In a match moved for Biden, it was a case of Bye Then for Linfield’s title challenge. Not mathematically, but as good as.

Ten points behind with four to play, there was no margin for error for Linfield.

Starting the split five points behind Larne, the first change in points difference had to be in Linfield’s favour. It went to Larne.

This two points thrown away, and not because of the way they were lost.

Even if the title is lost, Europe could have been as good as secured with three points here if results went their way the following Saturday.

Linfield made a good start to this game, showing more of an attacking threat than they did in the opening minute than they did in the previous match against Crusaders. Although, that was quite a low bar.

Kirk Millar was found in plenty of space out wide and his first time cross was backheeled goalwards by Chris McKee like Lee Sharpe v Barcelona in 1994. although with not the save outcome, this one being saved by Glentoran’s keeper.

Linfield’s next attack came down the left, with Matthew Clarke bursting into the box to win a corner.

That corner was cleared for another corner, which resulted in a goalmouth scramble. Linfield needed to make this pressure count.

Linfield’s good start dropped off, but Glentoran didn’t really offer much in response other than speculative long range shots.

Although, speculative long range shots have provided them with reward against Linfield already this season.

Glentoran were also getting a lot of joy from pressing Linfield were trying to play it out from the back. Annoyingly, Glentoran’s defenders weren’t under the same pressure when they were trying to play it out from the back. South Standers weren’t slow in registering their protest at this.

It was becoming obvious that this is a game where the first goal would be key. With so few clear cut chances for either team, Linfield had to make the most of those that came their way.

They were almost gifted one when Kirk Millar intercepted a pass and as soon as he got the ball, Chris McKee was in position for a through ball, where he would expect to be getting a shot on goal.

The pass was overhit and went straight through to Glentoran’s keeper.

Millar made better use of a ball falling his way a few minutes later when a cross landed at him but his goalbound shot was blocked by a Glentoran defender at the expense of a corner.

That corner was only a brief respite for Glentoran as Sam Roscoe headed home from the corner to put Linfield 1-0 up.

The goal came from a period of pressure which also saw Stephen Fallon have a shot saved.

Finally, after their decent start in the opening minutes wasn’t capitalised on, Linfield had taken control of the game.

Now they needed to kick on in the second-half.

That didn’t quite happen, as neither side really created a clear goalscoring opportunity of note.

Linfield turned to their bench, making like for like substitutions with Kyle McClean and Kyle Lafferty coming on for Stephen Fallon and Chris McKee.

No issue with McKee coming off, but Eetu Vertainen was the obvious substitution ahead of Kyle Lafferty if Linfield were going to bring on a striker for the final stage of the game.

As the final minutes approached, Linfield were coasting, content to hold on, to see the game out rather than kill it off.

A dangerous tactic. It brought back memories of late equalisers conceded at home to Glentoran.

Linfield were inviting trouble. Glentoran were having too much of the ball. Even though they weren’t doing much with it, they were having far too much of it. Linfield needed to make the ball do the work and take control of the game and make sure they see out the final minutes.

Joel Cooper was forced off with an injury, replaced by Niall Quinn as injury time approached.

The goal we all feared came at the end of the first of four minutes of stoppage time when Bobby Burns stretched to finish after running on to a header.

It was such a bad goal to concede. A ball hoofed forward, failure to win a header and a failure to follow the run. It was another example of poor substitutions, in this case one not made. It was beyond obvious that Cameron Palmer should have been brought on for the final minutes to introduce some fresh legs in midfield.

Even though it extended Larne’s lead at the top by a further two points, it didn’t really make much of a difference in terms of the title race. A win against Crusaders two days after this would have done the job no matter what the score was. It just meant they had the comfort that they could afford a draw.

A draw was what Linfield could do without. As the game was about to restart, they had the look of a team that was reluctantly accepting a draw rather than a team looking to resecure the lead in the three minutes that still remained ………..

With thirty seconds remaining, Linfield got an attacking free-kick that could be played into the box. Kyle Lafferty was flagged offside as the ball went out for a goal kick. That summed everything up.

Two dropped points. The title was as good as Larne’s before this match. If you can’t win the League, at least get into Europe. Linfield remain in pole position for it, but it could have been wrapped up with two to play.

I really cannot be arsed with the European Play-Offs. Let’s hope this was the last Linfield home match (at Windsor Park or wherever) this season.

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Linfield did their best to pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement by blowing the title with a 0-0 draw at home to Crusaders just as they did a few days after it was signed.

At least in 1998, they created enough chances and could feel aggrieved about the result. Not so much in this game.

Just need Wes Lamont to come out of retirement for Coleraine to seal the deal.

Having cut Larne’s lead at the top to five points in the last matchday, they were feeling confident of a remarkable title win.

All they had to do was win their final five games and they needed just one result to go their way. It has happened before, in 2017.

As fans left Dungannon a few weeks previously, there was a sense of frustration that Larne weren’t Linfield’s first opponents after the split. It turned out to be a sense of relief after these ninety minutes.

Linfield’s starting eleven was unchanged from their 5-0 win at Dungannon. Not that unsurprising.

The substitutes bench raised a few eyebrows, with a welcome return for Stephen Fallon.

There wasn’t a lot of attacking options though. The most obvious ones if needed would be Andrew Clarke, Max Haygarth and a welcome return after injury for Eetu Vertainen.

Linfield had two headed chances in the early stages of the game.

