CHAMPIONS 2017 – WINDSOR PARK CELEBRATIONS

With so many fans unable to get into Solitude, it was announced that if Linfield were to be successful in their pursuit of the Gibson Cup, a celebratory event would be held at Windsor Park at Saturday teamtime for fans the congratulate the team.

As soon as disembarking the bus outside Ballysillan Leisure Centre, it was straight in the car to Windsor Park. I wasn’t the only one.

For those who weren’t able to get a ticket for Solitude, it was their chance to party.

For those who were at Solitude, it was an extension of the party.

In short, we were all there to party.

The Railway Stand was used for this event, and it was full. Players were introduced to the field in numberical order (Apart from Jamie Mulgrew, who came out last with the trophy) which meant that Number 38 Paul Smyth was made to feel like a Zimbabwean athlete at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Talking of which, he could be in with a shot of a Gymnastics medal in Rio to go with his Irish League medal judging by the double somersault as he entered the pitch.

Fans got the see the team and the trophy, and got a few words from David Healy, while kids were able to pose for photos with their favourite players, and some adult did as well. Everybody who was there got something from the day.

After five years, i’d almost forgotten what title celebrations felt like. They feel good. Hopefully, same again next year.

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LINFIELD 3-0 GLENAVON 18.4.2017

There were low levels of excitement in the second-half at Windsor Park on Tuesday night, but that wasn’t a bad thing, as Linfield had the game wrapped up at half-time. At this time of year, it’s all about results, not excitement. Linfield are getting the results. Unfortunately, so are Crusaders.

Glenavon started the game strongly and it was Linfield were looked nervous, struggling to clear crosses and putting themselves under unnecessary pressure. The bets that Glenavon could offer during this time was a free-kick straight at Roy Carroll.

Linfield then got a grip of the game and started creating chances. Paul Smyth had a shot saved from a wide angle, while Jamie Mulgrew burst into Glenavon’s penalty area and saw his shot saved, Glenavon being able to clear from the rebound.

It was a night when the first goal would be vital. If Glenavon had got it, there would still be every chance Linfield could still come back to win, but it would have been a long and uncomfortable evening. If Linfield had got it, Glenavon’s early confidence would have been dented, and Linfield could charge forward and take advantage of it.

Just before the half hour, Linfield were gifted the opportunity to take the lead when a stray backpass played Andrew Waterworth through on goal, he rounded the keeper and was brought down. A penalty was awarded, but only a yellow card.

You could see it now. Tuffey saves the penalty and has the game of his life in a 0-0 draw.

Aaron Burns was now on penalty duty and made no mistake from the spot.

Just as they finished celebrating that goal, Linfield fans were celebrating another goal, this time across the city at Seaview as Coleraine took a 1-0 lead against Crusaders.

And just as Linfield fans had finished celebrating that goal, they were celebrating another goal from their own team as Mark Haughey headed home to make it 2-0.

Linfield weren’t happy with that, and wanted a third before half-time, and began to put more pressure on Glenavon’s goal.

That third goal came in the final minutes of the half when a flick on played in Paul Smyth clean through, and he made no mistake.

It was all going well for Linfield. At Windsor Park at least. By this point, Crusaders had already gone into a 2-1 lead.

Linfield made a sloppy start to the second-half, but the best Glenavon could offer was a long range shot over the bar.

At half-time, Sean Ward came on for Jamie Mulgrew while Mark Stafford came on for Mark Haughey in the early minutes of the second-half.

I’m not sure how serious their injuries are, but David Healy wasn’t taking any chances and rightly so. There’s no point risking players when you’re 3-0 up, especially when there are capable and direct replacements on the bench.

Linfield’s final sub in the final minutes was Kirk Millar for Aaron Burns. I would have brought on teenage striker Ryan Strain just to give him some game time.

Having been denied by a foul from Jonathan Tuffey, Andrew Waterworth was determined to get on the scoresheet. He burst through Glenavon’s defence but his shot was saved. He then beat Tuffey with a later shot but a defender on the line denied him this time.

In the end, Linfield had to settle for 3-0. A lack of extra goals didn’t matter for Linfield. If the League is to be decided on goal difference, Linfield’s advantage is too much for Crusaders to turnaround in one match.

At the final whistle, Linfield players did a lap of honour, as it was the last home game of the season.

Unfortunately, Crusaders got a 3-2 win against Coleraine, maintaining their lead at the top to one point. Despite that, it is still all to play for.

Linfield fans will be hoping that they can repeat what Cliftonville did in 2014 and storm to the title in the Split. There is the fear that it could be a repeat of 2009 when they missed out on the title by a point.

The other result in the Top Six saw Ballymena United beat Cliftonville 4-1. Seeing Ballymena get a confidence boosting win ahead of their match against Crusaders on Saturday is no bad thing.

In the bottom half, Portadown’s relegation was confirmed, meaning that Linfield won’t drop costly points against Portadown on a Friday night in February 2018.

After the game, I spent an hour queuing for tickets for Linfield’s final game of the season at Solitude next Saturday. The queue was so slow moving, I was worried about not making kick-off for that match.

It’s an occupational hazard of being a football supporter is that you can buy a ticket to a match expecting it to be a match with it all to play for, only to find there is nothing to play for.

That will be the case if Linfield lose at Coleraine on Saturday and Crusaders win at Ballymena.

Linfield fans remain hopeful that Crusaders will slip up. There are only so many times a team can get away with coming from behind.

All that matters is that Linfield get the three points to take the title race to the last day.

It would be nice if Linfield could enter the pitch at Solitude on the last day as league leaders. All we want, is for them to leave the pitch that day as Champions.

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MAGAZINE ARCHIVE : SHOOT – 20.10.1979

Allan Hunter and Mick Mills of Ipswich Town, dressed in their respective national kits, are the cover stars of this edition of Shoot. That can only mean one thing, England are playing Northern Ireland. It’s not a Home International game, but on a continent wide scale, a European Championsip Qualifier at Windsor Park.

Mills and Hunter get a joint interview in Shoot’s preview.

Shoot do a feature on soldiers in Belfast who’ll be guarding the England team.

The feature reveals that, despite a lot of them being football fanatics, they’re not allowed to attend Irish League games when in civilian clothes due to security fears.

