It wasn’t supposed to be like this...
Surely the Gibson Cup in 2022 was destined for one the league’s full-time clubs. It still might be of course in the shape of table-topping Linfield, but miracle-worker Paddy McLaughlin’s part-time Red Machine can hit the front this afternoon, with only three rounds to go.
Cliftonville were the side everyone expected to fall away as the Big Two battled for supremacy. But it was Glentoran who imploded, as the Reds remained consistent. Now a win over another under-performing outfit, Larne, at Solitude this afternoon will see them head the Blues by a point.
Unbeaten in twelve now since successive home defeats to Crusaders and Glentoran in January, Cliftonville will need to get their travel mentality right. Larne’s unreasonably-restricted band of 80 will be the last visiting fans around Solitude this season. After that it’s away; to Coleraine, Crusaders and Glentoran. Not an easy run-in. Linfield have Crusaders (away), Larne (home), Coleraine (home). Looks less taxing, but this two-horse race will go to the wire.
For many observers Cliftonville have been the team of the season so far. They’ve played the most constructive football, already won one pot, the League Cup, and the way the local game is progressing, could also become the last-ever part-time outfit to win the Irish League.
Last night at Windsor, Linfield holding destiny in their own hands, left the door open, unable to extinguish struggling Glentoran at home. It could have been worse for the Blues. Glentoran owing their disgruntled fans a big performance looked in the mood. They took the game to their hosts and should’ve lead going into the break.
But after seeing the impressive Michael O’Connor strike the woodwork twice and Johns make a decent save when faced by McMenamin, they allowed Linfield to steal in front. It was the softest of soft goals, completely against the run of play and frankly part of a pattern that has undermined the east Belfast title challenge this season.
Jordan Stewart crossed from the right, the ball eluded everyone, Paddy McClean opted to leave, so too did Aaron McCarey and it bent in, apologetically, at the far post.
Glentoran bounced back six minutes later through their most dangerous outlet, Conor McMenamin. Powers and Clucas had been dominating midfield and when the former dispossessed Mulgrew, the latter threaded a perfect pass to McMenamin, who strode on and finished emphatically despite the attentions of Callacher.
It was probably the worst half of football I’d seen from Linfield this season, and one of the best from Glentoran, but tellingly parity prevailed.
Linfield would finish the game the stronger after a nervous spell during the early stages of the second period. The introduction of loanees Vertainen and Hastie helped shift momentum for the Blues and they had their first real shot on target on 67 minutes when the excellent Marron blocked Kyle McClean’s shot. Hastie’s follow-up header allowed McCarey to partially redeem himself after his first-half misjudgement.
Jordan Stewart was Linfield’s most dangerous attacker and it was the diminutive front man who had the chance to win the game with four regulation minutes left, but again McCarey was equal to the task, his orange frame going full length to beat the striker’s shot away.
Glentoran after a huge shift tired in those closing stages and yet may have regained the lead after a break by McMenamin ended with a shot into the side netting.
Over the piece the draw was just, and the Oval men’s recent poor form, not this evening’s performance, the platform for their premature exit from what’s certainly now a two-horse race.
This afternoon it’s over to Cliftonville. We know they can play, but can they do it when the pressure’s on? We’re about to find out.
LINFIELD: Johns - Pepper, Callacher, Hall, Clarke - Shields, Millar (Hastie, 61), Mulgrew (c), Stewart - McKee (Vertainen, 61), McClean (Devine, 85).
Bench (unused): Walsh, Roscoe, Quinn, Salam.
GLENTORAN: McCarey, Marshall, McClean, Marron, Burns - Powers (McCartan, 85), Clucas (Kane, 85), Plum, McMenamin - O’Connor (R Donnelly, 68), J Donnelly.
Bench (unused): Crowe, Jenkins, Glendinning, Cole.
Referee: Raymond Crangle.