal with the last kick of a 3-2 defeat in January 2018. Curiously, Linfield went 1-0 up after 3 minutes that day.

If Glenavon thought Linfield were going to take it easy, they were wrong, Shayne Lavery letting Glenavon defenders know they were in for a torrid afternoon by charging down a clearance, but not getting the luck his tenacity deserved as the ball went out for a goal kick.

Soon after, Niall Quinn went just wide with his right foot, trying to recreate his goal against Carrick.

It was clear from the opening minutes that Linfield were up for this, Bastien Hery running things in midfield, every time he got the ball, he was spoilt for choice for attacking options. They just needed a second goal to truly take advantage of their superiority.

They almost got it when Joel Cooper had a header saved by Jonathan Tuffey, and then hit the woodwork with the rebound.

There wasn’t long to wait for Linfield, as Bastien Hery played Kirk Millar in, who waited for Shayne Lavery to amend his run to be on the end of a cross. Lavery’s shot was scuffed, but it went in. If you make the run and aim for goal, you make your own luck.

Hery then got an inadvertent assist when his shot was blocked, but fell perfectly to Shayne Lavery to finish to make it 3-0, a hat-trick inside the opening 14 minutes, just like Andrew Waterworth against Cliftonville in 2017. Any excuse to bring up that match.

Lavery and Hery will get all the headlines from this game, but the contribution of Millar and Cooper shouldn’t go unnoticed. Everytime Hery, Fallon or Mulgrew got the ball, Millar and Cooper were usually in space, looking for the ball. When they got it, they were rarely wasteful with it.

Lavery then had a spectacular effort go just wide as Linfield looked to make it 4-0.

In the interest of balance, it should be noted that Glenavon did have an attempt on goal, Andrew Mitchell having a shot saved from a wide angle.

A big save, as there still would have been time for a Glenavon comeback at 3-1, you don’t want to give the opposition any encouragement.

That was it as far as Glenavon were concerned as an attacking threat.

The next goal came for Linfield, when Bastien Hery fired home from the edge of the box with his right foot after a pass from Matthew Clarke. Throughout the attack, it always looked like Linfield had an extra man available for a pass.

Just before that, Stephen Fallon had a shot well saved, in a game where he had a silent influence.

Every time a Glenavon player had the ball, their second touch was …… they didn’t get a second touch as they were dispossessed by Fallon.

Jack O’Mahony had a shot tipped over as Glenavon looked to launch an unlikely comeback. It was never going to happen.

Joel Cooper made it 5-0 just afterwards just to be sure. Yep, i’m being that guy.

It wouldn’t be a Linfield goalfest without Jimmy Callacher getting involved, and he obliged to make it 6-0, his first goal at Windsor Park since Boxing Day, after Glenavon couldn’t clear the ball after a Shayne Lavery header was cleared off the line.

Just like the other goals, there were always options for Linfield when the ball came into the box.

If Callacher missed the header, Kirk Millar would have scored. If he hit the post, Mark Stafford would have scored the rebound.

With the points in the bag, David Healy rested some players, bringing on Andrew Waterworth, Daniel Reynolds and Matthew Shevlin.

Stephen Fallon hit the bar before Andrew Waterworth made it 7-0, heading home from a Kirk Millar cross.

Again, there were more attacking options for Linfield. If Waterworth didn’t get the header, Matthew Shevlin would have scored.

The referee took mercy on Glenavon by only playing five seconds of injury time.

Results elsewhere mean that Linfield have now moved up to 4th.

It was always going to take a while to climb the table, but with teams above us playing each other over coming weeks, Linfield knew if they kept winning, ground would be made up.

When Linfield face Cliftonville, they knew they would end the day no higher than 9th even if they won. Each matchday, Linfield have climbed, 9th to 8th to 5th to 4th.

If results go their way next weekend, they could be 2nd. They’ll be at least 3rd if they get three points on Friday night.

That match, is away to Crusaders, live on BBC Two. It’s a match that has 0-0 written all over it to be honest, after both teams went goal crazy on Saturday.

The difference is, Crusaders aren’t keeping them out at the other end, conceding eight goals in their last three League matches, against Glenavon, Coleraine and Glentoran.

Linfield can exploit that. There is nothing to feat. Let them worry about us, and we have a lot that will worry them.

A curious fact about this game, was that I saw a cat loitering at the South Stand entrance as I entered the ground. The only time I’ve seen a cat at a Linfield match was when one ran onto the pitch during the game at Warrenpoint last season.

I’ve not suggesting there’s a correlation between cats in the ground and heavy wins, but feel free to bring a cat to Seaview to test the theory out.

As an addendum to the Carrick blog, I’ve actually read up on the European Conference League. It sounds shit to be honest.

Talking of shit competitions, the UEFA Nations League has been restructured, meaning Northern Ireland are in League B instead of League C. It’s still a reward for mediocrity.

Onto Seaview, for a game that won’t make or break Linfield’s season, but it will be nice to issue a statement of intent early on.

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LINFIELD 1-0 GLENTORAN 14.9.2019

Linfield warmed up for their opening UEFA Cup group match with a ………… ah, if only.

It’s now a case of back to reality and domestic action, and it’s been a satisfactory first week back, with three points away to Cliftonville, and a County Antrim Shield win over East Belfast.

That win over East Belfast especially pleasing, as some players who aren’t regular starters got game time, and some players got debuts.