Sam Roscoe headed just wide from a corner while Jimmy Callacher headed over from a free-kick just a few yards out.

My initial reaction was that it was a bad miss. In truth, it wasn’t as easy a chance as it looked.

It was one of those where you had to stick a head on it, there was no time to set yourself up, he just had to stick his head on it.

If there was anyone on a blue shirt you would want on the end of a cross, it would have been Jimmy Callacher.

Those two chances would suggest that it was a bright and positive start from Linfield. It was anything but.

It was mostly even, but Linfield were slow and lethargic, creating very little in open play.

What made it worse, was that there was two weeks preparation for this game.

The previous three games had seen a trophy, a goal difference boost of twelve and, most importantly, Larne’s gap at the top reduced.

News travels fast. If Linfield could get an early goal while Larne were drawing 0-0, everybody at Inver Park would have known about it.

Linfield were dealt a blow when Jamie Mulgrew went off injured, with Kyle McClean coming on to replace.

Even though Stephen Fallon was available, he was never going to come on at this early stage. If you’re going to play him for 70 minutes, you might as well start him.

Crusaders had the first real effort on goal of note when a free-kick from Jordan Forsythe hit the bar.

It was obvious that this was a game where the first goal would be vital.

You felt if Linfield got it, they would comfortably go on and win the game.

If Crusaders got it, you honestly couldn’t saw with any confidence that Linfield could come back to even got a draw. Not the way the game had been going.

Linfield hadn’t created anything of note in open play.

In fact, the one big chance they had was gifted to them by a defensive mix-up, but when Joel Cooper got the ball out wide, he was unable to get himself into a position to either cross or shoot.

0-0 at half-time in a game that Linfield needed to win. Even more so as the half-time scores announced saw Larne leading 2-0 against Glentoran.

Normally, news of Glentoran trailing at half-time would raise a cheer, but not tonight.

Linfield needed to vastly improve in the second-half.

That response didn’t exactly appear in the opening minutes of the second-half. There was no improvement. It was still lethargic from Linfield.

Thankfully, Crusaders didn’t punish Linfield for that, being mostly restricted to long range shots.

It just needed one of them to get lucky though.

Linfield thought they had gotten lucky when Kyle McClean finished from close range but Ethan Devine was judged to be offside in the build-up as he headed .

There wasn’t much celebrations as the flag went up straight away.

The replay of it is hard to tell.

It was becoming obvious with each passing minute that Eeru Vertainen would soon be entering the pitch.

You had the feeling he was being kept until the hour or if Crusaders went 1-0 up, whichever came first.

Turns out that feeling was wrong, his appearance was to come just after the hour, as part of a double substitution which saw Stephen Fallon return from injury. Ironically, his last appearance was a 0-0 draw at home to Crusaders in November.

The changes didn’t have an immediate impact.

Linfield’s best chance came when Sam Roscoe headed against the angle of post and bar from a free-kick. That was one each in terms of woodwork related frustration.

That looked like being Roscoe’s last major involvement in the game as he was set to be substituted for Andrew Clarke. A last minute signal from Daniel Finlayson that he was struggling with injury soon changed that, and it was he who made way instead.

Although, this changed seemed to confuse the person in charge of the LED Board, who signalled for Finlayson to replace Roscoe.

That change meant Chris Shields coming back into defence to accommodate Clarke in midfield.

Linfield’s formation was now basically bodies. As many in the box as possible. The problem was, getting that right pass. No point in having bodies if you can’t get the ball to them.

It was disappointing not to see Max Haygarth come on. It might have worked, it more than likely wouldn’t have, but Linfield just needed something different. They were too predictable and easy to play against.

There was still time for one more chance for Linfield, in injury time. Kirk Millar managed to cut inside and find space but his shot hit his own player.

That was only ever going to be the only conclusion to that situation. It was one of those nights.

Except, you couldn’t say it was “One of those nights”. Linfield didn’t do enough to justifiably have such a grumble.

There was never a moment in the game where you thought a Linfield goal was imminent. That was the problem.

Linfield should have been going at Crusaders from the start, taking the initiative and laying down the gauntlet. They should have been playing like a team battling for the title.

Even when news filtered through that Larne were 2-0 up, the mission was now keeping in touch rather than cutting the gap. You can’t cut the gap if you don’t keep in touch. There would still be four more matches left to cut the gap.

It’s strange for a team that are the top scorers in the League to complain about a lack of goals. The problem is, the goals haven’t come when they’ve been needed.

The biggest stat to back this up is that Linfield have drawn 0-0 with four of the other five clubs in the Top Six.

And the one they haven’t had one against are next at Windsor Park.

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The first home match of Michael O’Neill’s first spell as Northern Ireland manager was a defeat to a Nordic nation, and things (eventually) got better. You might as well try to stay positive.

It was a defeat that wasn’t terminal, but it leaves Northern Ireland with a lot of work to do, even at this early stage of the campaign. They were already needing this group to become a bloodbath, even more now.

There was already a sign of that in the early kick-off when Kazakhstan secured a shock 3-2 win over Denmark.

Ideally, Denmark run away with the group, San Marino get the wooden spoon, and Northern Ireland being part of four teams battling for that second place. One of those teams getting points against Denmark was not in the plan.

Playing San Marino first was ideal, get eased in and some points on the board early on. If they could get another three, they would pull clear of one of their main rivals and sit top going into the June Double Header.

