They say a year is a long time in football. For fans of Linfield Football Club, you can make that six months! The last six months have, perhaps, seen the Club make progress normally associated with two or three years worth of squad development.

In The Doldrums

This time six months ago, the Belfast Blues had finished a dreadful season with a very dismal result. That result, a damning 4-3 defeat at home to arch-rivals Glentoran in the end-of-season play-off for a UEFA Europa League qualifying spot, ended a campaign that had fallen off the rails for David Healy and his men. To make matters worse, the Glens didn’t even have to be special on the day to win.

It had all seemed so different back in the summer of 2017. On the back of two very creditable performances in predictably highly-charged games against Glasgow Celtic in the UEFA Champions League 2nd Qualifying Round in July, Healy oversaw a team that rolled right through August and into early September with eight victories in a row. Those included winning the Charity Shield season opener 3-1 over a strong Coleraine team, and then claiming all 15 available points in the first five Premier League fixtures.

However, a narrow 3-2 defeat at Solitude on 30th September, which saw the Reds overturn a 0-2 deficit to claim the victory, was the start of an alarming decline. Over the next few months, Linfield fell to defeat to all of their fellow title-challengers, including two losses to eventual League Champions Crusaders. By the time Cliftonville left Windsor Park with a 1-0 Irish Cup victory on 13th March, the season was effectively over for Healy’s men.

What Went Wrong?

Pcking through the bones of a poor season, with hindsight it was perhaps easier to see why things had gone so badly astray for the Blues:

First, the sale of teenage sensation Paul Smyth in late August to English Championship side Queen’s Park Rangers had a profoundly negative effect on the side. Now you might say that was surely to be expected; if you sell your best player, then, of course, you are going to miss his input! However, when coupled with a bad injury to striker Andy Waterworth after the Champions League ties with Celtic (which sidelined the veteran hitman until Halloween), it was a much bigger blow than anyone had expected. This was in no small part due to a huge over-reliance on Waterworth and Smyth to provide the team with goals. The departure of one and long-term injury to the other left Linfield scrambling to fill their empty shirts. The arrival of young Irish forward Louis Rooney initially looked promising, but as winter set in his early form deserted him. Likewise, on-loan Q.P.R. forward Brandon Adams never settled in Belfast at all, eventually leaving without a single goal to his credit.

Then an untimely injury to veteran Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Roy Carroll in late January had deprived the side of a hugely influential character at the back during crucial months leading into the business end of the season. Whilst his youthful deputies Gareth Deane and Alex Moore acquitted themselves very well during Roy’s enforced absence, Carroll’s sheer physical and vocal presence (not to mention his superb technical abilities between the sticks!) would have been a big loss to any Irish League club.

Elsewhere, the midfield looked strong, but somehow never quite lived up to expectation. Veteran skipper Jamie Mulgrew was often partnered with the dynamic Stevie Lowry; they made a solid, dependable duo when fit, but occasionally lacked the creative spark to unlock stubborn opposition defences. Kirk Millar added work-rate and crossing ability on the right, but the departure of the temperamental Aaron Burns to Coleraine in January (amidst rumours of acrimony with manager David Healy) deprived the side of a valuable source of goals and assists from that area of the park. Jordan Stewart, fresh from a spell at Swindon Town in England, had a quiet debut campaign, struggling throughout to find form and overcome niggling injuries.

The mid-season arrival of Frenchman Achille Campion and Irish striker Kurtis Byrne ultimately failed to spark the side into enough life to put up a worthy title challenge. The defence behind them conceded a very un-Linfield-like 27 goals in 38 league games, and in the end, the team finished an embarrassing 24 points behind Crusaders.

Sacked In The Morning…

In fact, so dismal was the finish to the season that many feared for David Healy’s position as manager. Yes, he’d led the team to a League and Irish Cup ‘double’ just 12 months earlier. However, the generally poor standard of football on offer, coupled with some uninspiring results left many feeling he was a bit of a ‘flash in the pan’ act. The manager’s calm, almost withdrawn, demeanour on the touchline did him no favours with some fans either, used as they had been to the much more demonstrative, vocal style associated with successful former boss David Jeffrey.

