IRISH LEAGUE: Resurgent Linfield stun Crusaders to reignite title hopes

Linfield's Jimmy Callacher celebrates scoring against Crusaders.
Linfield's Jimmy Callacher celebrates scoring against Crusaders.
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David Healy’s Linfield blasted their way back into the title race following this thrilling win against Crusaders on New Year’s Day.

Goals from Andy Waterworth - his 20th of the season - and Jimmy Callacher inflicted the first defeat on the current champions since the opening day of the Danske Premiership campaign.

This was a game that had everything: goal-mouth incidents, seven bookings, excitement, goals, a linesman carried off and a broken corner flag pole in a superb advertisement for Irish League football.

It was the Crues first loss in 11 outings at the international venue - a run stretching back to February 2012.

Incredibly, it was the first time this season that Baxter’s team have failed to find the net.

Fresh from their impressive Boxing Day win over Belfast rivals Glentoran, the Blues were again in a mean mood. Waterworth broke clear in the first minute, but referee Andrew Davey spotted Paul Smyth’s nudge on Colin Coates.

Crusaders almost broke the deadlock on six minutes when Sean O’Neill’s long punt forward allowed little Paul Heatley to get in behind the Blues defence, but his shot was superbly saved by Ross Glendinning.

But Waterworth showed how it should be done on 26 minutes. He motored onto a cute pass from Jamie Mulgrew and, after out-pacing David Magowan, his initial shot was beaten away by O’Neill, but the striker was in like a flash to ram home the rebound. In the wild celebrations a corner flag pole was damaged, which caused a five minute delay until a replacement was found.

The champs tried to respond with Jordan Forsythe firing in a 35 yard free kick, which was pawed out of the top corner by Glendinning following Mulgrew’s clumsy challenge on Paul Heatley.

Linfield were almost presented with a second goal eight minutes before the break when Colin Coates’ back pass to O’Neill fell short, but the keeper did well to pluck the ball off Waterworth’s toe.

Linesman Mark O’Brien was then carried off with an injury after receiving four minutes of treatment on a shoulder knock after he collided with Kirk Millar and Craig McClean on the touchline. Callacher required only five minutes of the new half to head the Blues two up. Substitute David Kee’s corner kick put O’Neill under pressure and the big defender managed to bundle the ball home.

Young Smyth should have wrapped it up three minutes later but fired wide with only O’Neill to beat.

Crusaders threw caution to the wind and really could have been level only for the excellence of Glendinning.

The big shot stopper beat away a stinging effort from Gavin Whyte with an outstretched legs before he left the same player scratching his head in frustration, this time pawing the midfielder’s shot past the post.

When Coates’ header crashed back off the crossbar from a sublime cross from Burns with only four minutes left, the Crues knew it wasn’t to be their day.

Linfield: Ross Glendinning, Stafford, Haughey (Kee 46), Callacher, Waterworth, Millar, Burns (Bates 83), Ward, Clarke, Mulgrew, Smyth (Frazer 90). Subs not used: Hegarty, Reece Glendinning.

Crusaders: O’Neill, Burns, Magowan (Robinson 46), Coates, Clarke (Snoddy 46), Caddell, Whyte, Heatley, Owens (O’Flynn 71), Forsythe, McClean. Subs not used: O’Carroll, Carvill.

Referee A Davey (Bangor).