Matthew Shevlin got a first start and goal, and Andrew Waterworth got a goal as well, and kept his place in the starting eleven, with nobody have to make way for Shayne Lavery, as an injury to Daniel Kearns enabled him to go back into the eleven.

Injuries to Kearns and Jordan Stewart meant that Linfield were a bit light when it came to attacking midfield options from the bench. Those injuries presented an opportunity for Daniel Reynolds, another goalscorer from the midweek Shield match.

It was Linfield who had the better of the opening minutes, with Shayne Lavery flicking wide from a Joel Cooper cross.

Lavery was then played in but looked too wide to score. His cross/shot flashed across the Glentoran six yard box, Kirk Millar unable to keep up with his run and get on the end of it.

There was no doubt that Linfield were up for this game, but they couldn’t get an early goal.

Although, early goals have never been a good thing for Linfield in this fixture in recent year, it still would have been welcomed.

Having ridden out that spell of Linfield pressure, Glentoran were able to spend some time in Linfield’s half, in front of the biggest exodus from East Belfast to South Belfast outside of Boxing Day for a while.

There weren’t any moments of worry for Linfield. I say that, but any time Glentoran have the ball in Linfield’s half, even if they are well away from goal, I naturally become nervous. It’s just the way I am.

After a strong start, the afternoon didn’t really happen for Joel Cooper, not getting much joy when taking on his opposing full-back.

Linfield’s next big chance gave when Bastien Hery headed over from close range. I don’t think he realised that Glentoran keeper Marijan Antolovic was hopelessly out of position.

Antolovic doesn’t need any vaccinations, because he never caught anything, keeping Linfield attacks alive longer than they should have been.

His lack of willingness to catch crosses or hold on to shots always gave Linfield hope that they could force an error out of him.

Glentoran’s shots on goal in the first-half were long range shots from Robbie McDaid and Joe Crowe which looked a lot closer than they were as I was sat at the opposite end.

By this point, Crowe was on a yellow card, having picked up a card for a cynical foul on Shayne Lavery as he raced towards goal.

Linfield’s only other attacking moments of note in the first-half was a long range shot from Andrew Waterworth which went over, as the ball set up, he was fancying a repeat of his goal at The Oval in 2016, and a cross which just evaded Mark Stafford who would have scored if he could get on the end of it.

0-0 at half-time but no need to panic. If Linfield could keep creating chances, surely one would go in. And if they can’t create chances, there was always the possibility that Glentoran’s keeper might gift them one.

As half-time scores filtered through, they were all going Linfield’s way, with Crusaders and Coleraine both drawing their matches. It didn’t matter if other results were going for or against Linfield, they still had to help themselves.

However, if Coleraine and/or Crusaders did fail to win, and Linfield took advantage, they would be finishing the day no higher than 9th, as the full-time whistle was blowing in the 2pm kick-off at The Brandywell, where Larne had just beaten Institute 4-1.

The second-half was very nervous, with neither team creating a clear cut opportunity.

With each passing minute, it was clear how important the first goal was going to be, if there was one. This match was not going to finish 1-1. It would either be 0-0, or somebody would sneak it 1-0.

Despite this, David Healy was reluctant to use any of the options on the bench.

One of those options was Matthew Shevlin, who had a decent cameo off the bench at Solitude the previous week, another was to bring on Matthew Clarke and push Niall Quinn forward.

However, it was Stephen Fallon who came on for Andrew Waterworth, just minutes after Robbie McDaid hit the bar for Glentoran.

On 86 minutes, it was Linfield who got the breakthrough when Bastien Hery instigated a move which saw Mark Stafford play the ball to Kirk Millar in space, not a lot, but enough to set himself up to get a shot at goal, which went in via a deflection.

The celebrations amongst the home fans showed how important a goal it was. Not just in the match, but in the title race, with Linfield having to come back from a ten point deficit and not being able to afford any dropped points.

It was such a big goal, David Healy joined in the celebrations, running faster than he had ever run as a player.

Having spent 86 minutes trying to get in front, it was important now for Linfield to stay in front in what time remained. They did that, Glentoran never having any opportunity to get an equaliser.

Even though Linfield didn’t move up the table or get any closer to the top, it was still a big win, as the draw between Ballymena United and Coleraine, and defeats for Dungannon Swifts and Glentoran mean that Linfield could jump up to 4th if results go their way on the next matchday.

They’ll have to wait two days for any such opportunity, with the trip to Carrick Rangers being selected for live coverage on Sky Sports.

Talking of results going their way, it could have been so much better if Glenavon hadn’t missed a last minute penalty to equalise against Crusaders. We can’t really complain about Glenavon being useless, we’ve benefitted from it plenty of times in the past. Let’s hope they stay useless for the next two weeks.

I dare say, Crusaders are probably more disappointed about Linfield’s late win than Linfield are about Crusaders late escape.

You could pick holes in Crusaders start by pointing out that four of their opening six games have come against the bottom four.

Before Carrick, is a NIFL Cup trip to Ballinamallard for Linfield as a busy period of fixtures get underway.

That run of games might not include any UEFA Cup Group Stage matches, but there’s still enough to keep minds occupied and focused.

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NORTHERN IRELAND 0-2 GERMANY 9.9.2019

You could say that Northern Ireland’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 has been a bit like a video game.