Crues-ing To Glory?

Linfield entered this season as pretty much no-one’s favourites for the Irish League title- and it’s been a very long time since that happened. All the smart money seemed to be getting laid down on Crusaders retaining their title in some comfort. That feeling was strengthened both by the transfer business conducted by Stephen Baxter and his chairman during the summer months (the capture of former Coleraine, Linfield and Derry City striker Rory Patterson was seen as the ‘final nail in the coffin’ of just about everyone else’s hopes of lifting the Gibson Cup) and news that the Crues intended to make the move to full-time football status for many members of their playing squad.

Besides Crusaders, last season’s League runners-up and Irish Cup winners Coleraine had strengthened an already formidable-looking squad by re-signing Stevie Lowry from the Blues and welcoming back long-term injury victim Darren McCauley. They looked much more likely to challenge the Crues’ dominance than Linfield.

In Through The Out Door

The Blues had bolstered their own squad, too, but that was after losing a number of players during the summer. As well as Lowry, the likes of Byrne, Campion, Rooney and Ross Clarke were all released by Healy.

Coming in was a mixture of experienced operators, as well as largely unproven youngsters with promising potential:

  • the highly-skilled left-sided attacker Joel Cooper from Glenavon;
  • attacking midfielder Daniel Kearns (who had also had a spell at Mourneview Park, as well as playing full-time football in England and in the League of Ireland);
  • former Northern Ireland international defender Ryan McGivern (who had played a few Premier League games during his days in England)
  • promising youngster Lorcan Forde from Warrenpoint Town;
  • a young Danish defender called Ben Moller Nielsen;
  • and an unknown bruising young Irish striker from Dundalk, Michael O’Connor.

Whilst fans were excited at the prospect of seeing Cooper and McGivern, the others were relatively unknown to most. Forde had shown some ability in games against the Blues last season and came from Warrenpoint with much praise ringing in his young ears.

How Much Is Enough?

However, whilst new additions were very much welcomed, the general feeling was that the squad wouldn’t be strong enough to sustain a challenge to Crusaders and Coleraine for the Irish League title. In particular, the departure of Lowry, and the earlier January exit of the goalscoring left-winger Aaron Burns had left a large hole in midfield.

Robbie Garrett had returned to Linfield from Portadown the summer before but had endured an unsettled first season back at Windsor, whilst the capture of former Northern Ireland U-21 player Andy Mitchell from Crusaders hadn’t yet had the hoped-for rewards. The same could be said of defender Josh Robinson, who hadn’t made any real impact the previous season.

A Tough Start

When the fixture list threw up an opening day trip to face a strong Glenavon team at Mourneview Park, it would be hard to imagine too many Bluemen made the trip expecting the away side to emerge with all three points given the form with which the team had ended the previous season. However, on the day a resolute, defiant Linfield weathered an onslaught from Gary Hamilton’s men (which included a slice of good fortune when the Lurgan side’s feared hitman Andrew Mitchell skied an early penalty kick over Roy Carroll’s crossbar) and grabbed the only goal of the game when Daniel Kearns netted an opportunistic close-range follow-up against his former club just before half-time. After the break, Carroll showed his value with a couple of top-class saves to preserve Linfield’s narrow advantage and give David Healy the perfect start to his league campaign.

That victory was followed up by a routine 3-0 home win over Premier League new boys Institute, during which Joel Cooper netted his first goal for his new employers, as well as providing a nice assist for right-back Chris Casement to open his account for the season too.

Blunting The Hatchetmen

Then came the acid test for Healy’s men- a trip to Seaview to face the defending Champions. For their part, Crusaders had made a stuttering start to the campaign, but it would still have taken a brave man to lay any kind of large bet on the visitors emerging with a comfortable victory.