As well as England and Northern Ireland, there are also previews of Republic Of Ireland, Wales and Scotland’s European Championship Qualifiers.

Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson expressed his frustration at a League Cup defeat away to Arbroath. Fortunately for them, a comfortable first leg win saw them go through.

As well as winning the European Cup on the field, Nottingham Forest were celebrating after being voted European Team Of The Year by France Football magazine.

Wolves get a profile by Shoot, with the headline “Wolves Are Biting Again”, and so it briefly proved, as they won the League Cup that season. The rest of the decade wasn’t as good for Wolves.

In Northern Ireland, Portadown defender Herbie Pearson fears his career could be over, while QPR saw off competition from Manchester United and Everton to sign Northern Ireland Schoolboy international Alan McDonald, while Bobby Carlisle has signed for Newry Town, who have ambitions of joining Northern Ireland’s top flight.

Gordon McQueen uses his column to describe Scotland’s European Championship Qualifier against Austria as “Win or bust”

The draw for the 1982 World Cup is coming up soon, and Shoot previews this and how it will be decided, as this is the first 24 team World Cup. Shoot writes that there is a possibility of two UK teams being paired together, and so it proved, when Scotland and Northern Ireland were paired in the same group.

In ads, Phil Neal is advertising Gola.

Derek Johnstone uses his column to deny he had a punch-up with Scotland manager Ally McLeod.

Meanwhile, teenage defender Tommy Caton is juggling playing for Manchester City with his studies. He is interviewed by Shoot and says he is yet to face his biggest footballing examination, a match against Joe Jordan.

LINFIELD 1-0 CRUSADERS 8.4.2017

Football is all about taking our opportunities. When Linfield fell into decline in 2012, Cliftonville took advantage and won two successive titles. When Cliftonville fell into decline in 2014, Crusaders took advantage and won two successive titles. Now Linfield are hoping to take advantage of an opportunity that’s come their way, to reduce Crusaders lead at the top of the League to one point after being nine points behind in mid February.

Matches between Linfield and Crusaders could be reflected in the Pet Shop Boys song of the same name. Linfield had the brains, Crusaders had the brawn. Dropped points against the other ten clubs, especially at home, meant that Linfield didn’t yet have the look. The look of Champions that is.

Today was a must win for Linfield. A draw would have been inconvenient but the situation could have been retrieved. Defeat was unthinkable, it woudl have meant game over for Linfield, just as it did on this weekend last year.

Football is a numbers game, and there were three numbers that mattered. Four for Linfield (number of successive wins over Crusaders) and three for Crusaders (successive titles). Linfield fans were hoping the main number at 5pm would be one (number of points Linfield were off the top of the League)

Seven was a number that Linfield fans were not prepared to entertain.

Already a rare occurrence in 2017, today was Linfield’s last Saturday 3pm home game of the season. Fans arriving at Windsor Park this afternoon were hoping that the next Saturday 3pm game at Windsor Park in August would see them enter the field as Champions.

As I did my usual pre-match routine of watching the warm-ups from the Viewing Lounge, the most obvious observation was that there is a new TV in there. Hopefully that’s a permanent arrangement and not just to show the Grand National.

Getting a winner in the 5.15 at Aintree would have been a nice bonus for those watching who had a bet on, the real winner we all wanted was in the 3.00 at Windsor.

The first talking point of the afternoon came an hour before kick-off when the teamsheets were submitted, with both teams missing a key player – Mark Stafford for Linfield and Jordan Owens for Crusaders.

Crusaders loss was bigger than Linfield’s. Linfield had options to replace Stafford. Crusaders didn’t have options to replace Owens.

It was Chris Casement who got the nod ahead of Sean Ward. I would have went with Ward, who was the only defensive player on an attacking bench which included Ross Gaynor, Kirk Millar, Josh Carson and teenager Ryan Strain.

As he took his place on the bench, Strain was perhaps dreaming of a Federico Macheda style dramatic introduction to this season’s title race.

Crusaders had the better of the early moments, with Paul Heatley causing problems for Linfield in wide positions. While Linfield may not have been able to stop him getting crosses in, they were able to stop Crusaders when the crosses came in.

Linfield then got a grip and took control of the game, getting a lot of joy down their left hand side with Matthew Clarke and Niall Quinn combining to good effect.

Crusaders were taking advantage of the unwritten rule that no yellow cards are allowed in the first fifteen minutes, tactically fouling at will safe in the knowledge there would be no repercussions.

It was a foul not given that was the first talking point of the onfield action when Andrew Waterworth dispossessed Billy Joe Burns and went down under a challenge. It was untidy from Burns, but not enough to be a foul. If Waterworth had been able to get through on goal, he would surely have scored with Sean O’Neill out of position having anticipated a backpass from Burns.

Burns losing the ball was one of many nervous moments from Crusaders defenders both one and off the ball. There was a mistake in them, Linfield had to pressure them and pounce.

It was Linfield though who had the next moment of defensive nervousness in the game when Declan Caddell got a free header from a corner, but it was saved by Roy Carroll.

Linfield recovered from that and took control of the game, a lucky bounce looked like it was going to set up Niall Quinn, but a Crusaders defender just got there before him.

Despite their nervous, Crusaders defenders were getting the bounces and second balls go in their favour,

On 20 minutes, Linfield got the breakthrough. It was no surprise that it came from a cross from the left, which fell to Aaron Burns. I thought he had missed the opportunity having not taken a first time shot, but he managed to drag the ball back with three defenders around him and guide the ball home with his left foot.

I didn’t realise how good a goal it was until watching the TV footage after the game. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that if Lionel Messi scored it, Social Media would go into meltdown.

Crusaders were forced into an early substitution when Philip Lowry went off injured to be replaced by speculative shot king David Cushley.

Cushley only scores one in every one hundred shots. The worry for Linfield was that he hadn’t scored in ninety shots. His first shot of the game was a free-kick that was easily blocked by Linfield’s wall.

The pressure on Crusaders goal continued, Andrew Waterworth hitting the post from a first-time shot after a cross came in, while a Paul Smyth cross agonisingly missed everyone.

Linfield were piling on the pressure, having a flurry of corners. With no Coates or Owens, Crusaders looked vulnerable at set pieces. The lucky bounce, just seemed to fall in Crusaders favour.

