Belfast Telegraph

Billy Weir: Linfield's cup battering shouldn't end all-island league dream

Playing catch-up: Linfield’s Josh Robinson tries to close down Michael Duffy of Dundalk
Playing catch-up: Linfield’s Josh Robinson tries to close down Michael Duffy of Dundalk

By Billy Weir

Football, as someone much wiser than I once opined, is indeed a funny old game, and this was yet again shown to be true on Monday evening.

Linfield travelled more in hope than trepidation to take on Dundalk in the second leg of the Unite the Union Champions Cup, with the game evenly poised at one goal apiece.

The first leg at Windsor Park, played in front of a whopping 3,000 people, no mean feat for a pig of an evening, was what we always hoped it would be - an evenly contested game showing that our wee league up here is a match for the much-lauded SSE Premier Division.

And then Monday night happened.

For those not in the know, Linfield were beaten 6-0 and, in all truth, it could have been more, and those all too quick to send a size nine into the local game were in their element.

But let's look at the facts. Dundalk were simply brilliant on the night, making full use of their squad jam-packed with talent to make a world of changes from Friday evening, and just about everything they tried paid off.

Michael Duffy on the wing was sensational, Robbie Benson was up and down like an election poster in north Belfast, Chris Shields pulled the strings in the middle of the park and former Portadown favourite Brian Gartland was immense at the back and popped up with a goal to boot.

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More facts. Linfield were brutal. Hold on, that is too sweeping. Linfield were brutal defensively, which is not a sentence that we have needed for an awful long time.

As good as Dundalk were going forward, they were given a huge helping hand in most of the goals on a night when Linfield all-too generously reciprocated the warm welcome they were given. Not by all, of course, and more on those muppets later.

They were also without their two most-potent attacking threats in Shayne Lavery (international duty) and Joel Cooper (injured), and take those two out and your effectiveness in the front third is going to be hampered.

Having said that, for the opening exchanges of both halves, the Blues more than held their own, but just failed with that final killer pass or attempt on goal.

Dundalk were also playing with the knowledge that their race was run. The League and League Cup already safely in the bag and by now the top of the suncream is being popped off on some distant sunny shore as they begin the winter of much contentment.

Linfield, on the other hand, are off to The Brandywell on Saturday to continue their main aim, to retain the Gibson Cup, and they will have been delighted to see how Crusaders have gone badly off the boil.

While they were being thumped in Dundalk, the Crues were puffing and blowing in windswept (and interesting) Larne, gaining a point in a scoreless draw.

It means that Stephen Baxter's men haven't won in five league games and, incredibly, we have to go back to the start of October when Rory Hale's wonder-strike saw off the Blues at Seaview for their last success.

Of course, it isn't just Crusaders that Linfield have to worry about, Coleraine and Cliftonville are on magnificent runs, and while the Blues have the games in hand to overtake both of them, Healy would snap your hand off to have those points already safely on the board.

Back to all matters cross-border, and for some the defeat and the manner and scale of it is another stick with which to beat Kieran Lucid's ambitious plans for an all-island league. They were already on choppy waters after a lukewarm welcome from most Irish League sides and a torpedo from the IFA, but this latest iceberg may have holed them permanently.

The anti-Linfield brigades were in heaven, having a right old laugh at their expense, and that is their right to do so, but sometimes parochial pettiness can mask the greater good, especially those who could benefit from the Blues' great European adventure this season.

One great advantage of the cross-border initiative was that the match was shown live on RTE and done properly, not hidden away online or on a red button or given the briefest of build-ups and send-offs, but treated with respect.

Presenter Peter Collins was joined on the sidelines by Bohemians manager Keith Long and our own David Jeffrey, wrapped up on the sidelines like a cross between the wee lad from the Hovis ads and a Peaky Blinder.

And he played a bit of a blinder too with some great analysis, and when talk turned to the all-island league, he didn't just leap to knock it down, he gave a very reasoned argument as to why, in his opinion, it couldn't succeed at the present time.

"In terms of going forward, you always want to improve the game, but the practicalities are that if you only have one league, European places will suddenly be cut in half," he explained.

"This year in the Irish League we have gone down to three teams who can qualify for Europe. Thankfully, because of the performances of Linfield, Crusaders and ourselves at Ballymena, we've got that coefficient back up so the following season we will have four, but that's the big issue that's around.