Healy was undoubtedly heartened by the return from suspension of captain Jamie Mulgrew and midfield partner Robbie Garrett, and with the exception of the injured Forde and McGovern (and long-term injury casualty Mark Haughey), had pretty much a full-strength squad to select from. Andy Mitchell continued his excellent start to the season by partnering Mulgrew in the middle of the park.

After a stirring start from the Crues which saw big Roy having to make an excellent stop from former Blues winger Ross Clarke after only a couple of minutes, Linfield grew into the game and found deserved reward on 35 minutes with a well-worked goal, Casement and Kearns combining well to set up Cooper for the opening strike.

Linfield maintained their grip on proceedings after the break and scored a wonderful second goal after the impressive Kearns and Cooper again combined well to set up Mulgrew, who arrowed home into the far corner from the left side of the penalty area. Thereafter the Blues battled gamely all over the pitch, winning their individual duals to run out worthy 2-0 winners.

It was a huge statement of intent. To come to the home of the reigning Champions (a team whom most pundits and fans alike had predicted would be odds-on to reclaim their crown) and outplay them comprehensively was both sweet and surprising to many Blues fans.

Another Trip Up North…

However, there was no time for resting on laurels. The following Saturday saw the team make the equally difficult journey back to face the other North Belfast side, Cliftonville, at Solitude. Like their neighbours, the Reds had made an indifferent start to their league campaign, but the chances of getting an easy game at Solitude are akin to the chances that Icarus had of making it to the sun with his home-made wings….

Alas, as is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence when he officiates Linfield games, controversial referee Arnold Hunter had a major impact on proceedings. After a bright opening from the Blues which included a last-gasp heroic block from Reds defender Jamie Harney to deny Daniel Kearns a certain goal, Hunter changed the course of the game by issuing a straight red card to Linfield skipper Jamie Mulgrew for what looked an innocuous high boot in a challenge with Jay Donnelly.

Minutes later Joe Gormley only received a caution for catching Roy Carroll in the face. Josh Robinson, operating at centre-half alongside Jimmy Callacher, should have given the ten men the lead, twice seeing headed chances fail to find the back of the Cliftonville net.

Barry Gray’s men turned up the heat after the interval, and only some superb defending from Callacher denied the Reds twice before Joe Gormley did finally breach the Linfield rearguard with a header from a Donnelly cross- it was the first goal the Blues had conceded this season.

Last season there is every chance this game would have gotten away from Linfield, but this season the Windsor Park men seem to be made of sterner stuff. The excellent Andy Mitchell produced a wonderful cross for substitute Michael O’Connor to net his first Linfield goal with a deft finish late on as the Blues snatched a well-earned point.

Frustratingly Ard….

After disposing of Castledawson-based Moyola Park 8-0 in the opening round of the League Cup competition the following Tuesday evening, all eyes turned to the following weekend’s visit of an Ards side that had made a poor start to their season under the guidance of Colin Nixon. It would turn out to be the first truly frustrating game of the year, as the visitors defended resolutely throughout, much as their manager used to do during his playing days, and indeed emerged unlucky not to have won the game late on when Carroll had to deny David McAllister in a one-on-one.

By now, the side was starting to take on a settled look. Carroll in goal; Casement and Matty Clarke filled the full-back positions; Callacher and Robinson were the first-choice centre-back partnership; Mulgrew (when not suspended) was partnered by Mitchell, with Cooper on the left-side, Kirk Millar on the right, and Kearns floating behind either Waterworth or O’Connor.

Copping A Close Call!

During the next few weeks, Warrenpoint Town and Dungannon Swifts were dispatched 5-0 and 3-0 respectively, with the goals shared around between Cooper, Waterworth, O’Connor, Kearns and Mitchell. However, when Healy rang the changes for the visit of the P.S.N.I. team in the County Antrim Shield, he was almost left embarrassed as the police pushed Linfield hard before the Blues edged home 2-1 at Windsor Park. It was a timely reminder not to take anything for granted in Irish League football!