Chris Casement had a free-kick saved while Jimmy Callacher could’t get enough power on a header to score after Crusaders struggled with yet another set piece as Linfield looked to get a 2-0 lead to take to the dressing room at half-time.

Linfield started the second-half in search of a second goal that would kill the game.

Crusaders might have been able to come back from 2-0 down with a half-time rollicking, it was never going to happen with the second-half ongoing. A second goal would certainly have made the final moments relaxing for Linfield. We should know by now that title run-ins are rarely relaxing.

Andrew Waterworth hit a post, his effort would have been disallowed for offside, while Niall Quinn had a low shot deflected wide, before Aaron Burns had a header saved from inside the six yard box.

On 75 minutes, it looked like Linfield were going to be made to pay for not getting that second goal when a Jimmy Callacher miskick fell to Paul Heatley, but Roy Carroll came out to deny him.

Many in the South Stand hoped that was Crusaders moment. Just as many feared there was still enough time for Crusaders to have another moment.

It was surprising that David Healy didn’t turn to his subs bench. Perhaps not that surprising, considering that there was nobody playing bad enough to be taken off.

The most obvious change was to bring on Kirk Millar to hit Crusaders with pace for the final moments.

Eventually, his hand was forced by injuries, with Sean Ward coming on for Chris Casement and Kirk Millar coming on for Paul Smyth.

Linfield began to sit back and allow Crusaders to have too much of the ball. Despite Crusaders not doing much with it, it was still far too nervous for Linfield fans liking.

Aaron Burns almost made it 2-0 in stoppage down from a cross. When the ball was in mid air, it looked like being a repeat of Niall Quinn’s goal against Crusaders last month, but the ball wouldn’t fall for him as nicely.

Instead, he had to control and hit, with O’Neill saving, but at the expense of a corner. Stephen Lowry sat with his head in his hands. Bit of an overreaction, as Linfield had the lead and the ball.

Linfield were able to hold out and win 1-0, the gap at the top of the table now one point in Crusaders favour.

Next weekend, Crusaders travel to Solitude to face Cliftonville. If the fixtures formula was followed correctly, Crusaders would be at home to Coleraine.

Given the choice, who would you rather the play?

The team on an unbeaten run, in the Cup Final and favourites to secure 3rd and automatic European football?

Or the team who are demoralised, out of sorts and on a bad run of form, resigned to the UEFA Cup Play-Offs?

It all looks a bit suspicious to me, as everybody knew that Coleraine were going to be Team 3 in the split and not Cliftonville, yet the fixture list was confirmed before the pre-split positions were confirmed.

That’s a lucky break for Crusaders as I don’t expect Cliftonville to put up much of a fight at Solitude next weekend. It’ll be a nice bonus for Crusaders to get back on a winning track after two successive defeats.

Up next for Linfield is Ballymena, who appear to be suffering from a dose of Cliftonvilleitis by suffering a dip in form since an Irish Cup exit, them too resigned to the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.

It’s a must-win game for Linfield. They all are.

Unfortunately for Linfield, Crusaders still have a hand on the trophy. It’s a very sweaty hand hanging on desperately.

Linfield just have to keep winning and hoping. What we are hoping or is a lot less than it was in mid February.

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NORTHERN IRELAND 2-0 NORWAY 26.3.2017

Michael O’Neill celebrated five years in charge of Northern Ireland over the Christmas/New Year period, and it was a case of going back to where it all started, as Northern Ireland welcomed Norway to Windsor Park, the opponents on his first match in charge.

Northern Ireland fans will have to wait until 2020 if they want to commemorate the anniversary of that match as it took place on Leap Year’s Day. Quite apt, considering the giant leaps Northern Ireland have made since that night.

If Northern Ireland’s start to the group gave fans expectation, their record against Norway would have given them despair, with the Norwegians winning on their last five visits in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2004 and 2012.

Those games were all friendlies. The only competitive meeting saw a win for Northern Ireland in a European Championship Qualifier in 1975.

Norway’s poor start to the campaign has led to a change in manager, with Lars Lagerback, a man who is no stranger to international tournaments, having led Sweden to every tournament between 2000 and 2008, and then Iceland to Euro 2016. He knows how to get the best out of Scandinavian players.

In many ways, the scenario was the same going into the match against Finland in March 2015, with Northern Ireland looking to build on a promising start on a Sunday at home to Scandinavian opposition amidst a lot of expectation.

It wasn’t that long ago, Northern Ireland played Norway and all we wanted was a goal. We got one, and celebrated so much, we didn’t noticed that Norway scored straight from kick-off. We lost 4-1 and nobody cared, we had a goal. Those days are gone. Hopefully, forever.

The only difference from the Finland match was that Delivering Unity Promptly MLAs and MPs weren’t getting outraged and demand that we withdraw from the competition due to the horror of playing a home match in a Sunday. I guess they’ve got more important things to worry about.

The two other games in the group kick-off at 5pm, and the results went as expected – one in Northern Ireland’s favour, and one going against Northern Ireland. Germany got a 4-1 win against Azerbaijan while Czech Republic beat San Marino 6-0.

Germany are looking set to win 10 out of 10 in this group, any team who gets even a draw against them will view it as a bonus point. Hopefully, that will be us in October. Czech Republic’s win went they were breathing down Northern Ireland’s necks.

This match wasn’t a case of The Winner Takes It All, but the loser would be standing small. Three points was very much The Name Of The Game for Northern Ireland.

After just 90 seconds, Northern Ireland got a dream start when Jamie Ward got enough space to turn and fire into the net. It was a shooting position that screamed Take On Me, which is what he did.

Northern Ireland thought they would be Hunting High And Low for a lead, they had it within two minutes.

As a bonus, the smelly tramps who sit a few rows in front of me turned up late and missed it. Bonus.

In all seriousness, how much of an inconsiderate arsehole do you have to be that you can’t even go 45 minutes without a smoke? All this while Stewards steal a living and do fuck all about it.

The game died down after a dramatic start, and it was Norway who came more into it, having an effort which hit the angle of post and bar, scaring The Living Daylights out of the home fans.

Northern Ireland were nervous. We even had the sight of Steven Davis misplacing passes.

Thankfully, normality was soon restored, in some style, as Davis played a defence splitting pass for Conor Washington to finish to put Northern Ireland 2-0 up. From the moment he got the ball, there was only going to be one result.

