Glentoran ..... (0)1 ..... Linfield ..... (0)0
A 60th minute tap-in for Conor McMenamin after Jay Donnelly pickpocketed the otherwise excellent Sam Roscoe, decided last night’s Big Two battle.
There was little between the sides in a tense 90 minutes that won’t live long in the memory for the quality of football served.
Perhaps the occasion was too important to expect the crackerjack many anticipated. On a night when the only other footballing distraction across Britain was Edinburgh City v Stirling Albion and a quartet of Cymru Premier League fixtures, the live coverage won’t have convinced too many new followers.
But that won’t worry the east Belfast half of last night’s 6,000+ crowd, who watched their side regain top spot in the title race, the first time in over a decade Glentoran has enjoyed such lofty heights this late in a season.
To be fair the conditions were uncooperative, the element of strong winds making things tricky for the gladiators.
And credit too, the hardy souls on the open terraces who stuck with the action throughout, despite incessant rain. Further clout in the case if it were needed to twist Minister Hargey’s rigid stone arm.
It’s a far cry from the last Linfield visit to The Oval. Post-match looking relaxed, Mick McDermott reflected calmly on victory over “a good Linfield side,” cutting stark contrast to his anguished and prickly demeanour during the previous occasion.
But well it might. Only a solitary defeat to Larne in a strange New Year’s Day fixture, in the 21 games since, is more than ample confirmation of a turn around in fortunes.
Sustained momentum is clearly with the Glens. But of course there’s still far too much football to be played to be certain of anything yet. No team ever gets the prize for being top in early February. McDermott reflected as much in his comments. “My blood pressure is up a little bit, but that is to be expected. We won’t get too high when we win at this stage of the season, and we don’t get too low when we lose.
“It’s an important win because it’s our big rival and they are a good team. They are top of the table with us for a reason, so it is an important step for us but still only three points.”
Linfield, always in the game last night and only denied an equalizer at the death by an outstanding reaction save by McCarey, have now lost three of their last four. They were arguably the better side in a second-half which saw Glentoran drop deeper after taking the lead.
The home side enjoyed the better of the opening 45 however, yet failed to fashion a worthwhile chance until the stroke of half-time when Murray, six yards from goal, couldn’t quite get his body adjusted to effectively meet Clucas’ cross.
The game was never short of endeavour nor intensity and had outstanding performers too. Watching, Ian Baraclough will surely have noted the name Caloan Marron, the Glentoran central defender producing a master-class. The Newry native was simply superb, as was the returning Chris Shields, whose performance screamed ‘presence’ in the Linfield midfield.
And of course there was Aaron McCarey, the former Republic of Ireland u21 goalkeeper who came up big when it really mattered. His save from Roscoe was breathtaking and brilliant, the most outstanding contribution to a game that lacked sparkling moments.
Much criticism has come Glentoran’s way this season for having a squad too large, for not finding the right combinations, but in recent weeks they have looked more settled than cross-town rivals Linfield, who appear increasingly reliant on loan signings to maintain a championship challenge.
Clearly the thought down Windsor way centres around better value being available through short-term deals from outside the league, but you wonder at the influx of loanees and new signings (7 in total) in this last window. Perhaps the quality is higher from elsewhere, but they all need time to bed-in and gel.
Understandably disappointed, a defiant David Healy felt his side deserved to take something from the game but weren’t clinical enough.
“[It was a] disappointing result. I thought we were good value for at least a point. There wasn’t too much in the game. We created our own problems for the goal, which was soft.
“First-half was a write-off for both teams, we did better in the second, but were chasing the game. Sometimes it’s easier to play when you’re losing and we should’ve had a bit more courage in possession, but we rue the chances we should’ve capitalised on.
“The players in there, as disappointed as they are, remain upbeat and positive. We still believe we can be champions. There’s a lot of games left, We still have Glentoran at Windsor but we have to do the business on our side and see what happens.”
GLENTORAN: McCarey - Marshall, Marron McClean, Kane (c) (Burns, 68) - Murray, Clucas, Plum - McDaid, J Donnelly (M O’Connor), McMenamin (Cushnie, 88).
Subs (not used): Bigirimana, McCartan, Crowe, Glendinning
LINFIELD: Johns - Pepper (Devine, 83), Callacher, Clarke, Roscoe - Shields, Mulgrew (c)(McKee, 88), Quinn (Millar, 68), Fallon, Hastie (Vertainen, 68) - Manzinga
Subs (not used): Walsh, Hall, McClean.
REFEREE: Raymond Crangle.
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