Goodbye Kearney, Hello Rod…

Next up came a real challenge. Local football fans had pretty much come together as one to send their best wishes to long-time ‘good guy’ Oran Kearney, after the former Blues midfielder and current Coleraine boss suddenly quit his post at Ballycastle Road to take up a full-time position as manager of Scottish Premier League side St. Mirren. Oran is an absolute gentleman, and I hope he does himself justice in full-time football.

Consequently, the Bannsiders had moved quickly to appoint Dungannon Swifts manager Rodney McAree as Kearney’s replacement, and as “luck” would have it, Linfield were to provide McAree with his first opposition as Coleraine boss.

It was the frantic, high tempo affair everyone knew it would be at Ballycastle Road. Linfield were confined to several long-range efforts from skipper Mulgrew, whereas Coleraine saw Carroll deny both Jamie McGonigle and Ian Parkhill in a physical first-half tussle. Chris Johns saved home blushes with a smart save from a deflected Joel Cooper cross as the half came to a close at 0-0.

The home side missed several presentable chances to take the lead after the break before Linfield made a strong finish to the game, denied twice by the woodwork from a Robinson header and a long-range O’Connor effort, as well as seeing Johns save superbly from Daniel Kearns.

Big Davy Against Wee Davy

Again, it was a very creditable result at the home of a major title rival and spurred confidence in the side ahead of a game against former boss David Jeffrey and his Ballymena United side the following week.

United arrived in bullish mood and took a somewhat surprising lead against the run of play on 12 minutes. After former Blues keeper Ross Glendinning had saved efforts from Clarke and Cooper, the Sky Blues snatched the opener when Cathair Friel met a Leroy Millar corner to firmly head the visitors in front.

With the game in the balance, Linfield stepped up a gear and gained an equaliser when Mulgrew fed Matty Clarke down the left side, and his centre was forced home by the impressive Michael O’Connor.

After the break, Linfield found the decisive goal through that man Joel Cooper, who has wasted no time in making himself a firm favourite with Bluemen everywhere! The former Glenavon man ran onto a lovely flick-on from O’Connor and buried his shot low into Glendinning’s far corner. To their credit, the Sky Blues never gave up (no Jeffrey team ever would), and probably should have equalised from at least one of the very presentable chances they created, Friel guilty of a glaring miss with the goal at his mercy.

It’s Off To The Oval We Go…

And so the Blues came into last Monday evening’s first “Big Two” encounter of the season at The Oval trailing leaders Glenavon by four points. The Mid-Ulster club hadn’t lost a game since succumbing to Linfield on the opening day of the season. They thrashed Coleraine 4-1 at Ballycastle Road last Saturday, a result and performance that marks Gary Hamilton’s team down as genuine contenders for the Gibson Cup this year, which will delight the Lurgan faithful. That result put the pressure firmly on David Healy’s troops to deliver a result against a Glentoran team that have surprised just about everyone (not least their own fans) by making a strong start to their league campaign under the guidance of a wily old fox in Ronnie McFall.

To add more ‘glamour’ to the occasion, the TV cameras from Sky Sports attended a wet and windy Oval, trying their best to beam live coverage of the Irish League’s premier fixture to viewers across the British Isles. I say ‘trying’, because the weather was doing its utmost to blow their cameramen down from the gantry towers in East Belfast!

The other notable aspect was the presence of Arnold Hunter as referee. As ever, Hunter would have a say in events in due course.

David Healy would have wanted to name an unchanged team from that which defeated Ballymena United but had to draft Andy Mitchell into the right-back position as Chris Casement missed out. That meant Robbie Garrett came in to partner skipper Jamie Mulgrew in the middle of the park.

