Linfield ace fires big title warning
Linfield 2 Crusaders 0: By the time a flame-haired midfield dynamo had drilled in a stunning second goal for Linfield in the 73rd minute, the temperature in the visiting dugout had already reached boiling point.
Despite being the better side in the opening half and creating most of the chances, Crusaders found themselves a man down at the break following the controversial dismissal of midfielder Chris Morrow in the 44th minute.
The straight red card issued by referee Arnold Hunter sparked furious protests from the Crusaders bench and players but it was a decision that knocked the stuffing out of the Hatchetmen and Linfield, as expected, made the extra man count after the break.
As Morrow went into a challenge with Aaron Burns both his feet were off the ground but, although the tackle was firm, it was not malicious or dangerous.
A yellow card would have been appropriate punishment but, when the red was flashed, it was the beginning of the end of a contest Crusaders had bossed from the word go.
As Blues captain Michael Gault admitted afterwards: “Chris Morrow is not a dirty player. If I had been sent off for that tackle, I would have been very disappointed.”
And Crues boss Stephen Baxter fumed: “I know refereeing is a hard job but you’ve got to get the big decisions right.”
With 11 men on the park, the Crues were on top but Northern Ireland keeper Alan Blayney was in mean mood, foiling Blues old boy Timmy Adamson, Stuart Dallas and then knocking away Aidan Watson’s free-kick.
A shout for a penalty after a handball from Rory Patterson was ignored by referee Hunter just before the official took centre stage with his red card show.
Linfield, surprisingly lack-lustre in the opening period, asserted their authority after the break. After Aaron Burns’ header bounced back off the woodwork, Jim Ervin (below, with fellow scorer Robert Garrett) shot through a crowd of players in the 66th minute to break the deadlock and Garrett capped an outstanding individual performance with a sweet finish from 22 yards.
Many Blues fans were excited when news broke that Patterson was set to display his finishing prowess at Windsor Park but the club’s best transfer business in the summer was keeping Garrett and Jamie Mulgrew in the family.
Attempts to secure full-time football came to nothing and once again Garrett displayed his undoubted class in a Linfield jersey, even showing the strikers how to conjure up a wonder strike.
His energy levels and willingness to keep applying pressure across the midfield helped break Crusaders’ resolve.
“It was one of my better strikes,” admitted Garrett. “I feel I can score more from outside the box and luckily enough that one flew in for me.
“Crusaders are a very good team and difficult to beat but the sending off changed the game a bit with us getting more space.
“Alan (Blayney) made important saves so we have him to thank as well. In the first half we were nowhere near where we needed to be, the manager told us that and we upped the tempo.
“I didn’t see the sending off, I would need to take another look at it.”
While Linfield will now prepare for a top of the table clash with Portadown next weekend, the Crues will host Cliftonville in a north-Belfast derby without the suspended Morrow.
Now eight points behind the Blues, their early season hopes of mounting a title challenge appear to be fading already.