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Linfield return to winners enclosure with County Antrim Shield triumph

Crusaders 1 - Linfield 3

By Graham Luney

Welcome back Linfield - where have you been? The Blues' trophy drought is over. Drought may seem an exaggerated term but not in the case of Linfield, a trophy winning institution.

Almost two years without silverware was a bitter pill for the faithful to swallow but much of that frustration evaporated on a cold night at the Ballymena Showgrounds.

This Toals County Antrim Shield success is David Healy's first trophy as a manager with his Linfield reign up to this point being a tale of Cup final heartache and players suffering stage fright on the big occasion.

Against Premiership champions Crusaders, it was going to take something special to win the first prize of the domestic season and their set piece magic coupled with Paul Heatley's first half red card sowed the seeds of this victory.

They were 2-0 ahead by the 12th minute with former Crues player Cameron Stewart and Mark Stafford finding the target.

Heatley was sent off for an elbow offence on Stafford on 31 minutes and, even though Jordan Owens hinted there was still life in the contest with a stunning header, the Blues finished the job in the 79th minute when Stephen Lowry drilled home a penalty.

And it was one of former Linfield manager David Jeffrey's old warriors Jamie Mulgrew who was immense in the Blues midfield.

The Shield may not be the Irish League trophy that glitters the most, but a manager simply wants to grab his first prize and Healy will always cherish this victory.

Whether Linfield's 43rd success in this tournament can give his side the drive and inspiration needed to wipe away Crusaders' seven point lead at the league summit remains to be seen but, for now, Linfield fans can celebrate the fact that their club has restored some pride.

It's been tough to watch Cliftonville and Crusaders win back to back titles while two final defeats last year - in the Shield to Ballymena United and Irish Cup to Glenavon - poured salt into wounds.

The club does not tolerate failure and the tide needed to turn. The players owed Healy a performance after the no show in the Irish Cup decider and they found the spirit and resolve to win this one, though they were helped by some woeful Crusaders defending and the Crues will argue that the sending off determined the outcome.

The Blues have been prolific from set pieces this season but Crusaders didn't read the script and paid the price in the fourth minute.

Niall Quinn delivered the corner and Stewart found the net with a bullet header.

Heatley's effort hit the side netting but Linfield doubled their lead in the 12th minute courtesy of another poorly defended set piece.

This time Kirk Millar floated in a corner from the other end of the pitch, the danger wasn't cleared and Stafford couldn't believe his luck as he poked the ball over the line.

Cushley let fly from distance in the 23rd minute but his effort drifted wide and the Crues were still struggling to put three passes together.

Their night went from bad to worse when Heatley was shown a straight red card in the 31st minute for aiming an elbow at Stafford.

Baxter's side looked down and out but, three minutes later, they awakened from their slumber as Owens found the net with a superb header after Coates' dangerous cross.

After the restart, Cushley's shot deflected over the top but Mulgrew then went on a dangerous run before unleashing a shot which sailed just over the woodwork.

Fifteen minutes before the end, Linfield missed two opportunities to finish it. Andrew Waterworth's shot was dug out by keeper Sean O'Neill and then Stewart screwed a shot wide when fans expected the net to ripple.

But the Blues finished the job in the 79th minute with Stephen Lowry coolly converting from the penalty spot after Beverland had felled Waterworth with a crunching challenge.

The night finished with the men in blue lifting a trophy, just like the good old days.

CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, Beverland, Coates, Carvill, Cushley (Holden, 72 mins), Forsythe, Owens (Suarez, 87 mins), Snoddy, Keane (Mitchell, 80 mins), Heatley. Unused subs: Dougherty, Clarke.

Linfield: Deane, Stafford, Stewart (Smyth, 80 mins), Haughey, Callacher, Waterworth, Lowry, Millar, Clarke, Mulgrew, Quinn. Unused subs: Carroll, Ward, Casement, Fallon.

Referee: Mervyn Smyth (Belfast)

Man of the match: Jimmy Callacher

Match rating: 8/10

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