Northern Ireland still needed a third goal just to be sure, and almost had it early in the second-half when a game of head tennis saw a Norwegian defender head just wide of his own goal, while Jamie Ward cut inside and had a shot blocked.

At the other end, Michael McGovern was forced into a save from a low free-kick.

Thankfully for the journalists in the Press Box having to deal with Headlines and Deadlines, Northern Ireland were able to see the game out in the final minutes and record a 2-0 win.

The result keeps Northern Ireland in 2nd place, five points behind Germany. Tehy are two points above Czech Republic. What separates the two teams is the fact Northern Ireland beat Azerbaijan at home while the Czechs could only draw at home to them. As well as that, they are three points clear of Azerbaijan. The two teams separated by Northern Ireland’s win at Windsor Park last November.

Norway are effectively out of it, but with Northern Ireland, Czech Republic and Azerbaijan all having to visit there, they could have a big say in who finishes 2nd.

Every point in this group is vital.

Not only do Northern Ireland have to finish 2nd, but they have to do so well. The 2nd place with the worst record (against teams in 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th) will be automatically eliminated, with the remaining eight going into four Play-Off ties.

Northern Ireland are three points above Montenegro. In 2010 and 2014, the unlucky team had ten points. Northern Ireland already have seven.

Up next is two away games against Azerbaijan and San Marino before a home match against Czech Republic.

If we get wins from those two away games, it could set a memorable night against the Czechs in September.

There’s still a long way to go before we can start dreaming of Red Square being renamed Green and White Square.

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Northern Ireland v Norway 2012

LINFIELD 5-1 ARDS 18.3.2017

Having scored ten goals in their two previous home games against Ards this season, Linfield were hoping to add to that when the North Down side visited Windsor Park this afternoon.

It didn’t matter how many Linfield scored, as long as it was at least one more than Ards, it’s that time of year. The two magic numbers today were three and four. Three points to cut Crusaders lead at the top.

Despite the previous head to heads this season, today wasn’t going to be straightforward. Gareth Tommons had a half-chance in the opening minutes that Linfield were just about able to clear.

Within the first five minutes, Linfield got the early goal they craved when Cameron Stewart headed home from a corner, his first at Windsor Park, ending a drought in front of goal going back to the County Antrim Shield Final.

In the two big home wins this season (4-0 and 6-1) Linfield got a flurry of early goals and had the game won inside the first twenty minutes.

Ards were not prepared to let history repeat itself. Stephen Lowry was forced into an interception after a neat passing move threatened to bring an equaliser.

Andrew Waterworth looked set to score but his header was excellently saved by Ards goalkeeper.

Soon after, Ards got an equaliser when a low cross was finished by Guillaume Keke to make it 1-1. It wasn’t against the run of play.

During the move that led to the goal, Cameron Stewart went down injured and had to be replaced. Kirk Millar came on from the bench for him. Surprisingly for me, when Aaron Burns seemed the logical choice.

The change meant a slight reshuffle for Linfield, with Millar going to his right hand side position and Paul Smyth moving to a central role.

The change brought rewards for Linfield with Smyth thriving in is new central, with his cross after breaking in behind Ards defence eventually falling to Kirk Millar to fire home from close range.

Credit must go to Niall Quinn who shielded the ball away from an Ards defender to give Millar the opportunity to score.

Having lost the lead once, it was not going to happen again, as Linfield sought to increase their lead.

Andrew Waterworth got in behind Ards defence but was let down by a poor first touch while Paul Smyth had a shot go just wide.

As the half neared it’s end, four minutes injury time meant that there was time for Linfield to push for a third.

That came when Paul Smyth crossed for what looked like Matthew Clarke to score, only for Andrew Waterworth to control the ball and finish himself, his 100th goal for the club.

Having taken a goal from one left sided player, Waterworth still had time in the first-half to set up Niall Quinn, but his powerful shot was well saved.

Despite a comfortable lead at half-time, the title momentum swinging 3-3 draw at home to Ards in 2014 was still a recent memory for Linfield fans that they felt another goal for their side was needed, a game that Linfield led 3-1.

Linfield set out at the start of the second-half to get that fourth goal, but couldn’t quite get it. Kirk Millar with a volley and Mark Haughey heading over were the best chances.

Naturally, there was frustration amongst the crowd, especially when Linfield began to have a wobbly spell, Ards getting encouragement to try and get a second goal.

It only lasted for a short time, and Stephen Lowry fired home from close range after a header was saved. It was a third successive game in which he had scored in, securing the points for Linfield.

This lead gave Linfield a chance to give minutes to Aaron Burns and Josh Carson from the bench. Burns had a header over the bar as Linfield searched for a fifth.

That search got a little bit easier when Johnny Taylor achieved the unique feat of being sent-off at Windsor PArk for two different clubs.

Eventually, Linfield got their fifth when a shot fell perfectly for Aaron Burns to fire home.

It maintains Linfield’s impressive record against Ards, an unbeaten run going back twenty years and includes Linfield wins by 5-1, 4-0, 5-0, 4-0, 7-0, 7-2, 5-0, 4-0 and 6-1 margins. I’m sure there’s more that i’ve missed.

Those two second-half goals weren’t vital in the context of the game, but they could be by the end of the season. It means that Linfield’s Goal Difference is 50 to Crusaders 43.

For the title to be decided on Goal Difference, Crusaders would need to draw two games and lose win while Linfield win three in that run.

If Linfield win their last six games, Crusaders win four, draw two and lose one, both teams would be level on points.

Even if those six games were won by one goal, Linfield’s goal difference would be 56. Crusaders would have 42, and would need need to claw back fourteen goals over those four wins. At least.

For every point Crusaders drop, the Goal Difference advantage that Linfield have will put more and more pressure on Crusaders.

Up next for Linfield is a trip to Ballinamallard. Everytime i’ve been there, Linfield have won. The two competitive meetings I haven’t been to, they haven’t won.

I’ll be there even if I have to be stretchered there. I’m going to sacrifice myself for us to get three points if I have to. It’s that time of year.

Other results of interest went Linfield’s way today. Coleraine winning and jumping into 3rd, potentially gaining an automatic UEFA Cup place. They play Crusaders next Saturday. Let’s hope their winning run continues, but ends on April 22nd.