Estonia and Belarus, Level 1, negotiated with maximum points. Now for Level 2, Germany and Holland. It’ll be a bit tougher, but we’ll have four lives to use. If we can get a high enough score, we will progress to Level 3 – Euro 2020.

When you look through the instruction manual, Germany and Holland both have weaknesses – They both came into this campaign on the back of two major failures.

For Holland, it was failing to reach the last two major tournaments, not even reaching the Play-Offs.

Germany’s recent failure is a bit more relative. 2018 was ein annus horribulus for them, with relegation in the UEFA Nations League coming on the back of elimination at the Group Stage at the World Cup in Russia.

A lot of countries can only dream of being that rubbish.

If 2018 was ein annus horribilus for Germany, the early games of 2019 were ein annus bouncenbachken, with three wins out of three going into the September games, including an 8-0 win over Estonia.

That winning run came to an end on the Friday before that with a 4-2 home defeat by Holland, a result that generated as many groans in Belfast as it did in Berlin.

The theory being, with Germany already winning in Holland, it would be better for them to win this game. At worst, it would essentially set up a two legged Play-Off between Northern Ireland and Holland for the other qualifying place.

Northern Ireland prepared for this game with a dull friendly win over Luxembourg. It wasn’t ideal to have a match before this game, but UEFA rules stated they had to play a friendly when they weren’t in group action.

You’ve heard the phrase “Fixture fulfilment” in relation to end of season League matches, Northern Ireland’s match against Luxembourg literally was that. I gave it a miss, though I did enter competitions for a free ticket though.

I can’t help it, I like free things, but I don’t want to join the DUP in order to get them.

Within ten seconds of the kick-off, Germany already had Northern Ireland stretched, a long punt from kick-off causing some concern for Northern Ireland’s defence.

They managed to see it out, managing a better start than they managed the last time Germany visited Windsor Park, and found themselves 1-0 up just over a minute into the game.

In fact, it was Northern Ireland who had the first chance of the game with six minutes on the clock, when a stray German pass played Conor Washington through on goal.

A poor first touch allowed Manuel Neuer to get out and make himself big and block the shot. He should have scored. On an evening when clear opportunities could be rare, you have to take them.

If Northern Ireland had went 1-0 up early on, who knows how the rest of the evening would go.

It was clear early on that Germany’s players were unsettled by the atmosphere, and the fact that Northern Ireland players were first to every loose ball.

It looked the sort of night that could have been perfect for Paul Smyth to come on as an impact sub late on if the game was in the balance, but frustratingly, he was missing through injury.

Germany’s first attacking moment of note saw Craig Cathcart slice over his own crossbar after Jonny Evans lost possession. For a brief moment, there was a worry it was going in. Northern Ireland were able to easily clear the German corner.

Who got to the ball first? Craig Cathcart.

Germany’s next moment of frustration saw a long range shot blocked by George Saville full on right in the face. Ouch.

Right at the end of the half, it looked like Northern Ireland were going to have the lead when Neuer parried a cross to Washington, who couldn’t get his feet into position to put it into the empty net, before a combination of defender and keeper cleared the danger for Germany.

Immediately on the counter, Timo Werner was denied by a point blank save from Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Even though Northern Ireland were holding their own, and could justify their claim to be at least level at half-time, Peacock-Farrell was still having work to do.

Not as much work as Michael McGovern had to do when the sides met at Euro 2016 though.

Unfortunately, it all unravelled within two minutes at the start of the second-half, when Marcel Hastenberg spectacularly fired home to put Germany 1-0 up, undoing all of Northern Ireland’s good work in the first-half.

The goal deflated Northern Ireland, both on the pitch and in the stands.

Michael O’Neill responded by bringing on Gavin Whyte for Niall McGinn. It almost brought it’s reward when he got past a couple of defenders to cross for fellow Crusaders old boy Stuart Dallas, who fired agonisingly wide.

He probably should have passed it to Gary McCutcheon or Timmy Adamson instead.

Michael O’Neill made two further subs as his side looked for an equaliser, bringing on Josh Magennis and Shayne Lavery.

It’s not often that Northern Ireland can bring on one of the top 20 goalscorers in that season’s UEFA Cup from the bench.

The biggest thing that gave Northern Ireland fans hope as the game entered the final minutes was that they had scored late in their previous four games to either clinch or win the game.

Unfortunately, the late goal came for Germany, when Serge Gnabry squeezed home from a tight angle.

Within seconds, the game was over officially, having been over theoretically.

Northern Ireland pushed Germany all the way to the very end, but it’s points they need, not plaudits.

By getting points on the board early on, it meant Northern Ireland set down a challenge to Holland.

Holland responded with a win in Estonia, with Estonia unable to repeat their 2-2 draw against Holland in a World Cup Qualifier in 2013.

Now we are pinning our hopes on Belarus repeating their 1-0 home win over Holland in a European Championship Qualifier in 1995.

Of course, we can help ourselves in the double header against Holland in October and November.

Normally, finishing 3rd would be good enough for a Play-Off, but that is not guaranteed due to the UEFA Nations League.

I have a horrible feeling we are going to be royally screwed over by this nonsense. Yet, there are idiots in our support who told us it would help us qualify.

In order to avoid this, we need lots of countries in Pot 1 and Pot 2 to qualify automatically. That is happening in most groups, thankfully.

This might not be the only time I see Germany play in Euro 2020. I’ve booked a few days in Bray to base myself for the Last 16 match at Lansdowne Road. That will be the winner of the group based in England and Scotland v the runner-up of the group in Germany and Hungary.

