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O'Neill denies Blues with Red-letter goal

Cliftonville 2 Linfield 2

By Graham Luney

Who will win the Carnegie Premier League title this season? After this absorbing encounter between Linfield and Cliftonville no one is any the wiser but the 3,000 fans who watched this Solitude scrap and the many more on television screens across the world witnessed a superb advertisement for Irish League football.

There was tangible tension on and off the pitch as the game flowed one way and then the other, with both sets of players giving everything to their side's cause.

The second half in particular was a thrilling spectacle, serving up four goals and it seemed only fair the spoils should be shared.

Ace marksman Glenn Ferguson opened the scoring in the 57th minute but Cliftonville hit straight back through David McAlinden.

Thomas Stewart thought he had scored the winner in the 73rd minute but substitute Stephen O'Neill was an instant hero in the 82nd minute when he scored with his first touch.

Northern Ireland international Peter Thompson failed to make the Linfield 16 as he recovers from a hamstring injury but Tim Mouncey was awarded a place on the bench.

Liam Fleming was back from suspension but the Cliftonville skipper had to settle for a substitute's role.

The home side, cheered on by a Red Army determined to exercise their vocal chords, were keen to stamp their authority on the contest from the outset and they almost got off to the start they dreamed of in the fifth minute.

Francis Murphy had time and space on the left wing to drill a low cross into the penalty area where Kieran O'Connor side-footed the ball over the bar.

Murphy posed a big threat to the Blues down the left flank as Cliftonville besieged the visitors' back line.

Both sides attempted to play a passing game but the desperation to impress was so strong that both sets of players were at times guilty of sloppy control.

In the 17th minute, Paul McAreavey's corner found its way to Noel Bailie but the skipper produced a defender's finish, screwing his angled drive well wide.

It was the same at the other end three minutes later when Ronan Scannell ghosted past a weak challenge from Jim Ervin but the full back lacked composure at the critical moment and drilled a low shot wide of the post.

Cliftonville almost broke the deadlock in the 23rd minute. Solitude held its breath as Chris Scannell's powerful diving header grazed the upright following Mark Holland's inch-perfect cross.

Twelve minutes before the break Holland tried his luck from the edge of the penalty area again but poked his low shot well wide.

Five minutes before the interval Murphy sprinted clear of the Blues defence but as goalkeeper Alan Mannus charged off his line, his chip lacked sufficient power and fell into the relieved keeper's arms.

At the other end Ferguson's low drive deflected off Barry Holland's boot for a corner.

The second half almost got off to a sensational start when Linfield almost went in front, but Kris Lindsay, rising high to meet Pat McShane's cross, directed his header over the crossbar.

In the 52nd minute Tim Mouncey replaced Mark Dickson and five minutes later the game got the goal it needed.

Ace predator Ferguson had been starved of a sight at goal all night but that all changed when he was able to poke home McAreavey's long-range free-kick.

The Reds' defence gave him the freedom of north Belfast 10 yards from goal and he buried the ball past keeper John Connolly.

Linfield's lead lasted only two minutes. Ronan Scannell's free-kick sailed through a crowd of players, rebounded off the post and McAlinden was in the right place to chest the ball across the line.

The visitors, stunned by the equaliser, almost replied immediately but Ferguson's header sailed inches over the crossbar.

The former Northern Ireland international, however played a major role in Linfield's second goal.

Ferguson's cutback from the byline found Thomas Stewart who failed to make proper contact but it fooled Connelly and went into the net.

But Cliftonville refused to accept defeat and O'Neill, unmarked at the back post, headed home a lofted cross.

The Reds almost celebrated the winner in the 89th minute but Barry Holland's low drive was booted off the line by McAreavey.

Cliftonville: Connelly, B Holland, R Scannell, Johnston, O'Hara, McAlinden, M Holland, O'Connor, C Scannell, McMullan, Murphy.

Subs: O'Neill, Catney, Smyth, Fleming, Martin.

Linfield: Mannus, McShane, Gault, Bailie, Ferguson, Lindsay, McAreavey, Dickson, Ervin, Mulgrew, Stewart.

Subs: Douglas, Murphy, Mouncey, O'Kane, McCann.

Referee: David Malcolm (Bangor)

Belfast Telegraph


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