Carrick beat Portadown to put pressure on Ballinamallard ahead on Monday night’s game.

Also next week, Northern Ireland face Norway in a World Cup Qualifier. Next week’s fixture list offers a chance for groundhopping for Norwegian visitors. Glentoran v Carrick on Friday (in the away end), game on Saturday, and then the international match on Sunday.

There are matches on Saturday in Belfast, but i’m sure if you got in touch with a LSC, they’d be more than willing to take some Norwegian visitors.

And how did Crusaders do today? They weren’t playing, as their match at home to Ballinamallard has been moved to Monday for Sky.

I might watch it and cheer on Ballinamallard, but then again, Travel Man is on Channel 4 at 8.30pm, then a choice at 9pm between a documentary about King’s Cross (Yes, I like documentaries about train stations. You probably watch Nolan, so you can’t judge me) and the new series of Family Guy on ITV2.

Hopefully by the time the final whistle blows at Seaview on Monday night, it will be Linfield fans who will be feeling giggidy about their team’s title chances.

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LINFIELD 2-0 CLIFTONVILLE 13.3.2017

In their last league matchday, Linfield reduced Crusaders lead at the top to seven points. They kicked-off against Cliftonville, a side they have lost twice to this season in the league, looking to keep that lead at seven points following Crusaders expected win over Carrick Rangers on Saturday.

The reason why Linfield were playing two days later than Crusaders was that this match was moved for live broadcast on Sky Sports, though with the counter attraction of Chelsea v Manchester United on the BBC, there were probably more people in the ground watching it than watching it on TV.

It’s great that the Irish League is getting this exposure, and we know it’s to fill gaps on FA Cup and International weekends, but Sky should have held off until the FA Cup TV games were confirmed before scheduling this.

It never stood a chance against Chelsea v United, it might have done better when slotted against Brighton v Derby on the Friday.

No doubt there were quite a lot of people in both stands keeping an eye on events at Stamford Bridge. I overheard someone behind me saying that United would take a replay, obviously unaware that FA Cup Quarter-Finals are played to a finish from this season onwards, when Ander Herrera was sent-off.

Even if supporters had an eye on Chelsea v United, Linfield players had to focus on the task in front of them, getting three points to keep the pressure on Crusaders, against a Cliftonville team in a rotten run of form. They were there for the taking, Linfield had to go out and take them.

February and March have been defining months for Cliftonville in recent years, winning runs setting up title successes in 2013 and 2014, while poor runs of form have caused damage to them in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

From the outside, it appears their players have given up following their Irish Cup exit and are fulfilling fixtures ahead of the UEFA Cup Play-Offs, just like last season. The worrying thing for them is, they exited the Irish Cup two rounds earlier this season.

However, Cliftonville’s concerns are not my concerns.

For most of the season, Linfield have been in a sandwich – trying to keep up with Crusaders in front while trying to keep clear of Cliftonville behind them. An eleven point lead at kick-off meant that Linfield had stopped worrying about Cliftonville overtaking them a long time ago,

I arrived at Windsor Park, as I do for most weeknight matches, in a totally shitty mood, after navigating the street from hell known as Elgantine Avenue.

This is a street where the residents have just enough brain power to order a taxi, but not enough to be ready when the taxi comes, meaning that taxis are just parked in the middle of the street, and you have to go around them to get past.When you get to the end of the street, there are the never ending red lights.

The residents and taxi drivers can collectively just fuck right off. Fuck the fucking lot of them.

I arrived at Windsor Park to see signing in the South Stand depicting Linfield glory days past and more recent, such as the County Antrim Shield win last month, the expectant crowd hoping that more glorious images will be added over the coming months,

Cliftonville began the match like a team on a rotten run of form, being defensively nervous and giving away cheap possession when under no or little pressure.

Gradually, Linfield took control of the game, the first chance coming when a low Jamie Mulgrew shot was saved by Jason Mooney, while Mark Haughey got in front of Mooney from a cross but couldn’t direct his header in.

Some Linfield fans, dependent on their view, thought it had gone in and began celebrating. Cliftonville fans ironically cheered the premature celebrations. It was the only cheer they had all night.

Recent meetings between the two sides suggested that the first goal would be vital. You have to go back to September 2012 for the last time a team came from behind (Cliftonville at Windsor Park) to win, while Linfield’s last come from behind win was January 2011. You have to go back to April 2005 for the last time Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville.

For clarification, those stats refer to League matches, Linfield came from 1-0 down to beat Cliftonville in a County Antrim Shield match in October 2015.

Linfield got the breakthrough midway through the first-half when a penalty was awarded for a handball by Chris Ramsey. Stephen Lowry stepped up to make it four penalties out of four in the past month and a bit to put Linfield 1-0 up.

That lead almost disappeared soon afterwards when Mark Haughey got caught in possession in his own penalty area to concede a penalty.

Jay Donnelly put the ball wide from the resulting spot kick.

Linfield were in the mood to make Cliftonville pay for their generousity. Cameron Stewart almost made it 2-0 but his shot hit the post.

As the half neared it’s end, Linfield made it 2-0 when Jason Mooney dropped a cross and, after a bit of a scramble, Andrew Waterworth fired home from close range.

Now, i’ve seen Cliftonville fans online complaining about Mooney’s performances, but it really needs to be seen in the flesh how bad he is. He was actually much worse than they said he was.

At one corner, he caught the ball unchallenged, then held it and dropped it. It’s a pity no Linfield players were alert enough to take advantage. They really should have been, considering how bad he was playing.

He even manage to drop kick the ball out for a throw-in on the halfway line. Linfield fans were running low on sympathy for him.

This performance from October is truly astounding. It would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact it gifted Crusaders three points.

Cliftonville started the second-half having a lot of the ball but not doing much with it. Despite that, Linfield were giving them too much encouragement and needed to quickly improve.

It soon became clear that Cliftonville never looked like scoring no matter how much of the ball they had. Linfield’s full-backs were their most worked defensive players, and that was juts shepherding the ball out for a throw or a goal kick.

Despite recent memories of blowing two goal leads to draw against Cliftonville, Linfield fans were relaxed at 2-0 up. Despite that, they would have preferred their team to make it 3-0.

Mark Stafford thought he did it, but his header hit the post, before a spectacular effort went wide later of.

