Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: How Crusaders and Linfield match up ahead of Friday night football at Seaview

Close call: Linfield’s Jimmy Callacher and Philip Lowry of Crusaders will be key men
Close call: Linfield’s Jimmy Callacher and Philip Lowry of Crusaders will be key men
Mark Carlisle

By Billy Weir

I know both camps are at pains to stress that tomorrow night's clash between Crusaders and Linfield is not, I repeat NOT, a title decider and, of course, they are correct.

It is the first of four title-deciding games between two sides who are likely to be battling it out for the Gibson Cup come the end of the season.

If we take Coleraine out of the equation (and which right-minded person wouldn't want to do that? Only jesting, my Bannside chums), then since David Healy took over in the Linfield dug-out, the clashes between his side and Stephen Baxter's have been required viewing.

Since Healy ascended to the throne at the House of Windsor in October 2015, the two teams have met 15 times in the league, grabbing six wins apiece and sharing the spoils three times.

The remarkable symmetry continues in the goals column - both have scored and conceded 16. So, really, there is nothing to choose between them.

Bringing things right up to date, when they have been bad this season, they have, you guessed it, been equally so, both shipping 4-2 losses to Coleraine.

Linfield's European exploits mean that they've been playing catch-up on the Crues, who currently have a five-point lead at the top of the table and are seven ahead of the Blues, but if Healy's men win their three games in hand and avoid defeat at Seaview, they will be top of the pile.

So, here's my breakdown of where the game will be won or lost. Or drawn.

Oh, and a big thank you to Northern Ireland's king of the stats, Marshall Gillespie, who marked my homework to make sure I got it correct. I feel like I've just been on Countdown and beaten Rachel Riley in the numbers game!

DEFENCE: It has to be first blood to the Blues on this one. More watertight than a shark's speedos, they are at it again this campaign having conceded just five goals in their six games - and four of those came against Coleraine. In goals, Rohan Ferguson has taken over from Gareth Deane of late and he is doing an admirable job in trying to fill the gloves of Roy Carroll. Mind you, behind that defence, superbly marshalled by Jimmy Callacher and Mark Stafford, Alex Ferguson could do nets.

There's been a lot of chopping and changing in the Crues backline, something unusual as back in the day you could have set your clock that the back five would be the same week after week. Ger Doherty has come back in for Sean O'Neill following their thumping at Ballycastle Road and their defence has allowed 10 goals in their nine games to date. Of course, that doesn't really matter that much when you have banged in 30 at the other end. They also miss Colin Coates when he's not there, a genuine big game player and a real leader.

Crusaders 7 Linfield 9

MIDFIELD: Not a place for the weak of mind or limb in these epic encounters and this will be no exception. It could be a hairy place for Bastien Hery on his first coming together with Declan Caddell and there is no way he will be given the freedom Glenavon handed him last weekend to run amok. Jamie Mulgrew will do what Jamie Mulgrew does best and allow the likes of Kirk Millar, the ever-improving Stephen Fallon and Joel Cooper to weave their magic.

The Crues have a plethora of riches in the centre of the park but none better than Philip Lowry, who seems to get better with age. When he plays well, Crusaders play well, and he also has an awfully annoying habit of popping up with some crucial goals. Much the same could be said of another former Linfield midfielder, Ross Clarke.

It's no surprise that the man who looks like a Viking loves nothing more than a bit of pillaging in the middle of the park and, like on Saturday past, he can pilfer a goal or set a couple up quickly.

Oh, and they have Rory Hale and Caddell too, and I am not even going to try and list all the other options they have in there.

Crusaders 9 Linfield 8

ATTACK: Shayne Lavery - too small, he'll never make it in the Irish League. Yes, I heard those words uttered once and how prophetic they were! He has been nothing short of sensational since he came back to Northern Ireland after an unhappy spell across the water, but a lot quicker than the Boris Bridge, it won't be long before he's back across the Irish Sea.

As Gary Hamilton said after Lavery's four-goal haul on Saturday: "And we were up against a player like Shayne Lavery - he shouldn't be playing in the Irish League." And they have some fella called Andy Waterworth to come off the bench too.

Crusaders have Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens. That's all you really have to say. Owens is a nightmare and Heatley a dream to watch. His goal against Glentoran on Saturday was stupendous and, let's face it, not at all surprising as he has been the league's star man for a decade. How he never made it into the full-time game is a mystery, but in a way I'm glad he stayed put as we got to see him at his best. And just in case it isn't working out for them, Baxter went and brought in Jamie McGonigle and Paul McElroy too.

Crusaders 9 Linfield 8

THE BENCHES: As Hamilton said on Saturday, this is "the best Linfield team I've seen in my time in the Irish League" and they are certainly on fire at the moment.