The night before that is the Green Day/Weezer/Fall Out Boy concert at the RDS, so could be a double header if you’re that way inclined. Might charge a Green Day fan to sleep on my hotel room floor.

When i’m there, I plan on walking up Bray Head on the Tuesday before going to the football. All I need is a ticket for the football.

I’ve booked a few days break in November for Vilnius in Lithuania. I was looking for a (early) Monday to (late) Wednesday getaway or a (early) Wednesday to (late) Friday trip. There were no routes from Belfast that offered these times.

I narrowed it down to Vilnius or Waterford, but for £160, Vilnius was too good to turn down. Don’t worry Waterford, i’ll still have you in my mind to visit you again.

I was hoping to go in October and take in the Euro 2020 Qualifier between Lithuania and Serbia. Unfortunately, the dates of the flights didn’t suit.

I don’t think there’ll be any football on while i’m there, but you don’t need football to enjoy somewhere though it does help.

The options from Belfast are now reduced with Ryanair and Aer Lingus pulling some flights. What’s the point in shiny blue passports if there is nowhere to go?

Funnily enough, I was looking at Malaga as a short visit/football trip.

It is worth pointing out that Brexit won’t restrict our travel opportunities, mainly because there’s fuck all options out there anyway from Belfast.

At least the bridge from Northern Ireland to Balamory will be handy for the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers Cup if Linfield decide to play in it again.

Linfield could have been playing Raith Rovers, could have had a short stay in Edinburgh for that and walked up Arthur’s Seat.

And finally, Linfield’s away match against Institute has been moved to a 1pm kick-off. Not too unhappy with that, means there’ll be less of a rush to get back for Northern Ireland v Holland that night.

Before then, is the away game against Holland in Rotterdam, where due to it’s close proximity to Amsterdam, Northern Ireland will have a decent sized support.

The match could be in Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome. When we go to Rotterdam, we’ll need to bring three points home.

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LINFIELD 3-2 QARABAG 22.8.2019

On Thursday lunchtime, looking at the gloomy weather, I joked to myself if they have rain in Azerbiajan. Would this unsettle Qarabag? It wasn’t rain that Qarabag had to worry about, it was another force of nature – Shayne Lavery.

Linfield were 180 minutes away from a place in the group stages of the UEFA Cup, the first Irish League team to be in this situation (although not the first team from Northern Ireland, as Derry City were in this scenario in 2006, during the original group stage format. Before I get any angry letters from Foyleside)

They couldn’t have got a worse draw. Qarabag might not jump off the page in the grand scheme of European Football, but they know how to get to the group stages of European competition, most notably the UEFA Cup.

When you want to reach the groups stages of the UEFA Cup, the last team you want to face is a team who knows how to reach the group stages of the UEFA Cup.

Qarabag were no strangers to Northern Ireland, having squeezed through 3-2 against Portadown in 2010. That might not have caused much fear among Linfield’s support, their more recent history – draws against Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid (twice) in the last five years was a barometer of the task in hand.

It took just over a minute for Linfield to realise they had stepped up a level as some cheaply lost possession resulted in a quick attack for Qarabag, a shot going just wide of the post.

Though, if it did go in, with just over a minute on the clock played, it still would have been a better start than the previous match against Coleraine five days earlier.

However, Linfield weren’t spending the opening minutes defending, they had some attacks of their own, though not ones that caused panic for Qarabag.

Despite the even start, Qarabag took the lead when a clearance was returned back into the Linfield penalty area, and Faycal Rherras stretched out a leg, the ball looping in to silence Windsor Park.

Didn’t even like the UEFA Cup, prefer the County Antrim Shield to be honest.

Don’t have to worry about being conflicted if Linfield draw United, wondering if i’ll do two trips to London in nine months if we draw Arsenal, thinking of a Birmingham/Oxford double header if we draw Wolves. Then there’s Espanyol, oh well, no weekend in Barcelona.

Linfield responded with a series of attacks, the crowd cheering and roaring them on, there was no feeling sorry for themselves.

Qarabag were in the mood to finish this tie on the night, hitting the post after a quick attack, while Rohan Ferguson was forced into save after another attack.

Linfield hung in there, it was all they could do.

In previous matches, we had seen Bastien Hery showcase his skills. Tonight, we saw a different side of him, frequently pickpocketing the ball when Qarabag players held onto the ball for too long.

As half-time loomed, Linfield got an equaliser when Mark Stafford headed home from a free-kick. Linfield were no longer looking to stay in the tie, they were very much in the tie.

It completed a rather eventful birthday week for Stafford, with two goals and a baby with his birthday sandwiched inbetween.

Earlier this month, Kirk Millar had his birthday sandwiched inbetween his birthday. Have to say, i’m a big fan of Linfield players going on goal runs when they have their birthday.

Linfield responded to their own goal in the same way they responded to Qarabag’s, with a series of attacks roared on by their support.

As injury time approached, Bastien Hery found himself wide, surrounded by Qarabag players with nowhere to go. He worked his magic and won a corner.

A chance for Linfield to make the most of their momentum, which they did, Shayne Lavery heading home to put them 2-1 in front.

You’ve got Dundalk coach Ruaidhri Higgins to thank for this, having pointed out that Qarabag were weak at set pieces when interviewed by the BBC in the build-up to this match.