Northern Ireland had the first big attacking moment of the game when Dion Charles snuck the ball to Jordan Thompson on the byline in the penalty area, but his ball across goal was cleared by a Finland defender. If the ball had fallen to a Northern Ireland player, it would have been 1-0.

Dion Charles would be involved in Northern Ireland’s next moment of frustration, again from another pull back.

Conor Bradley pulled the ball back to him but his first time shot under pressure went well over the bar. If he had hit the target, it would have been 1-0 to Northern Ireland.

Despite Northern Ireland’s positive start, it was Finland who took the lead when a cross found it’s way to Benjamin Kallman, who made no mistake from a few yards out.

The goal stunned Windsor Park. This was not what any of the home fans had in mind when they entered the stadium.

As the first-half neared it’s end, Northern Ireland got that one big chance they craved when Dion Charles was played in behind Finland’s defence, but his first time shot was saved by Finland’s keeper, who made himself big.

Even though Finland’s keeper did well, it was a chance that Charles should have scored.

Northern Ireland had already found out by this point a harsh lesson why you need to make the most of what chances you create. This was extra curricular learning now by this point.

As the half-time whistle blew, it also meant that in my fifth game since moving to the Railway Stand, I had yet to witness a Northern Ireland goal there.

No need to panic though, Northern Ireland had created chances, they needed to start taking them.

They would be attacking The Kop in the second-half, hoping to secure a come from behind win for the second home match in a row.

Northern Ireland made an attacking change in the opening minutes of the second-half, but it was forced through injury, as Josh Magennis came on for Daniel Ballard.

It looked to be a subsitution that would pay near instant dividends when Conor Bradley headed to set up Magennis twelve yards out, but he volleyed over. Another chance gone.

Just after the hour, Windsor Park erupted in celebration when Dion Charles finished from close range after a set piece, but the joy was short lived when the goal was disallowed for handball.

There was a brief moment if hope as the goal went to a check, but the way the evening had been going so far, the only outcome was to be a disallowed goal.

Finland were just as wasteful at the other end, with Robert Ivanov firing over after a free-kick was saved by Peacock-Farrell.

At this late stage, going 2-0 down would have out the game beyond Northern Ireland

You would happily take a point now at this stage.

Even when Finland’s keeper let a cross under his body (think Zubizarreta v Nigeria at France 98) the ball wouldn’t fall Northern Ireland’s way, going out for a corner rather than rolling into the net.

That would be it for Northern Ireland, as Finland held out for a 1-0 win.

Perhaps not that surprising. This fixture has a sense of symmetry about it.

The meetings in qualifying for Mexico 86 and Euro 2000 were all home wins. Finland then won a friendly at Windsor Park before Northern Ireland won a friendly in Finland. A further friendly draw was followed by a win and a draw for Northern Ireland in Euro 2016 Qualifying.

That meant Northern Ireland led the head to heads by one, it just felt inevitable that Finland would level it up during Euro 2024 Qualifying.

It was a defeat that was hard to take as Northern Ireland didn’t deserve to lose. Especially as this is a game that would have been marked as vital to get three points in.

Not just in terms of facing one of the main group rivals, but to have a winning start two games in and lay down a marker to the group rivals, leaving them playing catch-up.

As you watched the final minutes when Finland had men behind the ball, it was hard to see where a Northern Ireland goal was coming from.

Finland weren’t going to make a mistake, and Northern Ireland didn’t have anyone on the pitch who could make something happen. Just getting the ball and making something happen. Scaring the life out of opposition defenders.

You felt that if a Northern Ireland player ran with the ball, they would lose it within seconds.

That made the decision to leave out Paul Smyth even more baffling.

Yes, he plays in League Two, but he’s too good for that League. He’ll be playing at a higher level next season, with or without Leyton Orient.

I know you’ll all cry club bias, but he offers something different, and that is what Northern Ireland needed.

Even at this early stage, the June double header with Denmark and Kazakhstan are massive. We don’t have a Play-Off spot to fall back on. It’s all or nothing. At least four points is an absolute must.

It wasn’t a total write-off of a weekend, as I won a place at a Q and A event at JD Sports the night before with Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas. I even managed to get my Euro 2016 programme signed by them.

Hopefully, in 2031, i’ll be getting my Euro 2024 programme signed by a couple of Northern Ireland players who played in it.

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Northern Ireland v Finland 2015


It’s been a topsy-turvey season but at least it will be one that will have at least some silverware in the shape of the Bet McLean Cup.

For Coleraine, this was their third successive Final spread across four years due to the competition not taking place in 2020-2021.

Having won the competition in 2019 after an eleven year drought, Linfield weren’t in the mood to have a similar drought.

Kyle Lafferty was ineligible for this competition, so Chris McKee came into the starting eleven.

Linfield had more of the attacking play in the opening minutes of the game.

The best moment came from a run by Joel Cooper, working space for himself close to the byline but his cross was too close to Gareth Deane.

A good statement of intent though. If Cooper can get into the form we know he can get into, there was the potential for goals from Linfield.

Cooper would be frustrated soon after when his shot from outside the box went just wide.

Having survived Linfield being camped in their half, Coleraine began to have a bit of the ball in Linfield’s half.

There was a moment of worry for Linfield when Stephen O’Donnell headed towards goal, but the ball looped onto the roof of the net.

Coleraine fans were prematurely celebrating when Dean Jarvis headed wide at the far post.