Mark Haughey had a goal disallowed. There was a bit of confusion as to why. It was either offside against Andrew Waterworth who crossed it, or the ball went out of play before he crossed it. I haven’t seen a TV replay of it yet.

Paul Smyth was running the show for Linfield, and it was no surprise when he was announced as the Man Of The Match.

Up next is a home match against Ards. If we win that, the gap is cut to four, and an opportunity to put pressure on Crusaders before they play on Sky next Monday against Ballinamallard.

If we win all our games, we only need Crusaders to slip up twice. It’s not that inconceivable.

Meanwhile, I got myself a ticket for the Irish Cup Semi-Final against Dungannon on April 1st. Having Ticketmaster is handy, but it should never be the only option. It’s good that the club are able to sell tickets as well to compliment this.

I decided to be a hero and get mine at Monday lunchtime as I work in the City Centre, leaving Windsor Park tickets for those who find it more convenient to get from there, instead of getting one at this match.

Staying at Windsor Park, a new Education and Heritage Centre was opened last week. It’s a Museum. Let’s just call it what it is. I’m hoping to get a chance to visit this soon, though it won’t be immediately soon.

Roy Carroll has been called-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the match against Norway. Hopefully, a deal can be done to allow him to play against Ballinamallard the day before. We only win at Ballinamallard when i’m there, and i’m not sure if I could get to a midweek match.

And finally, the post split fixtures have been confirmed. For Linfield, it is :

H Crusaders (8th April)
A Ballymena United (15th April)
H Glenavon (18th April)
A Coleraine (22nd April)
A Cliftonville (29th April)

Going to be some fun trying to get a ticket if the title race goes to the last day. On the plus side, if Cliftonville’s slide continues, there may be plenty of spaces in the home end that day.

Despite a seven point deficit to make up, things are looking up for Linfield fans. And it just gets better, up next is a Saturday 3pm match at home.

Remember when Linfield played home matches at 3pm on a Saturday? Don’t blame you if you don’t, it’s only our second of 2017.

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LINFIELD 1-1 PORTADOWN 17.2.2017

In the past two years, Linfield’s title challenge has been derailed by defeats to Portadown on a Friday night in February. They avoided a third successive defeat, but it was still a hat-trick of bad results as Linfield commemorated Random Acts Of Kindness Day by gifting Portadown a point, and potentially a third successive title for Crusaders.

The one positive was, that Portadown’s impending relegation means there won’t be any agony against Portadown in February 2018. That, plus INXS were played on the tannoy before the match.

Amongst the crowd at Windsor Park were some Glasgow Warriors fans sat near me making a weekend of their team’s match against Ulster. This, after a group of Dundee Stars fans attended the last Windsor Park game against Ballymena on the same day their team faced Belfast Giants.

It appears that Windsor Park is the go to venue for Scottish sports fans having a weekend in Belfast to see their team.

Even though both teams started slowly, Linfield had the ball in the net in the early minutes when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick but it was disallowed for offside. An early goal was desired for Linfield as they encountered opponents set up to frustrate.

Callacher was having to deal with problems at the other end from Marcio Soares, having a few nervous moments and stray passes.

It was another stray pass, this time from Stephen Lowry, who gifted Portadown their best chance of the night when Marcio Soares was played through and fired straight at Roy Carroll. He really should have scored.

Linfield’s search for the opening goal continued with both Andrew Waterworth and Niall Quinn having shots saved in the same attack.

Towards the end of the half, Waterworth flicked the ball past his man and got to the ball before the goalkeeper, only to see his effort go wide of the post.

Despite their possession, Linfield weren’t doing much with it. Despite the ball being in Portadown’s half, it didn’t look like going into Portadown’s net. It was poor.

David Healy set about doing something about it, bringing on Paul Smyth for Kirk Millar at half-time. Smyth was surprisingly still on the bench after his cameo and goal at Carrick the previous week. The match would take a recurring theme. Linfield trying to get Paul Smyth on the ball and Portadown players trying to cynically foul him.

It wasn’t quite Claudio Caniggia v Cameroon, but it was close. Portadown players did manage to try to recreate the “third time lucky” foul that Cameroon did on Caniggia. Niall Henderson ending up getting a yellow card.

As at any time over the past fifteen months, Linfield are a better attacking force when Smyth is on the pitch and the ball.

As well as cynical fouling, Portadown players were indulging in timewasting. Again, another referee who gestures to tell players to hurry up but doesn’t add the time on. Another mug.

It might sound like a petty thing to raise, but Linfield don’t really help themselves when opponents try to stop the game. With two empty stands and a slope at the end of the pitch, it’s very easy for opposition goalkeepers to timewaste at Windsor Park. Our ballboys should be making sure a new ball is on the pitch as soon as the matchball leaves the field. There was one incident where the ball went into the Railway Stand and the ballboy behind the goal didn’t have a ball and had to go and get the ball that went out. We should be getting our matchday organisation and infrastructure in place to make sure the game doesn’t stop when we are chasing a goal.

No away team comes to Windsor Park to play football. We shouldn’t be facilitating them.

David Healy again turned to his bench, bringing on Ross Gaynor for Niall Quinn as Linfield chased the breakthrough. Gaynor was soon having a shot blocked, as was Stephen Lowry, and then Mark Stafford had a header cleared off the line as frustration began to grow.

Linfield had to be wary of keeping Portadown out at the other end. Marcio Soares got in behind the defence from a goalkeeper’s kick but couldn’t get enough space to set himself up for a clear shot at goal.

Earlier in the game, a Portadown goal might have kickstarted Linfield into life. By this stage, it was too late. Linfield simply had to get the first goal if they were to have any ambition of winning this game.

David Healy then (metaphorically) sacrificed a defender by bringing on Josh Carson for Chris Casement. Casement was a surprise choice at right-back ahead of Sean Ward to cover for the injured Mark Haughey.

Then, came disaster for Linfield, when Portadown went 1-0 up when Sean Mackle dispossessed Jimmy Callacher and did just enough to set up Adam Foley to lob Roy Carroll.

That’s two goals in three games that Callacher could have done better in. I can’t help but wonder if he really is fully fit after going off at Institute a fortnight ago.

As Linfield kicked-off to restart the game, a crossfield pass to Paul Smyth went out of play for a throw. It summed up the night.