For both goals, especially the second, questions have to be asked of Qarabag’s keeper, not that Linfield fans cared as they were grateful.

Just ten minutes earlier, I would have taken Linfield only being 1-0 down at half-time, which makes the turnaround even more spectacular.

In the second-half, Shayne Lavery, Andrew Mitchell and Matthew Clarke had attempts at goal as Linfield looked to get a 3-1 advantage, while also keeping their opponents at bay

Neither side looked like getting that goal, but a 2-1 win would do for Linfield.

However, on 74 minutes, things got even better for Linfield when Shayne Lavery chased down a clearance, and outmuscled a Qarabag defender, and raced towards goal, cutting onto his left foot, the question now, was did he have the finish?

What a stupid question, of course he did, and Linfield were 3-1 up.

Every time a Qarabag defender got the ball, Lavery was snapping at their heels. Quite a lot of times, the Qarabag defenders were able to win cheap free-kicks. Lavery only needed to get it right once.

If Hery was pickpocketed the ball from Qarabag players, Lavery was just taking the ball off them without asking them.

Linfield fans would gladly have taken any advantage to Azerbaijan, now they had a two goal margin.

Within minutes, it looked like Qarabag were going to make it 3-2 when the ball fell perfectly to Mahir Emreli after a tackle, Windsor Park held it’s breath, and then celebrated as if it was a goal when the ball hit the post and landed into Rohan Ferguson’s arms.

The luck was with Qarabag, and it went straight back to Linfield.

It looked like Linfield were going to hold out for a 3-1 win, until Qarabag got a penalty in injury time for a tired tackle by Matthew Clarke. It was a clear penalty. Even the Southstanders didn’t protest, and they moan about everything.

Magaye Gueye stepped up, and Panenkaed it into the net, making it 3-2. It would have been almost too perfect if he had missed it.

The atmosphere at Windsor Park, fell muted, the knew the importance of that second away goal for Qarabag.

The muted atmosphere didn’t last long, as Linfield fans celebrated a famous win at the final whistle.

Linfield got what they wanted, the tie is alive going to Azerbaijan. It’s more than alive for Linfield. They don’t have to win over there, they don’t even have to score over there, though it would be nice.

To lose a second away goal was disappointing, but it still would have been a tough second leg if it was 3-1. We got a win. 1-0 or 4-3, it doesn’t matter, we have the advantage.

Now, time for positivity. Linfield have scored 11 goals in 5 UEFA Cup games. They’re not grinding out 1-0 wins. Well, apart from that one time.

In their two previous rounds, Linfield have scored twice away from home. That should give the players belief that they can score out there.

Even if we go 1-0 down, Qarabag will have the advantage, but the tie won’t be over.

Qarabag won’t be playing the second leg at their usual ground. Every little thing you can think of as advantage, you have to run with it.

A spin-off about this, is the co-efficient points generated from this run. Hopefully, we shall see the rewards in the coming years if we win the League and get seeded in the European Cup.

It’s something I’ve always wondered, that from the 2nd Round to the Group Stage, teams drop into the UEFA Cup, but not the 1st Round.

Finally, teams that go out of the European Cup in the 1st Round get a second chance of European football. This is the first time Linfield have been in this format (introduced in 2018) and they have made the most of it.

We can’t neglect domestic duties though. I can understand why the Warrenpoint game was postponed, instead of being played on the Sunday or Monday sandwiched inbetween both legs. We won’t get this luxury if we get to the groups.

If we do, i’ll discuss the ramifications in terms of fixture scheduling.

If Linfield were to get to the Group Stages of the UEFA Cup, it means there won’t be a spare midweek to play the League Cup tie against Ballinamallard United until October.

We’ll have to start getting points on the board as we currently sit 10th. No need to panic though.

Saturday’s results were kind to us, with Crusaders, Larne, Ballymena United and Glenavon dropping points. It’s important that nobody starts to pull away while we are inactive. We’ll be further inactive the following weekend due to the Larne game being postponed due to international call-ups.

That means Glentoran v Institute will now be a Sky Sports live game. Always good to have the little teams get a moment in the spotlight.

If we win our games in hand, we are only one point off the top.

Meanwhile, Dungannon Swifts are currently watching a Leicester City 2015-2016 Season Review DVD.

Oh, and I booked my accommodation for Bray for the Last 16 game to be scheduled in Dublin at Euro 2020. All I need is a ticket now.

The second leg will be at 5pm on Thursday. It’s live on the BBC website.

If it wasn’t for Mikhail Gorbachev, Linfield would have eight European trophies by now. Probably.

We’ve suffered European exits against teams from former Soviet countries – Dinamo Tblisi (who were later thrown out, so we got a reprieve), Lokomotiv Tblisi, Torpedo Kutaisi, and BATE Borisov, with only a victory against Ventspils in 2005 to counter it.

We’re due another one, right?

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LINFIELD 2-4 COLERAINE 17.8.2019

When you’re playing The Limelight days before you headline Glastonbury, the rules are the same, you have to perform no matter where you are playing.

This was more drunken karaoke down the pub than Queen at Live Aid.

The first 13 seconds were awful. The remaining 89 minutes and 47 seconds weren’t much better.

Coleraine kicked off and were straight on the attack, a long ball seeing Ben Doherty get clear of Jimmy Callacher and run towards goal. I was sat at the opposite end and could see that he was setting himself up to shoot on his left foot.

