Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: How Christmas crackers will impact Irish League's most exciting title race


Winning ugly: David Healy doesn’t mind how Linfield play as long as they win
Winning ugly: David Healy doesn’t mind how Linfield play as long as they win
Billy Weir

By Billy Weir

Tuesday night's League Cup semi-finals tell us a couple of things - Crusaders are looking a tad ominous and the rumours of Coleraine's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

It also shrouds Linfield in even more mystery. A great European campaign has been followed by a league run where they are still playing catch up, and with teams continually taking points off each other, if they win both of their games in hand they will be four points clear at the top of the table.

But despite that there are rumblings amongst the Windsor Park faithful. They have stuttered to results rather than win in the swashbuckling style that their fans want, and the wheels came off completely on Tuesday night with that 3-0 thumping by the Bannsiders.

Back to their win over Larne on Saturday and I wasn't at the match, it was nearly December and time for the Christmas trees to be put up at home.

I had to pop over to the Lisburn Road for a vital bauble, and driving back over the bridge on Tate's Avenue at 4.45pm I was struck by the number of buses parked up awaiting the return of Larne fans.

Up until relatively recently, the Larne travelling support could have parked up their tandem outside Beattie's chippy, but these are changing times.

If only they had parked one of those buses up across the goal to prevent Josh Robinson's late smash and grab then we would have been talking about another red letter for the Invermen rather than lucky Linfield again.

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By the way, that is a joke. Yes, they had a bit of luck when Davy McDaid's effort was kept out by the woodwork, but it only got there because of a great save by Rohan Ferguson, and there is nothing remotely fortuitous in the following statistic - in David Healy's 220 games in charge of the Blues that was their 100th clean sheet.

"There have been a few questions asked of us. Has this Linfield team got the stomach for it? Even though we were as poor as we were, we still had the stomach for it," growled the Blues manager on Saturday evening.

"We proved that we have the hunger and desire to get three points, which was pleasing.

"As the old cliche goes, and many people have said it over the years, lucky Linfield. I'll be surprised if that is not used in certain places about this result."

And that makes Tuesday night's hammering all the more eye-catching. Linfield losing 3-0 is not a normal occurrence.

On Saturday the fans were getting restless, a point picked up on by Healy himself.

"It certainly wasn't the easiest on the eye, I know that, I'm fully aware of that, and when the game's ongoing sometimes you can hear 'are you watching this?'" he said.

"Of course I'm watching it, I'm enthralled in it because I'm manager of this football club and I am desperate for us to win the game.

"We're going to have a few bumps on the road, and disappointing performances, and I've always said the supporters have been incredible in my time here, keep supporting the players on the pitch."

He went on to say that the manner of the win will mean nothing come the end of the season when those three points could see the Gibson Cup staying put in the bulging Windsor trophy cabinet.

But it was their third loss to Oran Kearney's men this season, who have been in rather enigmatic form themselves of late, with defeats to the bottom two, Warrenpoint Town and Institute, book-ending a fortuitous win over Carrick Rangers, and then from out of the depths of despair they spank the champions on their home patch.

That win whets the appetite for some real crackers coming up.

NIFL have come under a bit of flak from Blues boss Healy about the exhausting fixture list, but for those enthralled by the race for the title, December is full of cheer. Or boos.

"I think it's too busy. And again, NIFL and everybody else will say 'here comes your man again', but for the normal Irish League player I think about the number of games we play," added Healy.

"We play on January 1 and we play Tuesday night against Coleraine, we play the 7th, 14th, 21st, 26th and 28th and I think it's mental, to be honest, at this level.

"The powers-that-be have decided that's the way it's going to be, so everybody is going to be in the same boat."

Unusually, he had some support from across town in the shape of Glentoran boss Mick McDermott, whose side are very much in the hunt despite his protests otherwise.

With Crusaders, Coleraine and Cliftonville locked together on 38 points, and the Blues just two behind, they are just five points off the pace, and with more new players coming in for the second half of the season are right in the mix.

"We're only 17 games in but it feels like we've been going forever," he said at the weekend.

"I don't know how David Jeffrey and all these managers who've been in the game for years keep going while holding down a day job at the same time.

"They've certainly got my admiration because it is tough going."

Coleraine's win over the Blues sets a December programme rolling that sees them face all five of the top six in the league and the small matter of a Boxing Day derby with Ballymena United thrown in to the mix.