I’m not even sure why they were celebrating, the ball didn’t even go goalwards. It hit an advertising hoarding and then rolled into the netting.

It was blatantly obvious what happened. I know that Coleraine fans would have had a relatively obstructed view of the incident, but it’s not as if it hit the side netting.

Bizarre. So bizarre, that Linfield fans hesitated before the inevitible taunts about the premature celebrations.

When they eventually did, they let Coleraine fans know about it.

Chris Johns was then forced into a save from a low effort from Lee Lynch. It didn’t feel that a Coleraine goal was imminent, but they were having far too many sights of Linfield’s goals. Linfield just had to make sure they saw this out.

Even at this early stage, it was looking like a game where the first goal would be crucial. Linfield had to make sure that Coleraine didn’t get it.

Jimmy Callacher was next to deny Coleraine, sticking a leg out to block a Coleraine shot, although it might have been going wide.

0-0 at half-time, but it wasn’t a bad 0-0. Coleraine had the slightly better attacking moments but it was mostly even.

As stated earlier, it was looking like a game that would only finish 1-0.

After a goalless first-half, there wasn’t long to wait for a goal in the second-half, and it came for Linfield.

Jamie Mulgrew snapped up a loose ball and played a first time cross to Chris McKee, whose simple pass played in Joel Cooper to fire home.

It was one of those where you knew it was going to be a goal as soon as the ball went to him.

Initially, I thought it was Joel Cooper passing to Chris McKee.

McKee was in the sort of position that Cooper usually occupies, and Cooper made the sort of run that McKee would make.

It did strike me as odd that Cooper was celebrating so much for an assist.

As the hour approached, Linfield got a penalty when Chris McKee was fouled as he looked to get on the end of a rogue backheader.

From where I was sat, it looked unclear. When you see the replays, it was a clear penalty.

If the first-half suggested that this was a game that was only going to have one goal in it, then there would be no way back for Coleraine if Linfield got to 2-0.

When someone as nervous and conservative as me says it is game over at 2-0, then it was definitely game over.

Chris Shields made no mistake, slotting home to make it 2-0.

But wait, Coleraine know better than anybody that 2-0 isn’t a definitive lead in the League Cup Final. They found that out the hard way last season when they lost 4-3 to Cliftonville after being 2-0 up.

Just when everything was going perfectly for Linfield, they suffered a blow when Eetu Vertainen pulled up chasing after a pass and had to be substituted.

Instead of a like for like substitution, Kyle McClean came on for him, to add an extra body into midfield. Linfield didn’t need to score, they just had to not concede two.

The next change was another striker leaving, but this time it was a like for like change, with Ethan Devine coming for Chris McKee. No late heroics required this time, and hopefully they wouldn’t be needed as the game progressed.

Coleraine’s best attacking moment in response to Linfield’s two goals was a free header from Matthew Shevlin on 86 minutes just over six yards out, which went over. He really should have scored.

If that had went in, there would have still been enough time for them to try and take the game to extra-time.

Coleraine simply had to make the most of whatever chances came their way, They were never going to get another one that glaring in the time that remained.

And so it proved, as Linfield comfortably held on to get the win, and land the League Cup for the first time since 2019.

Maybe not the number one ambition for the season, but if you win something you’ve only managed to win once in fifteen years, you’ll happily take it.

After an even first-half, it was obvious that this was a game where the first goal was vital. Once Linfield got it, there was only going to be one winner.

This meant that Linfield had kept four clean sheets in a row. Add in a trophy, that sounds like momentum, especially with two winnable games coming up to the split.

Adding a second to the cabinet might seem like a long shot, but if you keep winning, who knows where it can lead.

In the week after this game, there was the shock news that it was revealed that Ross Larkin’s absence has been due to a Brain Tumour. Thankfully, it appears that he is on the mend.

When the news was announced on Thursday, it was probably too late to arrange something for the upcoming Saturday game. Hopefully, with two home games to come in the split, there will be some sort of collection for an associated charity at one of those games.

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2019 NIFL Cup Final


If this was to be the last time Linfield fans see their side play a League match at Windsor Park for a while, they signed off with a vital win in a must-win game. Well, they’re all must-win at this time of year.

In a season that has been so unpredictable, it might seem a bit bold, but this might have been the defeat that saw Coleraine become the biggest victims of the February Irish League Bloodbath.

Matthew Clarke, Daniel Finlayson and Kyle Lafferty came into Linfield’s starting eleven for a game which saw Coleraine have a lot of the ball but Linfield were better with it when they had it, although neither side created a clear opportunity.

Around the quarter hour, Linfield were given an opportunity to have their first clear opportunity of the game when they were awarded a penalty for a handball.

It was such an obvious decision, you were wondering if it actually happened. I’m not sure what the Coleraine defender was doing, the ball was so low.

The Linesman was right beside it an flagged immediately. Penalty to Linfield.

You know what that means, a goal for Chris Shields, which is what happened. A vital goal in a vital game.

Boosted by this goal, Linfield had a spell on top that they needed to make the most of.

Daniel Finlayson had a header go wide which was Linfield’s best moment during this spell of pressure.

Coleraine were getting a lot of joy out wide and firing in crosses. A lot of crosses. Luckily for Linfield, they had nobody on the end of them.

Andy Scott decided he fancied getting on the end of one, but his effort from close range was turned away by Chris Johns as the half neared it’s end.

As Linfield sat in the Changing Room plotting how to improve on their one goal lead, it would turn out that Chris Shields wouldn’t be the only one taking a penalty in front of The Kop.