However, the three defenders around him couldn’t see it, backing off and giving him to shoot and put Coleraine 1-0 up.

At least there was still plenty of time to put it right.

Amazingly, it wasn’t the earliest goal I’ve seen Linfield concede, with Gary McCutcheon scoring in 12 seconds in 2013.

The response from Linfield? There wasn’t really one. A lot of build-up play but no final ball.

Coleraine were well organised, so Linfield needed to do something special to break them down. It just wasn’t happening for them.

Midway through the first-half, things got worse when Coleraine went 2-0 up from a corner.

I was at the other end and thought it went straight in. It was much worse than that.

There were no Coleraine players attacking the ball, Ryan McGiven headed the ball into his own net from a few yards out, beating Daniel Kearns to the ball just as he was about to clear it.

Surely McGivern would have seen Kearns and let him clear it? Running to head the ball away when facing your own goal always has a risk, he should have let Kearns take control of the situation.

As with the first goal, there was still time to put it right, but they didn’t look like doing so.

They did have history to look back on for recent inspiration, with Linfield coming from behind to draw and win against Coleraine in recent years, as well as Coleraine throwing away 1-0 and 2-0 leads to draw against Cliftonville and Glentoran in the opening week of the season.

All that Linfield could offer in response was a speculative long range shot from Jamie Mulgrew.

Towards the end of the half, Linfield had their best moments of the game, all being relative. A lot of possession and situations but very few chances. The only moment of concern for Coleraine was a shot from Joel Cooper which deflected into the side netting.

Even if Linfield had pulled it back to 2-1 during those final minutes, it wouldn’t and shouldn’t have changed the half-time team talk.

The response at the start of the second-half wasn’t quick in coming, and David Healy wasn’t prepared to wait for it, bringing on Kirk Millar for Jordan Stewart just three minutes into the half, after Stewart lost an aerial tussle he was favourite to win.

Just before the hour, Matthew Clarke made way for Shayne Lavery, with Linfield now going to three at the back.

Within a few minutes, the ball hit the back of the net, and it was Coleraine who got it when Stephen O’Donnell headed home from a free-kick.

Again, it was poor defending from Linfield, as Ryan McGivern switched off to give O’Donnell a free header when he was favourite to clear it.

Having already blown 1-0 and 2-0 leads this season, there was no way that Coleraine were going to blow a 3-0 lead.

The irony is, if McGivern attacked the ball as he did for Coleraine’s 2nd, he would have cleared it. And of course, if he left the ball for Coleraine’s 2nd as he did for their 3rd, Daniel Kearns would have cleared it.

Linfield responded with a Kirk Millar effort that was saved, before a teed up Joel Cooper free-kick went low into the back of the net to make it 3-1.

The goal wasn’t celebrated as a consolation strike, it was celebrated as the start of a comeback, there was time left to come back.

The crowd were further geed up by the introduction of Bastien Hery before the game restarted.

Then, a header from Shayne Lavery made it 3-2 and an unlikely comeback looked on.

Within minutes, those hopes were dashed when Ryan McGivern got a second yellow card as Eoin Bradley headed towards goal. All he needed was to have missed a penalty to get a full set.

The resulting reshuffle saw Kirk Millar have to go into a full-back position to cover the defence, and blunted Linfield as an attacking force.

Even though there was only one goal in it, the red card and reshuffle killed all of Linfield’s momentum.

There was time for one more goal in this game. Kirk Millar, usually reliable for an assist set up a goal in injury time. Unfortunately, it was for Coleraine, as his stray backpass was seized upon by Emmett McGuckin who rounded Rohan Ferguson and toepoked the ball into the open net before Ferguson could chase after him.

McGuckin was only brought on minutes earlier as a substitute to see the game out.

It summed up Linfield’s day as Windsor Park began to empty as soon as the ball hit the back of the net. Those that stayed saw Joel Cooper have a header saved.

Curiously, the last time August 17th fell on a Saturday, Linfield lost 4-2 at home, this time to Cliftonville. You will be glad to hear that August 17th won’t be a Saturday until 2024. Feel free to start making alternative plans for that day.

What went wrong for Linfield? Everything.

The fightback was too little, too late. You can’t turn up 60 minutes into the game. You can’t even relax for the first 14 seconds, you have to be on it straight from kick-off.

You could argue that the changes to the started line-up disrupted Linfield’s momentum. It wasn’t Swifts players being brought it, it was players such as Cooper, Kearns, Callacher and Waterworth, who were all regular starters when the team picked itself at the start of last season.

We can’t really use Tuesday night’s exertions as an excuse, as there were ten top flight teams in action on Tuesday night, one of those being Coleraine.

As disappointing as this performance and result was, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective and not to panic. If we win our game in hand, we’ll only be three points off the top.

With no game next weekend, and the following weekend’s game pushed back to the Monday night, we could be in the relegation zone by the time we next play a League match.

That would be a hilarious juxtaposition if we were in the groups stages by the time we play at Larne.

It would not be hilarious if we were still in the relegation zone by the end of September though, just for clarity.

Coleraine manager Oran Kearney stated when being interviewed on the BBC after the game that the game was postponed, even though his side got the three points.

I’ll have to disagree with him on that. I can understand postponing the Warrenpoint game, as disappointing as it is, as it is such an exceptional situation.

In terms of fixture scheduling, things are manageable and there is no need to panic, but we can’t let things build up.