Having the likes of Waterworth, Ryan McGivern and Andrew Mitchell to call upon from the bench is a bonus but they certainly don't have the strength in depth that the Crues possess.

O'Neill, Sean Ward, Kyle Owens, Gary Thompson, McElroy, McGonigle, David Cushley. Those were Crusaders' seven subs on Saturday and arguably any one of them would be one of the first names on the teamsheets of most other clubs. Then there's Coates, Michael Ruddy, Matthew Snoddy, Jarlath O'Rourke and probably a clatter more I have missed who are also in the wings waiting for their chance.

Crusaders 8 Linfield 7

FORM: Hard to prise them apart, the defeats to Coleraine aside, the only other points dropped were by the Crues when they were held at home by Larne. The Blues scored seven on Saturday, the Crues could only muster five against Glentoran. Bound to be a scoreless draw on Saturday.

Crusaders 8 Linfield 8

THE X FACTOR: In Hery, Linfield have an exceptional talent and like on Saturday Lavery can be unplayable. Heatley does what he does and in Cushley they have someone who can come off the bench and do extraordinary things.

Crusaders 8 Linfield 8

Final score: Crusaders 49 Linfield 48

Very little to choose between them, there rarely is, but a win for either side will be crucial for their momentum.

They have been taking turn about with the Gibson Cup since Healy came, and I said at the start of the season I fancied the Crues so I'll stick with them to win a 3-2 thriller - so great news for Linfield!

But like all fans of the local game, I can't wait to watch it on the telly with Seaview packed to the rafters.

Just a shame there are two other matches on tomorrow night, it takes away from the spectacle a little, but let battle commence and please don't let it be ruined by a referee.

Ballymena putting on a United front

It wasn't much light at the end of a nightmarish tunnel for the folk of Ballymena last week, but the Sky Blues' win over Cliftonville will have lifted some spirits.

The devastating loss of 1,200 jobs at Wrightbus, following the demise of Michelin and Gallaher in the area, really puts the kicking of a white ball around a pitch into perspective, but it's a start.

Ballymena United, like a number of other enterprises and companies in the town, opened their doors to former Wrightbus employees on Saturday and they watched the Sky Blues recover from a goal down to battle back to win 2-1.

"In a week where it has been a really difficult one for the town, I was pleased that our players showed the level of commitment that they did, and on a day when the club invited the folk from Wrightbus down it turned out well in the end," said David Jeffrey afterwards.

Another renowned singer, Rod Stewart, also took to Twitter to praise the club for its efforts. Thank goodness it wasn't Jeff Lynne of ELO or the Showgrounds would have gone into meltdown.

And the club is also staging a United Community fundraising day on Saturday, October 26, where Jeffrey will lead a Ballymena team against a team of United legends - and Paul McAreavey (sorry Mackers).

Chairman John Taggart explained: "Fittingly, the legends team will be led out by Mark Carlisle (above), who unfortunately is one of the many affected by the news this week.

"The committee will work with Mark and other representatives to ensure that the UNITED event will not only raise funds for local causes, but will also provide the best opportunity for the supporters and community to stand up for all individuals and families who have found themselves in a difficult situation over the past couple of years."

The likes of Nigel Boyd, Paul Hardy, Colin O'Neill, the Caledonian connection - the trio of Allan Jenkins, Gary McCutcheon and Kevin Kelbie - and a host of other former United favourites will also be in action, albeit at a slightly slower pace than before.

I've worked out that the players confirmed thus far have accumulated some 2,756 games and 318 goals, so it should be a cracking day and hopefully a welcome step forward for the town.

Referee blows whistle on mistake 

Referee admits he was wrong. Never mind Harry and Meghan having a pop at the media or Boris doing something Boris-like, this is the biggest headline of the week.

Carrick Rangers boss Niall Currie was less than chuffed when referee Andrew Davey, who originally allowed Stewart Nixon's 'goal', chalked it off after a discussion with his assistant.

Subsequently, he viewed the tape, and on Sunday contacted Currie to admit that he'd got it wrong.

"He apologised and was very decent, saying it was a good goal and shouldn't have been disallowed," explained Currie.

"I like that. It doesn't make me feel any better in terms of the result but it was a very decent thing for Andrew Davey to do.

"In my eyes, Andrew is one of our best officials and I like him as a referee. He is approachable and you can talk to him on the same level. He's like Raymond Crangle in that regard, who I also have a lot of time for.

"He got the decision 100% right at the time on Saturday but unfortunately changed his mind."

I was going to say we should maybe look at bringing VAR in, but it seems to be more trouble than it's worth.

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