Danske Bank Premiership

Linfield pull clear at the top. Glentoran’s goalkeeper, Elliot Morris scores a 70-yard free kick to help the Glens register an important win. The heat is off Barry Gray, well for a day or two at least with a win at home to lowly Ards.

So, into January we go and Linfield are sitting high at the top but they are being pushed. Not only are Glenavon and Ballymena pushing, but Crusaders are right back in the mix.

New signings have come in to bolster their squad which will come as a welcome acquisition. If the Blues don’t run off and win the league, they will have only themselves to blame. The Crues have drawn two and lost seven. That is 23 points lost. Talk about gift-wrapping the league to your rivals. But none of them have taken full advantage. I will leave that thought in the mind of the table toppers.

Newry City entertained Crusaders on Friday night. This game was Crues’ manager Stephen Baxter’s 700th in charge. During his tenure, the Crues have won a massive 409 games. What a servant he has been, not only as a player but a manager to the Crues. The Crues had the opportunity to go top and took that opportunity with a hard-fought 1-0 win at the Newry Showgrounds.

David Cushley got the all-important goal curling a shot in from outside the box. This 1-0 win was the Crues’ fifth win on the bounce. And on a plus note, they only conceded four goals which has been their Achilles’ heel this season. Newry have lost three consecutively and are right in the middle of a relegation dog fight.

Onto Saturday and Linfield made sure that the company of the Crues at the top of the table was short-lived, with a 4-0 win against Warrenpoint Town. ‘Point came into it off the back of an impressive win away to Glenavon, but were unable to handle the Blues and in particular the talented Jordan Stewart. Stewart helped himself to a hat-trick, his first being a lovely move started by himself and then perfectly finished off.

The second came from the penalty spot after his shot was adjudged by the officials to have been handled in the box. In between Stewart completing his hat-trick, Andy Waterworth got the Blues’ third with a header from a free-kick. The all-important fourth and the hat-trick came when Stewart latched onto a ball from Stephen Fallon and finished.

On today’s showing, there will be many teams that will struggle to get anything from Windsor Park. The Blues were clinical in front of goal and showed total professionalism to get the win. It will be hard to see any team beating the Blues this season, and if they do hats off because this is one strong team David Healy has at his disposal.

Another team trying to push the Crues back after Friday’s result were Ballymena United. They took on Dungannon Swifts at the Ballymena Showgrounds and could only produce a 2-2 draw.

Grumblings from fans on the Sky Blues official Twitter site questioning David Jeffery’s tactics just amaze me. The big man has pulled a team out of nowhere and made them title challengers. Yes, that’s right and if some fans knew anything about the game they would be applauding the big man. The last 11 games at home have been undefeated. Well done DJ for the job you have done so far. Just remember, how many games the Sky Blues had to play away before his team could even run out at home?

The Sky Blues got the game off and running with a great strike from Jude Winchester. What an inspirational signing Jude has been for the Sky Blues. To be fair to the Sky Blues’ players you have to take your hats off to them. That pitch is in terrible order and to play football on the ground the way they are is just something else.

The Sky Blues were their own worst nightmare for the equaliser as it involved a terrible back pass from Scott Whiteside. Looking at the pitch, Whiteside was taking one hell of a risk trying to make a back pass from the halfway line. Daniel Hughes pounced to intercept the ball before rounding Ross Glendinning to score.

The Swifts were reduced to 10 men after Douglas Wilson saw a straight red card for a horrible challenge on the Sky Blues’ Captain Jim Ervin. The Sky Blues took full control of their numerical advantage and took the lead through Cathair Friel.

Some indecisive defending saw the ball fall to Friel, and the rest is history. To the Swifts’ credit, they fought hard and were rewarded with an equaliser through Oisin Smith. Smith capitalised on a Glendinning parry to finish. Hard-fought point for the Swifts and two points lost for the Sky Blues. Can they get it back? Let’s see what the next few weeks have in store.

Fourth against fifth as Coleraine entertained Glenavon. It was always going to be a tight game and the 1-1 draw was not really a surprise. Coleraine have had a change in fortunes and were on an unbeaten run of four games before today. Glenavon are coming off the back of a bad defeat at home to Dungannon, and their title charge has had the hand brake engaged.

Coleraine got the first of the afternoon through Eion Bradley who followed up new signing Jamie Glackin’s shot to finish the rebound. Glenavon got their equaliser and a share of the spoils through Niall Grace, who picked the ball up just outside the box and curled a well-placed shot into the top corner.

Cliftonville hosted Ards, and how Barry Gray and the club needed a lift today. It has been a terrible week on and off the field. In fairness against Ards, who have lost 77% of their away games, the Reds should have been winning this and did with a final score of 4-1. Ards are in trouble. Three wins all season reads like a sorry story for them, and even with the new faces brought in, Eoghan McCawl from Glentoran, experienced Darren Henderson and Linfield’s Jordan Smith on loan, are they enough? I don’t think they are, personally.

Ryan Curran got the day off and running with the first for the Reds from a well-placed shot from outside the box. Ards drew level just before the break through new signing Henderson, who converted from the spot. It was the Reds’ turn to win a penalty as Ross Lavery flew through the air like a fighter jet to win a penalty. Sam Johnstone who is starting to make a habit of saving penalties did so once again, this time denying Joe Gormley his 19th of the season.

The Reds pressed and got their reward when Conor McMenamin weaved into the box and finished. Lead restored. Next up for me was the best of the lot. Rory Donnelly left the defender on halfway, ran towards the goal before beautifully finishing past Johnstone. The Reds’ ‘goal machine’ Gormley rounded off the scoring with a cheeky lob over Johnstone to take him top of the scoring charts with 19 goals.

Glentoran travelled to Institute with things looking bright at the Oval. Debt lightening through the sale of land and talk of a millionaire businessman wanting to invest. Personally, I will always ask questions when individuals pump money into an Irish League club. Is it a mega-profitable business? Clubs generally are struggling, unless they are in Europe every year as that’s what is keeping them going.

Today’s game got up and running in the most spectacular way. The Glens’ captain and goalkeeper Elliott Morris scoring form a 70-yard free-kick. Yes, a 70-yard free-kick. I think Martin Gallagher in the ‘Stute goal needs to take that baseball cap back and get a refund as it didn’t help him much with this one. The Glens took all three points and the 2-0 win through substitute Paul O’Neill.

Player of the weekend

Jordan Stewart: A hat-trick and a five-star performance from the ex-Swindon man. Not in David Healy’s plans at the start of the season and with other clubs enquiring about him it looked as if he could have been on his way. The little man has got his head down and showed what a class act he is and what an integral part of the Blues’ squad he is.

Danske Bank Premiership