If we get through to the group stages, playing League matches on the Sunday after will have to be looked at seriously, as we can’t let the outstanding games pile up.

Whilst we may have games in hand, other clubs will have points in the bag, which is far more preferable.

Next week’s fixture list sees two matches between teams with top six ambtions – Crusaders v Larne and Ballymena United v Glentoran which will hopefully see points droppage that we can take advantage of when we return to League action.

I’m hoping that this performance was purely to lure any Azeri spies into a false sense of security ahead of Thursday night’s game.

Qarabag have recent European pedigree. They know how to reach the groups stages of competitions, mostly the UEFA Cup, though they haven’t got past the group stage or looked like doing so.

A win against Anderlecht and draws with Saint Etienne (twice), Inter Milan, Monaco and Atletico Madrid (twice) in recent years commands respect, but not fear.

The second leg will be played at Azerbaijan’s national stadium, Tofiq Brhramov Stadium.

It’s a stadium that has evaded David Healy in his career. He was suspended when Northern Ireland played there in 2004. By the time they returned in 2017, he was retired from playing.

Hopefully, by the time he eventually gets there on Thursday week, it will be worth the wait.

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LINFIELD 3-2 FK SUTJESKA 13.8.2019

I’d braced myself for a 3-2 defeat after extra time. It was going to be another Skoda Xanthi.

For the first time since 2005, Linfield were playing a European tie in August. It didn’t start well.

Standing in departures at Edinburgh Airport getting ready to board, a goalflash alert beeped to say that Sutjeska had just gone 1-0 after ten minutes. Arriving in Belfast and getting on the bus into the City Centre, I finally had wifi again, and expected to be 3-0 or 4-0 down, but instead we were 2-1 up. It’s not often you have a smile on your face when you return from a holiday.

When you have a winning formula, you might as well stick to it, which is what David Healy did, naming the same starting eleven as the first leg, which meant a place on the subs bench for Jimmy Callacher.

Despite a lead and two away goals, the tie was far from over. It was evident in the opening two minutes with Linfield being unable to get the ball.

Eventually, they did get the ball, and made good use of it. They got rewarded when Mark Stafford headed home from a corner.

Due to the larger crowd, more of The Kop was open than normal, meaning I was sat in the middle of the goal and had a perfect view of it. Stafford made a run which meant that all he had to do was get a clean header on the ball, which he did. The perfect start.

The perfect start didn’t last for long though, as Sutjeska equalised with a header from Bojan Bozovic. The perfect was wiped out.

The early goal rush continued, and it was Linfield who were back in front when Shayne Lavery got in behind Sutjeska’s defence. Sutjeska’s keeper went out to clear the danger, and only succeeded in giving the ball to Lavery.

Usually in a situation, the striker is swarmed by defenders, or makes a mess of the shot, or a defender gets back and blocks it. These situations rarely result in a goal, but this one did, putting Linfield 2-1 up.

What it also meant, was that it was good news if you wanted to go to bed at a sensible time when you got home, as we wouldn’t be going to extra-time.

A neat passing move saw Kirk Millar shoot narrowly wide, as he tried to make his birthday celebrations last for a full week.

If Linfield could get a third goal, there would be no way back for Sutjeska.

As the half ended, Linfield received a boost when Aleksandar Sofranac got two quick yellow cards. Linfield smelt that this tie could be won before half-time. Sutjeska were playing to get to half-time at 1-2, and then try to regroup and clear their heads. They were able to do just that.

As the hour approached, Sutjeska were on top and looking for an equaliser. Rohan Ferguson was forced to make a top class save from close range to deny them. Linfield just couldn’t get the ball away. Eventually, Sutkeska were rewarded when Bojan Bozovic headed home to make it 2-2.

Windsor Park was now nervous. Linfield had the advantage, but Sutjeska were only one goal away from winning on away goals.

David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Joel Cooper for Kirk Millar.

Cooper waltzed into Sutjeska’s penalty area, and his perfect low cross was met by Matthew Clarke to fire into the empty net to make it 3-2.

Windsor Park erupted, they knew that the goal meant. With the game on a knife edge, this goal put Linfield just out of reach for Sutjeska.

Only a pub team would concede two late goals at home in Europe to lose 4-3. Oh, hello there Celtic.

The crowd wasn’t relaxed despite the advantage, but not as tense as they would have been ifi t was 2-2.

Shayne Lavery got a standing ovation as he was replaced by Andrew Waterworth, who helped Linfield see out the game and win 3-2.

There wasn’t much time for Linfield to celebrate, as they would face Qarabag in the Play-Off Round eight days later, with a League match against Coleraine sandwiched inbetween.

I’ll repeat that, Linfield are two games away from a place in the group stages of the UEFA Cup.

I’m not even sure if Windsor Park has VAR facilities. Will the Referee have to run up to The Edinburgh Club to watch TV replays on BT?

Elsewhere in the UEFA Cup, Dundalk went out, meaning my hopes for a Dundalk v United group match at Lansdowne Road has bitten the dust.

This match meant that Linfield’s trip in the League to Ballymena was postponed.

The other League games that were played saw not surprising wins for Crusaders and Larne to give them six points out of six, and drop points for Glenavon, Coleraine and Glentoran meaning those three trail Linfield having played a game more. It’s important to keep getting League points alongside European adventures.

As well as the Ballymena match being postponed, the match against Qarabag means the League Cup tie against Ballinamallard will have to be postponed.

