Cliftonville in box seat after ‘Big Two’ stalemate

Linfield’s title ambitions took a wobble at a bouncing Windsor Park.

By Alex Mills
Friday, 15th April 2022, 10:23 pm

Although David Healy’s team remain at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table, their draw with cross-town rivals Glentoran put a dent in their aspirations of racking up their fourth successive Gibson Cup triumph.

Little Jordan Stewart shot the Blues into an early lead, only for Conor McMenamin to level thing up before the break.

The result opened up the door for Paddy McLaughlin’s Cliftonville to take over at the top. Should they pocket three points from the visit of Larne to Solitude today – it’s their final home game – they would move to the summit.

Linfield's Jamie Mulgrew and Glentoran's Seanan Clucas battle it out. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Even though it’s scant consolation, the Blues all but ended Glentoran’s hopes of ending their title drought – the last success was back in 2009.

It’s now make-or-break for the top two. The Blues face a tricky trip to Seaview on Tuesday night, while Cliftonville travel to face Coleraine – something must give!

The Glens, of course, at still clinging to hopes they’ll be reinstated to the Irish Cup. They were thrown out of the tournament for playing an ineligible player, Joe Crowe, in their quarter-final win over Newry City.

Having had no luck in their appeal process at the IFA, they have taken their case to arbitration and are still awaiting an outcome – the case is up for debate on April 21. It now remains their only hope of trophy success this season.

Linfield asked the first questions once Raymond Crangle got proceedings under way. Jordan Stewart and Matty Clarke combined on he left, but the defender’s cross, was easily dealt with by Paddy McClean.

But the Glens almost silenced the big home crawd on six minutes when Hrvoje Plum’s corner kick was cleverly back-heeled by Michael O’Connor, only to see his effort ricochet off a post.

Glentoran certainly settled first. Midfielder Dillon Powers tried to pick out Jay Donnelly with a wonderfully flighted ball over the top, but the striker just failed to make contact.

Then, Donnelly, surrounded by defenders laid he ball perfectly into the path of O’Connor on the edge of the box, but his low shot clipped the outside of the post with Chris Johns at full stretch.

The visitors should really have forged ahead on 26 minutes. O’Connor’s sent Conor McMenamin rampaging in behind the Blues defence on the right, but with only Chris Johns to beat, his shot was superbly beaten away by the outstretched glove of the big goalkeeper.

Linfield finally gave their fans something to cheer with defender Ben Hall taking off on a surging dash forward and, when the ball fell to Stewart, he arrowed a drive over the top.

But he had half the ground dancing with delight on 26 minutes . This time his speculative cross from wide on the left was left by Paddy McClean, under pressure from Chris McKee. With Aaron McCarey marooned on his line, the ball trickled in at the back post.

Battling Glentoran were level within six minutes. Skipper Jamie Mulgrew was caught in possession by Powers in the centre circle and, when Clucas threaded a pass through the middle to McMenamin, his finish was emphatic, lashing the ball into the top corner.

The pace never slackened when both teams emerged from the tunnel for the second helping of an intriguing affair. McKee spun away from his marker on 50 minutes, but was high and wide with his finish from the edge of the box.

Again, the action quickly switched with Chris Shields flattening O’Connor 30 yards out, but Plum’s free kick fizzed just over the crossbar.

Blues boss Healy then made a double change, introducing Jake Hastie and Eetu Vertainen and, he big Finnish striker required only seconds to fire in a shot from the right that rippled the side netting.

Suddenly, it was the Blues looking the likelier to score. The Glens survived a double scare on 67 minutes when Kyle McClean’s goal-bound shot was blocked by Caolan Marron before Hastie’s header was superbly clawed away by McCarey.

With the clock ticking down, diminutive Stewart then tricked his way past Burns on the right, but he couldn’t pick out a team-mate and the danger was averted by Powers.

It was hectic stuff, with McMenamin producing a piercing run on the right, which took him past Mulgrew, but when he seen the whites of the goal posts, he fired into the side netting.

The Blues had a big chance with four minutes remaining.

Vertainen produced a wonderful pass to Stewart, whose blockbuster was saved by McCarey and when the little wizard gobbled up the rebound, he could only head wide.