A man from Preston on his Stag Weekend provided the half-time entertainment by taking a penalty. It wouldn’t be simple for him. He was spun around a few times before taking his shot.

If you care, he scored.

It would have been embarrassing if he had scored and Chris Shields had missed.

Linfield began the second-half with a period of pressure on the Coleraine goal.

That pressure was rewarded with a goal within five minutes when Eetu Vertainen finished from close range after a Matthew Clarke header was saved but landed perfectly for him.

I know I reel off cliches about needing another goal and all that, but deep down you knew that the points were in the bag as long as Linfield didn’t do anything stupid.

Going into this game, Coleraine had drawn with Glentoran, exited the Irish Cup on penalties to Cliftonville and then lost to Crusaders in recent weeks. It looked like Coleraine were a team that had “Hit the wall” and Linfield were ready to take advantage.

The destination of the three points could have been put beyond all doubt when Joel Cooper set up Daniel Finlayson from six yards out but he hit the bar. He really should have scored.

As the hour approached, Chris McKee came on for Eetu Vertainen.

Even though there wouldn’t be another match for ten days, it still cause a bit of concern as it was too early to give him a rest and too early to be tactical, especially when you are winning the game.

It was Jamie Mulgrew who almost extended Linfield’s lead with a shot that narrowly missed the target.

Linfield were managing to keep Coleraine at bay but they couldn’t afford to get complacent.

A header that went well wide of the post was the best that Coleraine could offer.

As the minutes ticked by, they looked less and less like getting a goal back that could make things uncomfortable for Linfield.

Max Haygarth and Cameron Palmer came on from the bench for Jamie Mulgrew and Joel Cooper.

Mulgrew was doing well to still be standing after being on the end of some robust challenges. Just a normal game for him.

As it turned out, Linfield won the game 2-0.

Elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Glentoran and Crusaders were held to a draw at Ballymena.

There is a bit of a gap opening up at the top but Linfield are hanging on in there.

Up next, after a ten day break due to being out of the Irish Cup is a trip to Larne.

Under usual circumstances, four points from two visits to Larne, like last season would be a decent return, but they really need to take six because of the gap and the lack of games left.

I have a suspicion that Cliftonville and Glentoran fans might be secretly cheering on Linfield in that match.

Defeat can’t even be thought about.

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It was a win, but it was a tough watch. That’s all that matters, especially when there were two meetings between Top 6 teams and coming off defeat at The Oval. To say that Linfield will have to play a bit better in upcoming matches is generous. They will have to play a lot better.

Following defeat at The Oval, there were a lot of changes for Linfield, with welcome returns in defence for Jimmy Callacher and Ben Hall, with a first start for Ryan McKay and Max Haygarth being brought in on the other side.

Sat in position ready for the game to start, the Referee signalled for the teams to switch sides, meaning I had to get up and powerwalk to the other end.

The same thing happened when Carrick were at Windsor Park in December, and I got into my seat just in time to see Eetu Vertainen put Linfield 1-0 up.

I would miss a dramatic start again, of sorts, as I took my new seat just in time to see Robbie McDaid receiving treatment. Hearing the screams as he received treatment, it became obvious that a substitution was imminent.

So it proved, as Chris McKee came on, hoping to carry on from his performance against Cliftonville the previous week.

McKee had Linfield’s first big chance of the game when he controlled a through ball but his right foot saved by Ross Glendenning.

He would have been better smashing it with his left foot, but the way the ball was bobbling about, he was glad just to get any sort of shot on goal.

Ryan McKay would be next to be frustrated when he was played in but his left foot shot was saved at point blank by Ross Glendenning.

This was the sort of game where it was obvious that Linfield needed to get a lead as soon as possible. The longer it stayed 0-0, the more the frustration would set in.

Just like Robbie McDaid, Ryan McKay’s afternoon would end prematurely through injury, Joel Cooper replacing him.

Not wanting to miss out, Carrick even had a player go off injured.

It all added to the stop-start nature of the game. Carrick were skilled in winning cheap free-kicks. It felt at times, like a Linfield just had to look at a Carrick player to concede a free-kick.

In the few actual game time there was, Linfield weren’t really offering much. No urgency on the ball, if they managed not to lose it, as most of the time, first touches were just giving the ball to Carrick.

It soon became obvious that the first goal of this game was going to be key. If Linfield had got it, especially when McKee and McKay were denied, it could have been the springboard for a comfortable afternoon.

If Carrick got it, that didn’t bear thinking about. You just didn’t feel that Linfield had it in them to come back.

Unsurprisingly, with all the injuries, we had ten minutes of injury time at the end of the first-half. Linfield’s previous half of football only had ten seconds.

Ten minutes felt like a punishment for the crowd. Ten more minutes to wait before doing what they do at half-time.

Nothing of note happened during these ten minutes. Barely anything of note happened in the forty-five that preceded it.

Linfield responded with a double substitution, Ethan Devine and Kirk Millar coming on for Andrew Clarke and Max Haygarth.

It had to get better from Linfield. It didn’t. The expected response from a half-time rollicking didn’t materialise.

Eventually, Joel Cooper had an attempt on goal but was frustrated when he created space for himself but his low shot was easily saved.

Cooper would be making an impact on the game soon afterwards, setting up Eetu Vertainen to fire home to put Linfield 1-0 up.