Andrew Waterworth had a volley go just wide before Robert Garrett had a great chance to secure the win for Portadown but his shot was saved by Roy Carroll.

To sum up the mood, not even a board to indicate four minutes injury time could raise a roar. One minute into that four, Josh Carson forced home a rebound from close range to make it 1-1. Portadown’s goalkeeper was injured in the incident and required lengthy treatment.

The stoppage killed any momentum Linfield might have had, just when they needed it most. When the game restarted, the correct amount of injury time wasn’t played. It didn’t matter, they didn’t look like getting a second.

This was a game Linfield should have been winning, having beaten Portadown 4-1 and 5-0 this season. They haven’t improved since that 5-0 game in November. If anything, they’ve got worse, if it was possible. You can bet that their defending won’t be as heroic when they play Crusaders next weekend.

Despite our possession and chances, Portadown were never hanging on. Linfield should have had enough over one hundred minutes to beat Portadown.

To compound the misery, Linfield Swifts then showed the First Team how it’s done by beating their Portadown counterparts 9-1.

Crusaders win at Dungannon means they are nine points clear. With Linfield playing Crusaders in April, we need two teams to beat Crusaders. It’s hard to see. Despite writing the book on how to beat Crusaders this season, nobody else in the league seems interested in reading it. Too many teams in this league simply do no believe they can beat Crusaders.

Sadly, it looks like Linfield will be gifting the title to a bunch of hoofers and thugs for the third successive season.

However, there’s no point feeling sorry for ourselves. We must dust ourselves down and continue to get the points on the board just in case, starting at The Oval next weekend.

The future is bright at Windsor Park and we’re on the right track, it’s just taking us a bit longer than expected to get where we want to be, but we’ll get there in the end.

Naturally, with each bad result, there will be analysis of Linfield’s home form. The truth is, it’s no worse than in any of the past four seasons, and it has cost us in each of those four seasons. A statistical analysis can be found here.

Getting settled in the redeveloped Windsor Park was always going to be trial and error. It’s a lot more error than hoped at the moment.

It must be worth the club having a consultation from fans as to what they want from their matchday experience. One suggestion i’d have is to trial having Linfield fans in the Railway Stand. It’s very easy to organise logistically, and has already happened, in a County Antrim Shield tie against Cliftonville in October 2015.

I remember joking that the Coleraine game took place on the wrong day of the week. Linfield have won on every Saturday they’ve played since November 19th. The good news is, the game against Glentoran next weekend will be on a Saturday.

That triggered a little thought in my head, so I decided to dig a little further. Linfield have won only two of their last seven home games on a weekday (excluding Bank Holidays) including all three this season. I’m not sure if that stat serves any relevance.

Meanwhile, this week, saw Northern Ireland announce a friendly against New Zealand at Windsor Park in June. Undecided at the moment, but i’ll probably end up going for the curiousity factor. And yes, i’m aware that they don’t do a haka pre-match. I was hoping for a random friendly at a random EFL ground, like the game against Qatar in Crewe in 2015.

Up next, a trilogy of Belfast derbies. Thankfully, the next two are away from home.

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INSTITUTE 0-2 LINFIELD 4.2.2017

It was the Irish Cup for Linfield today, and a trip to Drumahoe to face Institute, with a place in the Quarter-Finals up for grabs.

Having successfully negotiated lunch at Applegreen without children holding up the queue, I found roadworks to be a much bigger obstacle, causing me to miss the opening ten or so minutes.

As I walked down the hill towards the ground, I could see an Institute player on the ground and the referee blowing his whistle. I feared a penalty. The referee said it was a dive. TV replays proved it to be a correct decision.

Linfield then began to dominate the first-half, Stephen Lowry having a shot saved from the penalty spot, Cameron Stewart having an attempt at goal just wide before setting up Andrew Waterworth, whose shot was saved when he really should have scored.

It wasn’t all one way traffic, as Chris Casment was forced into a block to deny Institute on one of their rare attacks.

Not even a succession of corners late in the half could bring a Linfield goal, as they had to make do with a half-time score of 0-0.

There wasn’t long to wait for a goal in the second-half, as a quick free-kick from Lowry found Niall Quinn in acres of space, his cross was deflected goalwards, Institute’s keeper palming it away, but only to Cameron Stewart who made sure from close range.

It was Stewart’s second goal for Linfield, coming from a combined distance of one yard out. It doesn’t matter how and how far they go in, as long as they go in.

Linfield were finding it out the hard way as they failed to get a second goal that would kill the tie, Institute knowing that while there was one goal in it, the tie was still very much alive.

A header from a free-kick appeared to level the scores for Stute, until their players started to surround the referee, the crowd only realising that the goal was disallowed.

I was at the other end of the pitch and couldn’t see why it was disallowed. TV replays showed it to be for a push. Soft, but the correct decision.

Aaron Harkin took his protests too far and got a second yellow card.

Chris Casement had a free-kick well saved as Linfield looked to take advantage of their extra man. There wasn’t long to wait as Andrew Waterworth was played through and made it 2-0.

It was job done. A lot later than hoped, but job done, despite Institute having some attempts at goal in the final minutes.

The only concern was Jimmy Callacher going off injured ahead of the County Antrim Shield Final on Tuesday.

Talking of Cup Finals, there is one which might be taking place at Windsor Park in 2019. It appears to have snuck under the radar of the Northern Ireland Media, but Windsor Park has submitted a bid to host the European Super Cup Final.

This has come as no surprise as it was previously reported that a bid would be made as soon as the redevelopment was complete.

That would be fantastic. I went to the European Super Cup Final in Cardiff, and really hope this event comes to Belfast.

It’s a game UEFA want to bring to “smaller” stadiums. Capacity isn’t an issue. Windsor Park is only sightly smaller than Eden Arena which hosted the final in 2013.

The competition comes in the form of Tirana, Toulouse, Budapest, Haifa, Astana, Gdansk, Warsaw, Glasgow and Istanbul.

The first six cities have never hosted a European final, so they have that as a USP, though Tolouse hosted Euro 2016 and Budapest will host Euro 2020 games. That may count against them.

One of the Polish bids will have to be withdrawn, while Glasgow, Istanbul and Astana may withdraw to apply for the UEFA Cup Final or the Women’s European Cup Final.

Suddenly, the shortlist could be very short.

