“Well, how do we top that one?!?” That very well might be the question Linfield boss David Healy has asked himself over the last few weeks, as he took time to reflect back on what must surely rank as one of the most incredible domestic title victories ever witnessed in Irish League football! That the Blues also managed to emerge victorious in both the showpiece Tennent’s Irish Cup competition, and the less-heralded Co. Antrim Shield tournament simply added to a feeling of joyous disbelief for many Linfield fans as the season concluded on the full-time whistle in the Cup Final.
What finished up as one of the most satisfying seasons in the Club’s entire 131-year history most certainly did not get off to an auspicious start, with only a single friendly game played (a 3-0 victory at minnows Knockbreda, with only a handful of regular 1st team players involved) before Linfield faced up to the two-legged challenge of Eire counterparts Cork City in the First Qualifying Round of the Europa League competition in July. Losing the home leg at Windsor Park (which at the time more resembled a building site than a football ground) by a single goal was seen by many Blues as a decent result, given the lack of proper preparation and the fact that a strong Cork side were halfway through their own domestic programme, and therefore fully match-fit.
Many feared a bit of a drubbing at Turner’s Cross in the return game, but a battling display from the visitors saw them secure a creditable 1-1 draw. This gave fans both hope (that the new season might see the team able to string some good results together and put a challenge up to defending Champions Crusaders), and in equal measure, annoyance (that with better preparation the boys might have been able to defeat Cork City in the tie and progress to the next round in Europe, for which there is very decent money awarded by UEFA).
By the time the domestic league season got underway a month later with a trip to Fermanagh to face Ballinamallard United, Linfield had won all seven of the intervening pre-season friendlies. A hard-fought 2-1 win at Ferney Park was followed by draws at home to Coleraine and away at Crusaders (a point which was looked upon at the time as very much ‘one gained’, since we played with 10 men for the final 40 minutes at Seaview after referee Crangle dismissed Stevie Lowry for a second bookable offence); this left the Blues looking up the league table to their title rivals after only three rounds of fixtures.
A thumping 4-0 win at home to Glenavon was again followed by a disappointing 1-1 draw with Dungannon at Windsor Park, but the Blues then picked up some good form and went on a run of five straight victories in a row, including a 5-0 demolition of Larne in the League Cup and a 4-0 win over Donegal Celtic in the Co. Antrim Shield (CAS). This mini-run culminated with the first ‘Big Two’ game of the year, a 2-1 victory at The Oval where Jimmy Callacher broke Glentoran hearts with a headed winner with only 3 minutes left on the clock.
Next up for Linfield was a ground-breaking first ever invitational fixture in the ‘Irn Bru’ Scottish Challenge Cup, in which we had been given the daunting task of taking on a very strong Queen of the South team on their own pitch in Dumfries. To the credit of our Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Roy Carroll, the game went into extra-time at 0-0 before the ‘Doonhammers’ found a way past the big Fermanagh man, running out deserved 2-0 winners – the step up in class was just too much to ask of our part-time players.
Indeed, the effects of the energy-sapping efforts invested in that tussle with full-time opponents was there for all to see in Linfield’s next fixture, when a hungry Ballymena United side tore into the tired men in blue, running out 4-1 winners at Warden Street to condemn the visitors to an early exit from the League Cup competition.
The ‘start-stop’ nature of the Blues’ domestic season continued when a comfortable 4-0 win over Ballinamallard was followed up by a disappointing 2-1 reverse at Cliftonville and a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Coleraine. A creditable 3-0 win over the Reds in the CAS in late October was then followed by a second 0-0 draw of the season with Crusaders, a result that left many Bluemen despairing of our chances of making a strong challenge for the Gibson Cup.
The following weekend saw Linfield travel to Lurgan to take part in a game that many Bluemen now believe was a turning-point in the whole season. The visitors found themselves reduced to NINE men after only ten minutes of the contest, referee Marshall waving a straight red card at full-back Matty Clarke for what seemed a fairly innocuous challenge on TV replays, and then following that up with a ludicrous red card for Roy Carroll for apparent ‘dissent’, an erroneous decision that was later revealed to have been recommended by the linesman and fourth official for spitting…?! Defender Mark Haughey donned the goalkeeper’s gloves, but despite a few very creditable saves, he had picked the ball out of his net twice by half-time, and a crushing defeat to Glenavon looked inevitable.
However, in a quite heroic effort, the eight outfield players and Haughey (with several brilliant saves) somehow fought back to match their hosts in the second half. Andy Waterworth reduced the deficit to a single goal before young Paul Smyth broke clear with two minutes remaining and steered his shot firmly past Jonny Tuffey into the far corner of the Glenavon net, to release an eruption of joy amongst the traveling fans.
The momentum & self-belief gained from that fabulous fightback saw Linfield go on a run of incredible results, suffering only a single defeat at home to apparent ‘bogey team’ Cliftonville, before arriving for the traditional Boxing Day game with Glentoran with seven wins from eight games, including a 6-1 drubbing of Ards in the CAS semi-final. However, a day of missed opportunities for Linfield saw the Glens leave Windsor with a 1-1 draw, a result which left the Blues trailing Crusaders by seven points ahead of their head-to-head at Seaview on New Year’s Eve.