The way the game had been going, everybody expected the pass to Vertainen to bobble, or for his shot to go well over the bar. It was one of those games.

As mentioned earlier, the first goal was going to be so important in this game. Thankfully, Linfield had it.

Chris Shields would be frustrated as his shot flashed just wide.

With only a one goal lead, this was looking like “One of those games”. You know what I mean. Late Carrick equaliser, too little time for Linfield to reply. This was something we could really do without.

Kyle McClean came on as a substitute for Eetu Vertainen. Not a change I would have made but what do I know, it paid dividends within a few minutes.

Linfield had a free-kick in a shooting position. Many had expected Ethan Devine to hit it, having scored one against Larne in October.

It was McClean who hit it, into the back of the net to secure the points.

For the first time all afternoon, the locals could relax.

After that, the game meandered as it finished 2-0 to Linfield.

Results elsewhere weren’t kind.

The draws that were hoped for didn’t materialise, with home wins for Crusaders and Larne.

Famous last words, but Coleraine look like they might be the first victims of the February Bloodbath.

There’s a danger that Larne might start to run away with it.

That’s why winning by any means is so important, the keep the pressure on Larne and Cliftonville and to stay ahead of Crusaders and Glentoran.

To keep on winning, it’s going to have to be a lot lot better.

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Linfield have made a good habit of bouncing back from disappointment in 2023. They’ve had a rather bad habit of frequently suffering disappointment in 2023.

The latest one, was an Irish Cup exit at Larne, making it four times this season they have exited a competition on penalties.

Not the best start to February, a month which sees various Top 6 teams playing each other across four matchdays. There is the potential for a bloodbath.

Defeat to Cliftonville could see Linfield becoming the first victims of that bloodbath. They couldn’t even afford a draw even though there was still a lot of games to go to make up the gap. Linfield simply had to win.

The previous night, Larne beat Glenavon. In a strange way, it was a result that Linfield could live with as it put a bit of pressure on Cliftonville, instead of them arriving knowing they could afford a draw, now they had to win to keep Larne at bay as much as pulling away from Linfield.

If Larne’s win on Friday night was putting pressure on Cliftonville, it put a lot more pressure on Linfield.

Cliftonville simply couldn’t be allowed to leave Windsor Park with their lead over Linfield intact or even extended.

Defeat would be game over for Linfield in terms of the title race. Even though they came back from a bigger gap to be in contention, games are running out.

Kyle Lafferty was brought in a few days before this game was, perhaps surprisingly, given a start, considering he hasn’t played a lot of football recently.

Perhaps not that surprising with Eetu Vertainen being injured. It would be interesting to see how many minutes he would complete.

It was a largely even opening. Both teams having a lot of the ball but not really creating anything of note.

Joel Cooper had Linfield’s first strike on goal, cutting in and firing with his right foot, an effort that was easily saved.

Chris McKee had the first big moment of the game, getting on the end of a cross, but his well struck shot hit the side netting.

Some people around me were prematurely jumping up to celebrate a goal.

It didn’t go in, but it did pump up the home fans.

Linfield were now enjoying their best spell of the game. Not outright dominance, but making more of the ball when they went forward. They really needed to make the most of it.

It looked like that moment was going to come when the ball was pulled back to Kyle Lafferty but he fired over from six yards when he really should have scored.

Linfield were getting closer.

Of course, the biggest cliche in football is that you have to take your chances.

In the final minute of the half, Cliftonville almost did that when a neat passing move, similar to the one that brought their winning goal against Linfield in January saw Levi Ives get into a position to shoot, but his effort was saved by Chris Johns.

There was a brief moment as Johns lay on the ground having made the save with the momentum of the ball taking it upwards.

It could have went anywhere. Thankfully, it dropped right into Johns hands.

0-0 at half-time but promise for Linfield. Cliftonville were largely neutralised as an attacking force and Linfield had created opportunities for themselves.

Cliftonville had the first shot on goal on the second-half when Levi Ives worked his way into space outside the box but his low shot was easily saved by Johns.

Linfield then turned on the pressure and thought they were going to go 1-0 up when Joel Cooper got his head on the end of a cross a few yards out but he headed over. If he had got it on target, it would have been a goal.

Sam Roscoe was next to be frustrated with a header from a free-kick that took everybody by surprise.

Just before the hour, Linfield made the breakthrough when a quick attacking move saw Kirk Millar played in out right, his cross was turned into his own net by Kris Lowe under pressure from Matthew Clarke who was looking to finish from a few yards out.

Clarke was setting himself up to finish and was trying to readjust his body having been beaten to the ball, sticking out a leg to try and put the ball in the net.

Looking at the replay, it was probably for the best that he didn’t get a touch, as an outstretched leg might have diverted the ball away from the goal rather than into it.

You could just feel the relief amongst the Linfield support, they knew how big a goal this was. Only the second goal in four hours of League football between Cliftonville and Linfield, they knew it might just be enough to get the three points, such as how the game had gone.

A second goal would have been better advised, not that you would ever be comfortable with a two goal against Cliftonville, it certainly would have made the final minutes less nervous.

It looked like that was going to come when Chris McKee fired an effort goalwards a few yards out, but was denied by a clearance on the line.

Kyle Lafferty marked his debut with a yellow card after a tussle with Colin Coates while waiting for a corner to be taken. Not sure what he actually did wrong as it was Coates showing most of the aggression.

It was one of those where the Referee just books both parties no matter what.

