Ruthless Cliftonville rock Linfield
Cliftonville 3 Linfield 1: A goalscoring goalkeeper helped blow the title race wide open at Solitude last night as Cliftonville shocked Linfield with a blood and thunder display to plunder three Premiership points — and provide Glentoran with the chance to reduce the gap to two when they face Donegal Celtic this afternoon.
Shot-stopper John Connolly stepped forward to complete the scoring with an 82nd minute penalty after Ciaran Caldwell's earlier spot-kick had put the Reds in front for the second time.
Kieran O'Connor opened the scoring in the first-half only to see his strike cancelled out when Aaron Burns struck for Linfield, whose misery was compounded by a late red card for Robert Garrett.
Solitude's new 3G surface has certainly proved its worth since being installed over the summer, with even the most stern of recent weather conditions having no impact upon either the Reds' fixtures schedule nor training plans — and, before the game, Reds boss Eddie Patterson insisted the time was right for his players to follow suit.
Their home record has been anything but exemplary since they replaced their infamous old pitch and, in the nine games played there prior to last night, they have tasted victory just four times, suffering five defeats along the way — including successive losses in their last two Solitude outings.
Linfield, meanwhile, had some of their own making up to do having crashed to Glentoran in their previous outing.
Out went Damien Curran, Michael Carvill, David Armstrong and Jamie Mulgrew — the latter two dropped to the bench — with Mark McAllister and William Murphy returning to the line-up alongside Michael Gault and Garrett, both of whom were back from suspension.
Much as Patterson had threatened to ring changes of his own, the Reds' injury list curtailed his options somewhat and, with Ciaran Donaghy their latest casualty following a late fitness test, Mark Holland partnered his brother Barry at the heart of the defence.
Liam Fleming was back in place of Aaron Smyth — another injury victim — and the expiry of George McMullan's two-game ban saw him return to the team at the expense of Ronan Scannell.
Most observers predicted a tight encounter and that's exactly what they got in the first period when both sides exchanged a plethora of opportunities, beginning when Curtis Allen diverted a Philip Lowry strike inches wide of the mark.
William Murphy headed over the top and Aaron Burns drilled wide before Robert Garrett clipped the crossbar with a 25-yard free-kick.
Cliftonville opened the scoring with their first meaningful attack when Stephen Garrett nodded Ciaran Caldwell's looping delivery back into the danger area and O'Connor rose to head home his first goal of the season.
The Blues were level just seven minutes later when Curtis Allen's wicked corner eluded everyone in the area before striking Burns and creeping over the line.
Stephen Garrett, Chris Scannell and George McMullan then drew saves from keeper Alan Blayney as the contest developed into a more end-to-end affair, although the first-half ended on a bizarre note with referee Brian Turkington refusing to acknowledge the plight of a very obviously injured Burns, who eventually hobbled off to be replaced by Marcus Kane.
After the interval Cliftonville were handed a golden opportunity to pull ahead when William Murphy's foul on Chris Scannell just inside the area was punished with a penalty kick. Connolly appeared to hesitate in trudging forward to take the strike and Caldwell needed no second invitation to stamp his name on the scoresheet, stepping up to thunder home.
Stephen Garrett then had a strike ruled out for offside and Blayney saved from Caldwell before Connolly was finally handed an opportunity to take centre stage when Scannell was tripped by Kane.
The Dubliner was urged forward this time and, in the battle of the keepers, made no mistake with a confident strike. Things got worse for the Blues when Robert Garrett — returning from a ban — was handed his marching orders on 87 minutes for a second booking after a crude challenge on Cliftonville namesake Stephen.
CLIFTONVILLE: Connolly, Fleming, B Holland, M Holland, McMullan, C Scannell, Garrett, Caldwell, Johnston, O'Connor, McVeigh. Subs: R Scannell (for Caldwell, 83 mins), Lynch, Jones (for Johnston, 90 mins), Donnelly (for C Scannell, 89 mins), Burns
LINFIELD: Blayney, Gault, Murphy, Lowry, Thompson, A Burns, Allen, Garrett, Ervin, McAllister, Casement. Subs: Armstrong, BJ Burns, Mulgrew (for Allen, 73 mins), Munster (for Kane, 41 mins), Kane (for A Burns, 41 mins)
Referee: Brian Turkington (Bangor).