The opening half-chance fell to Glens midfielder John Herron, but his overhead effort was easily held by Carroll. The decisive moment arrived on 15 minutes, and it came from this season’s outstanding player, Joel Cooper. The elusive winger picked the ball up in his own half and jinked past three or four Glentoran players before cleverly laying the ball off to his right for Michael O’Connor to take a touch and then slam firmly past Elliott Morris from 12 yards for 1-0.

Minutes later, Kirk Millar’s corner from the left almost doubled the Blues’ lead, scrambled off the goal-line by Curtis Allen. By then, the niggly pattern of the game had been firmly established, with both sets of players struggling to settle in the poor playing conditions.

Unsurprisingly, Hunter again demonstrated some very poor refereeing ability. Calum Birney committed a bad foul through the back of Josh Robinson, which looked a possible red card, yet got off with a yellow card ; minutes later, former Linfield defender Joe Crowe committed a horrendous studs-up lunge on Joel Cooper, one of the worst challenges I’ve seen for quite a while- the ball was totally ignored as Crowe slid in on Cooper’s legs. It was an undoubted red card offence, yet Hunter gave only a caution, which was a shocking decision for any official to make, given how close he was to the incident.

The heavy challenges he received forced Cooper to withdraw from the action early in the 2nd half, and Linfield fans can only hope the electric winger makes a speedy recovery, as he has been a sensation so far in a blue shirt.

In the second period, former Blues striker Curtis Allen missed two decent chances to equalise for the Glens, heading wide on both occasions, before Robbie Garrett stabbed a good chance wide after doing the hard work of getting into the Glentoran penalty area. Kirk Millar’s looping header, tipped over by Morris, was the last goalmouth action of a fairly forgettable game, truth be told.

The Story So Far

So, with nearly everyone having played their first ten games of the league season, the Blues are in a great position to make a genuine challenge to bring the Gibson Cup back home to Windsor Park this year. Gary Hamilton’s Glenavon have set a phenomenal pace so far, and certainly look to be the team to beat, but David Healy will be very satisfied with his side’s efforts to date, sitting tucked in behind the Lurgan men, and unbeaten too. As ever, though, Crusaders cannot be ruled out of the race just yet, given the breadth of talent available to Stephen Baxter.

TEAM PLAYED WON DRAWN  LOST  FOR AGAINST  GD POINTS
Glenavon       10     8       1       1   26       10  16      25
Linfield       10     7       3       0   18        2  16      24
Crusaders       10     5       1       4   20       19    1      16
Glentoran         9     4       3       2   15       10    5      15
Coleraine       10     3       6       1   16       12    4      15
Ballymena United         9     4       2       3   20       15    5      14
Cliftonville       10     4       2       4   17       14    3      14
Institute       10     3       2       5     9       18  -9      11
Newry City       10     2       2       6     7       18 -11        8
Warrenpoint Town       10     2       2       6   10       25 -15        8
Ards       10     1       3       6     8       14   -6        6
Dungannon Swifts       10     1       3       6     7       16   -9        6

 

Linfield now have a number of fixtures against teams struggling for form at the foot of the table, starting with Saturday’s visit of Newry City, with trips to Ards and Dungannon Swifts to follow that.

Good To Go!

It’s fair to say that many Bluemen have been very pleasantly surprised by the performance of the team so far this year. The new signings- at least those that have been fit to make it onto the pitch- have acquitted themselves superbly, not least Daniel Kearns, Joel Cooper and Michael O’Connor (who was rewarded for his early season form with a one-year extension to his contract earlier in the week). Along with huge improvements in form from the likes of Josh Robinson and Andy Mitchell, the Blues look well placed to make a strong challenge for trophies this term. The fact that the side has only conceded two goals in the opening ten league fixtures is testament to some excellent work being done on the training ground by Darren Murphy and his fellow coaches. With the likes of Ryan McGivern and Lorcan Forde still to make their debuts, things can potentially get even better for the Linfield faithful in the weeks ahead.

Let’s hope David can keep them ‘at it’ right through the busy autumn period! After the gloom and doom of last season, smiles have returned to faces around Windsor Park.