How long Lafferty would be on the pitch was always going to be a question, even more so with him on a yellow card.

It was a risk worth taking. You felt that if he could get into a challenge with Colin Coates, it would be Coates who would be taking an early bath as Lafferty had seemed to wind him up.

That situation couldn’t be engineered though.

The yellow card seemed to neutralise Lafferty, he was pulling out of challenges, wary that he was walking a tightrope. Understandable.

With just over ten minutes to go, he was substituted. He probably would have been going off at that point anyway even if he hadn’t been booked.

It was a decent shift from him. A lot of his better moments came without the ball, making decent runs and creating room for others.

Still should have scored the chance on the first-half. Despite that, a decent afternoon.

He was joined leaving the action by Chris McKee in a double substitution.

McKee was playing in a deeper midfield role and had an excellent game, starting the move that led to Linfield’s goal.

Agonisingly, he could have put Linfield 2-0 up before he exited, firing over from close range when he really should have scored.

One more sub in the final minutes, with Conor Pepper coming on for Kirk Millar.

Not one I would have made, as it signalled to Cliftonville that Linfield’s attacking intentions for the day were over.

It almost backfired when Cliftonville hit the woodwork, and Joe Gormley put the ball into the net from the rebound, to loud cheers.

From the Linfield fans, as the offside flag went up immediately as he was putting the ball into the net.

I was sat in the South Stand/Railway Stand Quadrant so didn’t get a clear view, but the lack of protest from Cliftonville fans suggested the decision was correct.

Linfield held out and got the win, a deserved win and a big win.

Not outright dominant, but the better team and created the better opportunities. Cliftonville would have a lot more work to do than Linfield did to say that they deserved something from the game.

And a draw between Coleraine and Glentoran was the icing on the cake. Closer to the top and pulling away from those below.

The big games didn’t stop, it was onto The Oval three days later.

The less said about that shitshow, on and off the pitch.

I did have a blog, but I binned it as it was I would be giving attention to those that don’t deserve it. It’s a chat that needs to be had, the internet isn’t the best place for it.

Photos from both games are below.

Photo Album


A very comfortable afternoon, I didn’t know what to do in the final minutes. Usually at that point when Ballymena United come to Windsor Park, Linfield are nervously holding on for a one goal win.

There were a few changes to Linfield’s starting eleven. The one that stood out was a first start for Max Haygarth after his goalscoring substitute cameo against Glenavon.

Chris McKee also came in, replacing the suspended Joel Cooper.

Linfield were camped in Ballymena’s half from kick-off.

Andrew Clarke was agonisingly unable to get on the end of a cross, despite stretching out a very long leg.

There wasn’t long to wait for a Linfield opener, when Eetu Vertainen intercepted a cross aimed for Max Haygarth, just as Haygarth was readying himself to shoot, which looked like it would have been a certain goal.

Instead, Vertainen took the ball, created space for himself and fired home. Just as well as he would have been getting a lot of questions if he didn’t score.

After that goal, Linfield continued to be camped in Ballymena’s half.

However, it would be Chris Johns making the next save of the game, low down after an opportunity presented by a defensive miskick.

The scare woke Linfield back into life, and they were 2-0 up soon afterwards when Andrew Clarke was played through by Chris McKee and his low cross was finished from close range by Eetu Vertainen.

At 1-0, Ballymena might have found a way back into the game, but that was never going to happen at 2-0. The points were as good as in the bag.

You could have been forgiven for being a bit confused as to who Linfield were playing

Ballymena’s all orange/peach away kit is a bit Glenavon. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one confused as to who Linfield were playing.

Chris McKee would be frustrated twice in a matter of seconds.

First when his fierce shot was saved by Sean O’Neill, with Andrew Clarke unable to follow up. The play that followed saw a cross come to him, but his volley went just past the post.

Despite the quick flurry of frustrations, it was a quality performance from McKee, having been brought in for the suspended Joel Cooper.

2-0 at half-time, Linfield were in a commanding lead. Just one more goal would make sure of it.

Thirty seconds was all it took for Linfield to get that goal, when Vertainen finished a cross from six yards out to complete his hat-trick, his second for the club.

If there was any doubt before, the points were now in the bag for Linfield.

Unsurprisingly, the game didn’t have the same intensity, especially with a third successive midweek fixture list on the horizon.

Linfield took the opportunity to make some substitutions, with Cameron Palmer, Conor Pepper and Ethan Devine all coming on.

They were then followed by Niall Quinn and a debut for Ryan McKay, recently signed from Dundela.

Linfield’s best chance of making it 4-0 came when Daniel Finlayson got a foot on the end of a free-kick, but his effort was saved by Sean O’Neill.

Three was enough. A routine win for Linfield and an opportunity to rest players ahead of a midweek trip to Seaview.

It was a result that kept up David Jeffrey and Ballymena United’s awful recent record at Windsor Park.

This was Linfield’s fifteenth successive home League win for Linfield over Ballymena United.

For David Jeffrey, the last time he won a match at Windsor Park (Don’t even bring up the 2020 Irish Cup Semi-Final against Coleraine, that was a draw) was when he was manager of Linfield.

Since then, it is two draws and sixteen defeats at a venue he used to always win at.

On the weekend of this game, I decided to book to go away for my birthday in February. Not football specific but would be nice to catch a game if I could.

I had the misfortune to be born during School Half Term, so flight prices were extortionate.

