Linfield should ask to play Cliftonville at home on 23rd April every year. This decade has already brought wins in 2011 and 2016, and 2019 brought another three points, in the most spectacular fashion of those three wins.
Linfield went into this game on the back of a 4-0 defeat against Glenavon, which though didn’t ruin the mood during the trophy presentation, it was unwelcome.
Linfield made changes from that game, reverting to close to the eleven that saw them through the final weeks to secure the title, the only two of note that were missing were Gareth Deane and Andrew Waterworth, with Conor Mitchell coming in for a League debut, while Michael O’Connor came in for a start, while Stephen Fallon and Kirk Millar came in for Andrew Mitchell and Joel Cooper.
Cliftonville’s interest in trophies ended in January, which resulted in Barry Gray being replaced as manager by Paddy McLaughlin.
McLaughlin’s start looks decent, with seven wins out of ten matches. I could be cynical that four of those wins came against bottom six teams, plus it is really hard to assess wins against Coleraine and Crusaders, who are seeing out the League season.
They did beat Glenavon, which is something that Linfield haven’t done in their last three matches though.
Whatever your take on Cliftonville’s form, they had momentum, which is handy as they aim to get ready for the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.
Even though the result wouldn’t affect either team’s position, they both had reasons for winning. If Linfield avoided defeat, if would be the first season since 2011-2012 that they didn’t lose at home to Cliftonville. Cliftonville wins at Windsor Park have been far too common in recent years.
Another one, would represent a change in fortune against Linfield this season for Paddy McLaughlin. His previous three games as manager of Institute have seen 0-3, 0-5 and 1-4 defeats.
It felt like a County Antrim Shield game, such was the sparseness of the crowd. I even helped myself to a padded seat in the second-half. If I hadn’t seen such riches ………
It wasn’t that surprising, with the trophy presentation already taking place.
The protocol was that it should have taken place after this game, but having it against Glenavon was the right choice, though I think TV might have had a say (No complaints there) as a Saturday afternoon made it easier for families to attend, and people would have longer to enjoy the celebrations in an afternoon than an evening.
I was a bit surprised when the split games were announced that Games 37 and 38 weren’t switched, so that both Linfield and Ballymena United would be at home on the final game on a Saturday, to make it easier to present it to whoever wins it.
The early minutes of the game saw a lot of Linfield pressure, which was rewarded when a cross from Jordan Stewart was headed back by Michael O’Connor, who was in too wide a position to score, to set up Daniel Kearns to put the ball into an almost empty net.
There may be a dispute (I think it was officially awarded in Joel Cooper’s favour) about a goal against Dungannon Swifts in September, so this was officially his first goal at Windsor Park, as a Linfield player.
Linfield continued to dominate but needed a second goal, especially when Cliftonville had a few shots on goal.
That second goal came from a Jordan Stewart cross where a Cliftonville defender seemed to leave the ball when he should have headed it away, while another stood there to let Michael O’Connor get in front of him to finish.
Soon after, a second for O’Connor and a third for Linfield when he got in behind one defender, flicked the ball past another, made himself a cup of tea, did The Times crossword and then waited for his laptop to update before finishing to make it 3-0.
A game that Linfield fans might have been worried about pre kick-off was now won just before half-time.
If there was any small amount doubt, that was eroded minutes into the second-half when Jordan Stewart dispossessed a Cliftonville defencer, ran circles around the others, before firing home.
It was a good job that he did score, Cliftonville’s defence was so focused on Stewart, they left Michael O’Connor unmarked throughout the whole move, a simple pass would have brought a certain hat-trick.
Cliftonville claimed for an offside against Daniel Kearns, it didn’t hit him. The North Stand chanted “Cheat cheat cheat”, because Cliftonville were on the verge of a comeback to win the game 4-3.
Cliftonville players started to lose their discipline. What was a relatively uneventful game was now a yellow card fest.
A 4-0 lead allowed Linfield the opportunity to make some changes. There were a few youngsters on the bench for this game, Caomhin McGuinness (First League appearance) came on for Mark Stafford, Trai Hume came on for Chris Casement, while Daniel Reynolds, who scored for Cliftonville against Linfield on the final day of last season, came on for Michael O’Connor.
Cliftonville pulled a goal back when Conor McMenamin poked home a Ryan Curran shot. They almost made it 4-2, like the score in November at Windsor Park, when a long range effort from Chris Curran hit the bar.