Hampden Park is also in the running for that year’s UEFA Cup Final. Sounds like a good excuse for a trip to Glasgow.

If Hampden Park hosts the 2019 European Super Cup, I could console myself by basing my trip to the Edinburgh Festival around being in Glasgow in this day.

Bids have to be submitted by 6th June and the winning bids will be known in September 2017.

Forget about 2019, it’s 2017 that matters, and up next is the County Antrim Shield Final against Crusaders. The past three meetings this season have shown that Linfield have nothing to be afraid of (well, apart from Raymond Crangle influencing the game from 4th Official) and if they play like they have in those three games, they’ll get their rewards.

There won’t be long to wait for the next meeting against Crusaders, with the sides being drawn together in the Irish Cup Quarter-Finals. Linfield fans have good memories of Irish Cup Quarter-Finals in North Belfast, and a packed crowd willing their team on just as they did at Solitude last year gives us more than a chance.

Hopefully, by then, there’ll be nine more points on the board from wins against Carrick, Ards and Glentoran, as well as the County Antrim Shield.

If there is, the final months of the season could be very interesting indeed.

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LINFIELD 2-0 BALLYMENA UNITED 21.1.2017

After two Saturdays on the road, Linfield returned to Windsor Park hoping to rectify poor home form which has contributed to them kicking off seven points behind Crusaders. Today was the first Saturday game at Windsor Park since December 17th 2016, five weeks ago, when Ballymena united, incidentally, were the visitors to Windsor Park.

Linfield’s dramatic win that day saw them be five points behind Crusaders. Poor home results since then against Glentoran and Coleraine have seen the gap increase to seven points.

Linfield got off to a slow start, with Joe McKinney having the first shot on goal for Ballymena when his shot was saved by Roy Carroll.

Eventually, Linfield got more into the game and the pressure began to build. Aaron Burns had a head just wide from close range and he couldn’t get an opportunity to adjust his body.

That pressure was soon rewarded when Alan Blayney could only palm out a Ross Gaynor free-kick, and Stephen Lowry was first to the loose ball, creating enough space to drill the ball across, landing at Mark Stafford who guided the ball into the net via a Ballymena defender. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as his goal against Ballymena last month, but it was just as important.

Aaron Burns got a header goalwards from the next set piece, but a better execution didn’t bring a better result, as he was denied by a Ballymena defencer heading away.

The next time the ball was cleared off the line came at the other end of the pitch when Conor McCloskey was denied, before Johnny McMurray had a volley saved by Carroll, reminding Linfield that this game was far from won.

Sandwiched inbetween, Andrew Waterworth was able to pull away from Ballymena’s defence, but his low drive was saved by Alan Blayney.

Linfield went in search of a second goal that would clinch the game at the start of the second-half that would more than likely clinch the game.

Aaron Burns was played through but was on his right foot. The delay in setting himself onto this left foot allowed Jim Ervin to get a block in and deflect the ball over.

Burns was soon to get the feeling that today was not to be his day when he got in behind Ballymena’s defence, lobbed the ball over Blayney, only to see the ball hit the bar.

Linfield fans were soon feeling similar. That’s the sort of chance you rue when you drop two points.

As Linfield chased the clinching goal, David Healy turned to his bench, with Kirk Millar coming on for Stephen Fallon, while Cameron Stewart came on for Ross Gaynor.

That goal became even more essential as Linfield were soon reminded of the perils of a one goal lead when Conor McCloskey fired just wide from a good position.

Cameron Stewart’s first involvement in the game came when he got a yellow card for kicking the ball away at a free-kick. No complaints about that. However, a Ballymena player did the same thing in the first-half and wasn’t booked.

That’s the sort of consistency we all love from Irish League referees.

Finally, Linfield got the goal they needed, when Andrew Waterworth got in behind Ballymena’s defence, took his time, and then took some more time, before eventually putting the ball in the net.

Ballymena might have been able to score one, they were never going to score two. The game was won for Linfield.

The atmosphere soon reflected that around Windsor Park, as Linfield fans began to feel more relaxed.

Stewart created space for himself in the box, and decided to set up Matthew Clarke rather than going for goal himself, the shot going just wide.

It was now time for Kevin Amuneke to make his Linfield debut. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get many chances due to the level of attacking not being as intense when you lead 2-0 with less then ten minutes to go. He did get into some good positions when the ball was out wide, the delivery not quite going to him

Ballymena tried to make the final moments nervous for Linfield, with Roy Carroll once agains denying Johnny McMurray, as Linfield got a long awaited clean sheet, their first since the match against Ards on December 10th.

Sandwiched inbetween Crusaders and Cliftonville, there was always going to be a result going Linfield’s way at Seaview when the sides met.

A 1-0 win for Crusaders meant that Linfield pulled six points clear of Cliftonville but still remain seven points behind Crusaders.

However, fixtures over the coming weeks before the split (yes, it’s the time of year when we can actually start talking about the split) offer Linfield a chance to gather some winning momentum.

That’s not arrogance, Dungannon-Carrick-Portadown-Glentoran-Cliftonville-Ards-Ballinamallard is a run of games Linfield should be getting maxiumum points from going into the split.

Crusaders meanwhile, have games against Glenavon and Ballymena coming up, as well as a trip to Coleraine in March. Just a pity that game against Coleraine wasn’t sooner, given the run of form they are on.

That match against Ballymena is the week before the League Cup Final. Half assed saving themselves or highly motivated with cup final places up for grabs? Hopefully the latter.

Meanwhile, tickets for the County Antrim Shield Final went on sale, Linfield’s last home match before that game. Not sure why it needs to be ticketed when Linfield have never been ticketed at Ballymena for a League game.

Carrick Rangers have announced that Linfield’s visit there in February will be all ticket. Logically, that would suggest it will be all ticket for Linfield fans.

If it is, there are no home games for Linfield between now and then. You’d think they would have known about this and made tickets available for Linfield fans earlier, especially as Linfield’s visit there in August 2015 (at eleven days notice) was ticketed. I wasn’t at the game in September 2016 so I don’t know if that was ticketed.

Talk about making it difficult for people to attend.

Oh, and I finally got round to purchasing Every Other Saturday. Looking forward to getting stuck into this.

Up next, a trip to Dungannon, and hopefully the start of the charge.

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