"I've read the reports, they've talked about the prize money, they talk about how revenue will be made, but the reality is that the big, big earner is Europe.

"We've talked about how brilliant Dundalk are, but I remember them in 97/98 when they were in the playoffs. Part of what you see now is European money, and if a league can ever get to a point where it can offer that type of money right across the board then possibly we can start to talk, but to me the European conundrum is the thing which will be a massive block."

For his part, Long is a fan of pressing ahead with an all-island league, and put forward a strong case too.

"We would be less reliant on the lucrative European prize money if the suggested prize pot is available through the Kieran Lucid plan for the all-island league," he argued.

"I think we need to explore it to its nth degree, it needs to be interrogated."

And so on to the muppets in the room. Both games were marred by a minority of numbskulls who see the possibility of acting the big lad by lobbing sectarian insults at one another as a cracking night out.

Once again this is, wrongly, seen as football's problem. It is not. It is society's problem. Just as racism is rearing its ugly head across the water and in Europe, the convenience of latching onto a large crowd and blending into it is a gift for the knuckle-draggers amongst us.

Personally, I'd rather people were hurling insults than chucking petrol bombs and bricks or worse, and it is going to take more than two games between Dundalk and Linfield to get that out of their system.

It is the nature of the beast where we live, the green and the orange seem to shout louder than the rest, there's an election on at the moment, you may have noticed there is precious little mention of politics in it, just he said, she said and them'uns are wrong and we're right.

So before we throw football to the wolves and an all-island league out with the bath water, let's keep an open mind and realise sometimes it's good to stop shouting and have a chat.

Oh, and spare a thought for Institute, who may just feel the wrath of the Blues whose demise is being greatly exaggerated.

Conor’s goal has brought Reds full circle

Back on September 28, Conor McDermott and Cliftonville trudged off at the Ballymena Showgrounds after the Reds defender’s own goal resulted in a 2-1 defeat.

 Fast forward to last Saturday and the same player became a worldwide sensation as his wonder-strike from his own half was shown across the globe and Cliftonville kept breathing down the neck of Coleraine.

 The Reds and Sky Blues go head-to-head again this Saturday at Solitude, but the fortunes of both sides since that first meeting could hardly be more different.

 On that day Cliftonville were superb in the first half but in the second were pummelled by a United side who, on one of the few occasions this term, showed the form they regularly displayed last season.

 Since then their form has left them as quickly as the never-ending list of players who have been unavailable for whatever reason.

 They have picked up just two points since that Cliftonville win, their only success coming courtesy of a penalty shootout win over Crusaders in the Co Antrim Shield, who gained their revenge in the League Cup.

 In contrast, Cliftonville have been a different animal. Six league wins on the bounce and they have been scoring goals for fun, and, tellingly, not just from Joe Gormley, with McDermott et al all chipping in.

 But defensively they have been immense and that is the difference Paddy McLaughlin has made, with just one goal conceded in those six games to keep them a point behind Coleraine.

 And the reason for that? Playing against Gormley and co in training, as McDermott revealed at the weekend.

“Cliftonville have been renowned over the years for their attacking strengths, so playing against those types of players in training improves us as players,” he said.

“You are not going up against that kind of quality each week in games.”

Bannsiders have golden touch

IT was a clean sweep for Coleraine in the October awards with Oran Kearney winning manager of the month and Ben Doherty scooping the players’ accolade.

 Both were richly deserved as the Bannsiders continued their unbeaten start to the Danske Bank Premiership, and the investment in that jar of Brasso will be handy to use on the brass neck of James McLaughlin.

 As much as I love the Mosside Messi, there is no way, no matter how much he claims it, that he can say he scored that opening goal against Glenavon last Saturday. It was an own goal, but magical things are happening down Ballycastle Road way this weather, so who am I to rock the boat?

 It has even got to the stage where Oran is being tipped as the future manager of Northern Ireland and, even more amazingly, Steven Douglas is still able to play a full 90 minutes!

 The Peter Pan, or maybe that’s sliced pan, of local football continues to confound age and expectation, answering a defensive crisis on Saturday to come in and, by all accounts, have a stormer.

 Next up, a trip to Warrenpoint Town, who conceded four more goals at the weekend meaning that in their 14 league games to date they have shipped in a whopping 54 goals, although McLaughlin will probably claim a few of them for himself!

Only joking, James.

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