There was a danger that the scoreline was almost going to be respectable for Cliftonville.
In the final minutes, Kirk Millar gave the scoreline a realistic reflection of the game, finishing after being played through by Jordan Stewart to make it 5-1.
It would be the last goal scored by a Linfield player at Windsor Park this season, and a good way to sign off for the home season. Certainly a better outcome than the previous home game.
With the trophy presentation having already taken place, Linfield players stayed on the pitch for not quite a lap of honour, but an opportunity for fans to show appreciation to the players for their efforts this season.
For me, it would be my last Linfield match of the season, i’ll be giving the trip to Coleraine on the last day a miss. If it’s still on, I write this on Saturday morning and it has been pissing down constantly since I’ve got up.
Glentoran v Institute has just passed a pitch inspection as I write, so a potential fall-out from a postponement was avoided.
Elsewhere, there should be a battle on the last day between Glenavon and Crusaders for 3rd place and automatic entry to the UEFA Cup, but unfortunately the Irish League doesn’t believe in meritocracy, and instead has a Play-Off for the last League place, a reward for mediocrity.
No offence to Glentoran, Institute, Dungannon Swifts and Warrenpoint Town, who were all in contention for 7th, but it is an absolute mockery if a team can be in the bottom half all season and qualify for Europe by winning two matches.
My attitude to this has been consistent since it was introduced in 2016, it’s not because Linfield missed out last year. Thankfully, Linfield won’t have to worry about this charade.
You heard it here first, Crusaders will lose the Irish Cup Final because they’ve taken their eye off the ball for five League matches.
One of Newry City and Ards will go down automatically, while the other will face Carrick Rangers or Portadown in a Play-Off. I’ve no preference regarding who goes down, stays up or goes up.
In terms of ins and outs at Linfield, that will probably be dictated by injuries and loans. If Roy Carroll will miss the start of next season, we’ll need a back-up to Gareth Deane. Alex Moore is capable of the role, but he could benefit from another loan, so if we can get a back-up for Deane, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore went out on loan again.
Mark Haughey missed the entire season through injury, so that situation will need to be monitored if we need another defender to come in.
I was pleasantly surprised that Mark Stafford signed a new contract as I thought he might have wanted to leave due to a lack of games. That means he won’t have to be replaced.
If Kyle McClean’s loan isn’t made permanent, we’ll need a replacement there.
I’d expect Marek Cervenka to return to his parent club at the end of his loan.
I’d expect to see Cameron Stewart to leave at the end of the season. It’s hard to see him getting many games. He’d be a handy option off the bench, but it’s probably best for both parties to part ways. We’d need another forward in that case, mainly as a third striker, as back-up to Andrew Waterworth and Michael O’Connor.
In terms of loans out, i’d expect to see Caomhin McGuinness, Ryan Strain, Daniel Reynolds and Brandon Doyle getting loaned out.
Pre-season wishlist, all away, ideally to grounds I’ve never been to or haven’t been to for a while, so any of – Moyola Park, QUB, Sirocco Works or East Belfast.
I wouldn’t mind one last trip to Tillysburn Park before Harland and Wolff Welders move to a new ground in 2020.
Would hoping for Stanraer or Ayr United away be too ambitious?
I’m heading to Dublin in July, the only confirmed match while i’m there is Bray Wanderers v Limerick, though there may be a UEFA Cup tie for Shamrock Rovers and/or St Patrick’s Athletic while i’m there, while i’m keeping an eye out if any English clubs announce friendlies.
Off to Old Trafford in a few weeks for Manchester Untied v Cardiff City. Now, I enjoyed making a weekend of it when United were in the UEFA Cup in 2016-2017, but it’s not something I want to repeat.
If Watford win the FA Cup, the 6th place team in the Premier League enters the UEFA Cup in July, so i’m already trying to get a ticket for Ballinamallard United v Manchester United on Thursday 25th July 2019.
2019-2020 will hopefully end for me in July in London. I’ll be making the most of being off for the July holidays by planning to go to London. I’ll chance getting a ticket for the European Championship Final, but i’ll hope to take in a Pre-Season Friendly on the Saturday before I head to Brighton for a few days. That’s the plan.
If I do go anywhere in the Summer of 2020, hopefully it will be after witnessing Linfield win the League for the second successive season.