Knowing that defeat would almost certainly end their interest in the Gibson Cup, the Blues produced a stirring display to win 2-1 at Seaview, Aaron Burns & Waterworth giving them a 2-0 half-time lead before captain Jamie Mulgrew was controversially dismissed on the hour; Jordan Owens made it a nervous last 20 minutes for the visiting fans, but some good saves from Carroll saw Linfield hold on for the victory.
However, a poor display at home to Coleraine three days later brought a 0-1 defeat, and it seemed it was ‘one step forward, two steps back’ for the Blues. Having been unbelievably drawn away to rivals Glentoran in the Irish Cup 5th Round, a titanic cup tussle ensued on 7th January, with extra-time being required before Waterworth struck to give the Blues a 2-1 win, effectively ending the Glens’ season.
A string of impressive victories followed, including a 2-0 win at Institute in the Irish Cup, before the CAS Final meeting with the Crues at Ballymena arrived; on an emotional February evening, David Healy finally got his first piece of silverware as Linfield manager, goals from youngster Cameron Stewart, Mark Stafford and a Stevie Lowry penalty giving the Blues a 3-1 victory.
It seemed that a hoped-for league title challenge following the Shield win was not going to materialise as two more league points were lost in a very poor 1-1 draw with lowly Portadown, Josh Carson only rescuing a point for Linfield in injury time… Indeed, having been drawn away to the Crues in the quarter-finals of the Irish Cup, it was widely accepted by most Bluemen that defeat in that tie on 4th March would end Linfield’s interest in further silverware for the season.
As it was, a simply superb display from the men in blue resulted in a 2-0 victory, with goals from Lowry (penalty) and Niall Quinn. More to the point, this time the Blues were determined not to slip up in their pursuit of the Crues in the title race, knowing there was no longer any room for error, and what followed was some of the most determined, focused football in many, many years! The team flooded with self-belief, and in Andy Waterworth found a talisman who was burying virtually every chance he got in front of goal.
League wins were secured against Cliftonville (finally!), Ards & Ballinamallard to seal 2nd position in the league table at the ‘split’; Dungannon were dispatched 1-0 in a tight Irish Cup semi-final at Mourneview Park, and Crusaders were welcomed to Windsor for the ‘make or break’ league clash on 8th April with Linfield trailing the leaders by 4 points.
On a sun-drenched day, a solitary goal from Aaron Burns was enough to close the gap (which at one stage had stood at 9 points) on the Crues to a single point, and dreams of a possible ‘treble’ began to stir…
Thereafter, Ballymena were more easily dispatched at Warden Street than the 2-0 scoreline would suggest, the horrible pitch making quality football very difficult to produce; Glenavon were buried by half-time the following Tuesday evening, defeated 3-0; on the Saturday Linfield produced the performance of the season, as they recovered from going 1-0 down early in the 2nd half at Ballycastle Road to hammer a very good Coleraine side 5-1. Burns, Smyth & Waterworth tortured the Bannsiders’ defence that afternoon… and then news filtered through that the Crues had finally stumbled, at Ballymena, going down 3-0… we were on top by two points!
So, with nervous anticipation, many Bluemen made strenuous efforts to get to Solitude for the final league game of the season, against a Reds side reeling from the recent resignation of manager Gerard Lyttle. Former Reds boss Tommy Breslin returned for this one-off game, and he looked to have worked some magic as a nervous Blues side went in deservedly trailing 0-1 to a Daniel Hughes strike at half-time. However, this Linfield team weren’t going down without a fight, and drew level within a minute of the re-start, Waterworth pouncing to prod home from close range after a Chris Casement corner was helped on by Stafford.
From that point on, it became the ‘Andy Waterworth Show’; the striker lit up the game with a simply fabulous solo goal, running with the ball from the halfway line before coolly finishing into the far corner for 2-1; minutes later he was pulled down in the area by Chris Ramsey but dusted himself off to make it 3-1 from the penalty spot, thereby claiming a hat-trick and his 27th goal of a superb season.
When the final whistle sounded from ref McNabb, Linfield were Irish League Champions for the first time in 5 long years, and in the most remarkable way possible! However, whilst the fans celebrated long into the night (the Gibson Cup having been paraded before them at a hastily arranged ‘welcome home’ party at Windsor that evening), the players did no such thing, Healy mindful that the Irish Cup Final against Coleraine was yet to be won….
And so, on the final day of the domestic season, the new Champions took to the Windsor Park pitch, and proved their credentials were fully deserved. Before a boisterous crowd in excess of 12,500 people, they put on a dominant display against a youthful Bannsiders side, Waterworth again to the fore ahead of a midfield area being controlled almost from the first whistle by new ‘Ulster Player of the Year’ Jamie Mulgrew and very able side-kick Stevie Lowry. The Blues striker took his personal tally for the season to 30 goals, claiming a SECOND hat-trick in a week, as he calmly finished three gilt-edged chances and Linfield ran out comfortable 3-0 victors.
It’s obviously been a very memorable season for everyone connected with the Club, and one the boys can reflect on with immense pride and satisfaction. The apparent stranglehold that Crusaders were threatening to assert on Irish League football has been thwarted and the immediate future looks bright for David Healy and his charges. With several new recruits signed up to bolster what already looks like a strong squad, Blues fans will be expecting a robust defence of both major trophies from their team next season.