Traditionally Big Two, Windsor Park, Christmas clashes have not been good to the Men From The East.
Research done and by our reckoning the Glens last won a Yuletide fixture at Windsor in the final season before the war, 1939/40. Eighty-two Christmases ago, not on Boxing Day either incidentally but actually on the 23rd. It should be noted the fixture is not just as traditional as many think, and in multiple seasons since it didn’t feature on the Christmas schedule.
Since the mid-seventies however it’s become more frequent, Linfield winning eight times when hosting, with the other 8 finishing level (usually 1-1).
So undoubtedly and emphatically history resides with the blue side of Belfast when it comes to Windsor on Boxing Day.
But the Glens have been ripping up the form book this season, bringing extensive barren sequences to end. They won for the first time in ten years in the Championship at Seaview last month and a few days ago returned from Coleraine Showgrounds with three points. That hadn’t happened since 2013!
Never mind this season, there was also 1963/64... not a Christmas fixture, but a few older Glenman will recall a barely credible 8-1 Windsor Park win, at the time Glentoran’s first league success over Linfield there, in 17 long years.
It goes to show that nothing lasts forever, and the 2021 edition of ‘Boxing Day’ regardless of venue, looks closer than ever.
It’s a contest between the league’s top-scoring team and its meanest defence. The Blues have been watertight. Only two goals conceded in the last seven and nine all season in the league.
They look fiercely solid from middle to back, but less convincing at the striking end, where much will depend on the availability of Christy Manzinga and Kirk Millar. Manzinga was unable to continue with a left ankle knock after dinking over Jordan Williamson for the only goal in their last outing, a narrow win over Ballymena, while injury recently has curtailed Millar.
David Healy will be sweating a little on the fitness of both men.
Yet Linfield’s incredible resilience remains... they’ve lost just once in the league this season (to Crusaders at Seaview) and have already seen to Glentoran, 3-0 at the Oval.
That was back in September when the East Belfast outfit was struggling for form and manager McDermott faced plenty of heat from disgruntled fans. There are calmer waters at the Oval these days however, after eight wins on the bounce and the announcement of three new signings from League of Ireland football.
For their part the Blues are unbeaten in seven, so Monday unquestionably is a meeting of the league’s form teams... strikers too, as it brings local football’s top marksmen into direct conflict: Frenchman Manzinga’s league tally of 14, bettered only by Jay Donnelly on 17.
It’s been several years since both clubs entered the Boxing Day clash with such consistency. It could be the proverbial Christmas Cracker, but of course there’s always that damp-squib potential, where each side cancels the other out. It so often happens when tensions run as close to the surface as they undoubtedly will on Monday.
The result whichever way it goes won’t decide anything. It’s far too early for that in a title race in which half the contenders have faltered in recent weeks, yet it still possesses three teams neck and neck at the front.
A draw certainly keep things tight and suits Cliftonville and the chasing pack, although the Reds too, have their work cut out in the same day’s North Belfast derby with Crusaders.
For Healy and McDermott the next four months, not so much Boxing Day, is key. Each man requires both boldness and subtlety. The Linfield manager is bound to recruit aggressively in the January window. If he can add firepower and goals, his side will be difficult to head in the race.
It’s more often than not the team that concedes least times, wins the title. That’s where Linfield has been more impressive than all-comers over the first half of the season. Glentoran fans too, can point to their team having conceded just once in its last 8 games, although their run has been slightly less intensive.
McDermott’s been busy and managed to get his January deals over the line quickly, efficiently and impressively. His challenges now shift to keeping a burgeoning squad happy and finding precisely the right moments to infiltrate quality new signings so not to disrupt momentum.
If he discovers the right formula, the pendulum could swing eastwards....
(My thanks to Roy France for assisting with research for this article)...