Not that they are much better any other time. Something to bear in mind the next time you hear someone from the industry crying about how they are having such a tough time.

Oh it definitely is Covid and Ukraine and nothing to do with charging £40 for hold luggage.

The only place with reasonably priced flights was Gatwick, so I booked to head to Brighton for a few days.

It wasn’t a football trip, but I later realised i’ll be there during the FA Cup 5th Round.

Brighton got through, but got drawn away. Of course.

But Brighton can be put on the backseat for a few weeks. My next trip will be to Seaview.

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A new year, but Linfield and Coleraine still managing to draw with each other. That is now twelve draws in the last twenty-five League encounters.

With both teams going into this game on winning runs and keeping a lot of clean sheets, it wasn’t the most surprising of results. Despite gaining one point on Cliftonville, three on Larne and four over Glentoran on the last two matchdays, it was hard to see it that way from a Linfield perspective, as they failed to secure the three points that would have seen them go level with Larne at the top of the table.

Linfield had one change from Boxing Day, with Mike Newberry coming in for Jimmy Callacher. Not that surprising, as Callacher appeared to be struggling with injury during the second-half at The Oval last week.

The early minutes of the game saw Linfield in Coleraine’s half. Inside two minutes, Eetu Vertainen worked space to find Matthew Clarke, whose cross was headed just wide by Robbie McDaid.

There was more header related frustration as a run and cross from Jamie Mulgrew was headed just wide by Eetu Vertainen.

People around me were getting ready to celebrate until they realised that the ball had gone wide.

Vertainen then had a shot go wide as Linfield continued to endure a frustrating first-half.

Despite having a lot of the ball and a lot of attacking situations, Linfield weren’t creating any clear opportunities.

That was, until Daniel Finlayson got on the end of a free-kick, only to see his header superbly saved by Marty Gallagher.

0-0 at half-time, but no immediate need to panic.

Linfield were the better team but couldn’t convincingly say that they should be 1-0 up. They really needed to be more clinical when opportunities fell their way.

The second-half began with a flurry of set pieces for Linfield, but nothing came of it. The best that would be offered in the second-half would be an Eetu Vertainen header and a Robbie McDaid effort, both of which went wide.

David Healy then turned to his bench, bringing on Andrew Clarke and Chris McKee for Cameron Palmer and Robbie McDaid.

A goal for McKee now would feel every bit as big as his goal against Coleraine the last time they visited Windsor Park on the last day of last season.

Clarke would have a shot go just wide within minutes of coming on, though it felt like a speculative effort than an attempt to score.

Joel Cooper then made space from himself but his shot went agonisingly wide.

It was obvious very early in the game that this was a match that was destined to finish 0-0.

With each passing minute. It became even more obvious. No matter how hard Linfield tried.

A lucky bounce saw the ball fall perfectly for Eetu Vertainen but that was the only lucky bounce that fell Linfield’s way as his shot was saved by the keeper’s legs.

Coleraine did manage to have an attack, with a free-kick from Eamon Fyfe being easily saved by Chris Johns.

His late goal at The Oval bought Eetu Vertainen some extra time on the pitch, but there wouldn’t be any more opportunities for him to score another late winner.

Even though Niall Quinn (a welcome return) and Ethan Devine were unused in the bench as attacking options, they could have brought on Lionel Messi and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

It was one of those days, a frustrating afternoon.

Linfield were the better team, but couldn’t convincingly say that they should have been outright winners

As I said earlier in the season, if somebody told you that the last twenty meetings between Coleraine and Linfield had finished 0-0, you would believe it because it sounds believable.

You feel like you could just write off the remaining two League games as 0-0 draws.

And the remaining three against Cliftonville.

Coincidentally, Linfield’s next League game, at Solitude.

Not quite must-win but certainly do not lose.

There’s not point on pushing to get this close to the top of the league just to get pulled away again.

But what a message that would send out to the rest of the League, to win on a rival’s home turf and reach the top.

But first, it’s Warrenpoint Town at home in the Irish Cup.

One game at a time. It’s a busy month. So many games, so many competitions. It’s hard to keep track.

The last two months have seen two Cup Finals reached (one of which is this month) and the gap at the top get closer and closer.

It is frustrating that this run includes three 0-0 draws against Top 6 teams, meaning that all the other Top 6 teams have come away from Windsor Park with something this season.

Although recently, four have them have come away without a goal, just like a few other teams that Linfield have faced over the past two and a bit months.

Considering that Linfield conceded nine goals in eight days in October, that is most welcome.

Now to get it right at the other end.

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December began with a trip to Windsor Park to see Linfield take on Carrick Rangers.

That was then followed by a tip to Telegraph Building to see Blossoms in concert.

A spell of frost descended on Belfast, but now snow. I was all psyched up for snow photos, for nothing.

There was then a football free weekend for me, with Linfield in Scotland.

The following weekend, I headed to Ulster Hall to see Ash in concert, followed by Linfield’s home match against Dungannon Swifts.

As you will have noticed, there is still a week of the month left.

What I have planned is Bangor v Dunmurry Rec, Glentoran v Linfield, a walk up Cavehill and possibly Lisnabreeny Hill.

Here’s to more phototaking in 2023 and beyond.

Linfield v Carrick Rangers

Blossoms live at Telegraph Building

Blossoms live at Telegraph Building Photo Album

Ash live at Ulster Hall

Ash live at Ulster Hall Photo Album

Linfield v Dungannon Swifts