There are also doubts as to wether the Warrenpoint game, scheduled for two days after the Qarabag first leg, will be moved.

There’s still nine months of the season left, so there’s no need to panic regarding fixture scheduling, but we should start to be proactive.

As disappointing as it was when it was announced, you can start to see why the club withdrew from the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers Cup. If we were in it, we’d be away to Fortmarine United.

That’s somewhere near Aberdeen in case you’re wondering.

It’s not Aberdeen we’re heading to, it’s Gdansk in May 2020.

Via Azerbaijan first. Hopefully, Qarabag have the same experience as Azerbaijan’s national team had when they last played at Windsor Park.

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LINFIELD 3-1 INSTITUTE 10.8.2019

By a quirk of fate, Institute visited Windsor Park on 10th August, just as they did last year.

In 2018, it was Matchday 2, with Linfield looking to build on an impressive win at Mourneview Park, and banish the memories of a humiliating season which saw no trophies and no European football.

In 2019, it was Matchday 1, and the opening game of a title defence which Linfield fans will be hoping will be a lot better than 2017-2018. How apt, that on International Duran Duran Day, they get an opportunity to see if their team are Hungry Like The Wolf.

Presently, Linfield’s ambitions are both local and international, with this game being sandwiched inbetween a UEFA Cup tie against Sutjeska. The first leg saw Linfield get an impressive 2-1 win away from home.

The result was even more impressive as Jimmy Callacher, Andrew Waterworth and Joel Cooper were all absent.

Callacher was back to start this game, while Waterworth had to make do with a place on the bench.

Linfield had some early pressure in this game, but the decent build-up play fell down with the final pass.

It was Institute who had the first chance of the game when Bastien Hery lost possession (I guess he’s human after all) to Joe McCready who was fouled by Rohan Ferguson as he tried to go round him.

There was never any danger of it being a red card, but you always have that slight doubt. Thankfully, it was only a yellow card.

Joe McCready stepped up to finish to put Institute 1-0 up inside the opening 10 minutes. This was not what we had in mind for the opening day of the season.

Linfield’s first attempt at remedying the scoreline came from a Chris Casement free-kick.

There wasn’t long to wait for an equaliser, as a neat passing move resulted in a Shayne Lavery cross being missed by Daniel Kearns, but it fell perfectly for Kirk Millar to blast home from close range for his third goal this week, equalling his total for last season already.

It’s been a good week for him, all he needed was to have his birthday sandwiched in amongst all these goals. Oh wait ……

Not much else happened for a while, apart from Institute players losing their discipline in a dispute over kicking the ball out of play for an injury, an incident which resulted in three of them getting booked.

Just when Linfield needed some inspiration, they got it from Jordan Stewart, whose long range shot looked to be going just over, and then dipped in to give Linfield a 2-1 lead, taking everybody by surprise, even though he’s capable of doing such a thing.

Linfield came out for the second-half determined to kill the game off, with Kirk Millar hitting the bar from a shot.

There wasn’t long to wait for a third goal for Linfield, that came when Ryan McGivern headed home from a corner to make it 3-1.

It wasn’t quite three points in the bag, but it left Linfield in a very strong position.

If it went to 4-1, that would have been it

Linfield had enough opportunities to make it 4-1. Daniel Kearns hit the post while Jordan Stewart missed an open net after earlier scoring from 30+ yards out, while Andrew Waterworth headed over as well.

Linfield were almost made to pay for not making it 4-1 when Institute had a period of pressure with around ten minutes to go, hitting the post, and almost making it a nervous finale for Linfield.

Linfield got the three points, a fifth successive season that they have started with a win. I can remember when Linfield used to usually drop points on the opening day.

Larne’s 6-0 win over Warrenpoint made them the first leaders of the new season, while a late goal for Crusaders to give them a 3-0 win over Carrick Rangers saw them overtake Linfield into 3rd, the only three teams to win on Matchday 1.

There’s not much time for clubs to contemplate their opening day results, with the return of the now traditional midweek Matchday 2, after a season absence.

Not for Linfield though, as they’ll be involved in UEFA Cup action, meaning the scheduled trip to Ballymena has been postponed.

It’s a situation that will have to be monitored if we progress further in Europe as we can’t afford to have a backlog of fixtures. That makes it even more important to pick up as many points early on if we are going to be a couple of games behind other teams.

It’s not just League matches that will be affected. If Linfield get past Sutjeska, the League Cup tie at Ballinamallard will have to be postponed. That’s two matches that will need new dates and we won’t even be out of August.

Suddenly, you can see the thinking behind not entering the Scottish Challenge Cup, as disappointing as it is.

The fixture list is quite kind to us in terms of other Top 6 teams/teams with Top 6 ambitions playing each other early on. We will have Cliftonville v Glenavon, Glentoran v Coleraine, Cliftonville v Crusaders and Larne v Ballymena United in the next seven days, so hopefully nobody will pull away while Linfield are inactive in League terms.

After this match, I headed to HMV in Belfast City Centre to see Feeder. It was advertised as a signing session but I turned up in the hope that they might do a few acoustic songs. Turns out it was only a signing session, which was disappointing as they were playing live at other instore appearances in England.

Up next for Linfield is Sutjeska in the UEFA Cup on Tuesday night in the second of three successive home matches. Hopefully, the second of four successive home matches.

To quote Buck Rogers by Feeder, I think we’re going to make it.

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