Given their tepid display on Saturday in losing 2-0 at Institute, which, unusually, had Kearney spitting feathers, it is perhaps just the run they need.

"I've warned them for weeks that the minute in football that you start to believe your own hype is dangerous," said Kearney.

"Even when we started well or went top of the league, the team-talk stayed the same - don't dare go soft or start to believe what people are saying.

"The minute you do that you ease off the pedal mentally and physically and, for me, that's what it looked like."

The message clearly hit home on Tuesday, but for Linfield there is no time to feel sorry for themselves.

Cliftonville come calling on Saturday, while games with Crusaders, Glentoran on Boxing Day and a trip to Coleraine could determine their season.

The Crues looked ominously good on Saturday with a swatting away of Dungannon Swifts, Jamie McGonigle bagging a brace and beginning to look like the player he was at Coleraine.

Once Stephen Baxter's men get to the top around this time of the year they usually set off like a scalded gazelle, and with that in mind I won't change my mind and tip anyone else for the title.

Cliftonville are still in there too, they have exceeded expectations, and while they had a blip on Saturday losing to the Glens, their new-found defensive resilience under Paddy McLaughlin plus their constant goal threat will keep them there or thereabouts.

But what a race it has been thus far and, despite the moans and groans from managers and fans, it is shaping up to be the most exciting race ever.

Remember, as Paul Young said, 'it's Christmas time and there's no need to be afraid.' Or maybe there is.

December's key title race games

December 7: Linfield v Cliftonville; Coleraine v Glentoran

December 14: Glentoran v Crusaders; Larne v Coleraine

December 21: Cliftonville v Coleraine; Linfield v Crusaders

December 26: Crusaders v Cliftonville; Glentoran v Linfield

December 28: Coleraine v Linfield; Larne v Cliftonville

Fortunes can change very Swiftly

Tough spell: Kris Lindsay

How Kris Lindsay must long for the balmy days of August rather than the cool winds of discontent now in winter.

Hailed as the hottest new managerial property on the block just a few months ago, Dungannon Swifts were sitting level on points with Crusaders at the top of the table at the end of August.

Now, on the back of nine successive defeats, things are very different, and while things are hard to predict in the top six, the bottom six is, quite frankly, simply ridiculous.

The worrying thing for Lindsay is the number of goals the Swifts are conceding. The six they conceded against the Crues on Saturday, five of them in the second period after they had taken a first-half lead, was the sixth time they had let in four or more goals in those nine games.

That is all the more baffling since Lindsay is a man who made his name as a no-nonsense, never-say-die defender who served Linfield and Glenavon with distinction.

He hasn't been helped with a crippling injury-list and on Saturday by a bamboozling set of results that would have had bookies in raptures.

Wins for Warrenpoint, Institute and Carrick Rangers turn up the heat on Lindsay, and he is acutely aware of the rather troubling predicament they are in.

More misery came on Tuesday night when they let a 2-0 lead slip against Championship visitors Loughgall in the quarter-final of the Mid-Ulster Cup.

The match eventually ended 3-3 after extra-time and the Villagers won the penalty shoot-out 3-1, so this weekend's clash with Warrenpoint is a huge one for the Swifts.

"We have to find something because, at the minute, we're in relegation form, and if we keep playing the way we are, we will be relegated," Lindsay said on Saturday.

Time for the Swifts to stand up and be counted for their manager.

Nothing United for Sky Blues

David Jeffrey

What a difference a year makes.

Almost 12 months to the day ago, Ballymena United defeated Linfield 2-1 to go top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.

Fast forward 364 days and Saturday's defeat at Warrenpoint Town means they start December in eighth spot, some 25 points worse off than they were a year ago.

Tellingly, the goalscorers in that win over the Blues were Cathair Friel and Leroy Millar, both notable by their absence at the weekend, just a couple of the many players who have not been available to David Jeffrey this season.

But, that said, a run of just three points out of a possible 30 since their last win in September is simply not good enough.

Things seemed to come to a head on Saturday, and not being there I can't comment on who said what or how it was said, but it was pretty unsavoury, if reports are to be believed, as words were exchanged between fans and club officials.

Having watched the Sky Blues for much longer than I care to remember, this is not an uncommon occurrence, but maybe both sets of protagonists need to wind their necks in a tad and display a United front in an effort to get out of the mire.

Then again, I was hoping Stormont would be up and running again, a new Brexit referendum was in the offing and Kylie Minogue would see the error of her ways and track me down. I should be so lucky.

Belfast Telegraph


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