Linfield buoyed by hitting summit but Cliftonville boss slams red card at Windsor Park
Linfield 1 Cliftonville 0
The roar from the Linfield fans inside Windsor Park was a mighty one. Relieved that their team had just beaten title rivals Cliftonville with a Chris Casement goal, they eagerly listened to the announcement of results from elsewhere in the Irish League.
Coleraine's draw and Crusaders' defeat left Linfield top of the table on goal difference with the Bannsiders in second and the Crues and Cliftonville a point adrift. Better still, David Healy's men have two games in hand on the three clubs nearest to them.
They also have one match to spare on fifth placed Glentoran, who are five points behind.
All this after a dramatic Saturday showdown with the Reds when Liam Bagnall was sent off for the visitors on 57 minutes and Kirk Millar received his marched orders in the 83rd.
In between, full-back Casement was rewarded for taking a gamble on Stephen Fallon's inviting cross to find the net with 63 minutes on the clock, the goal which settled the contest.
From going on an impressive run of seven league wins in a row, Cliftonville have now taken just one point from nine.
In contrast, despite a 3-0 home defeat to Coleraine in the Bet McLean League Cup in the middle of it, Healy's side have won their last three games in the Danske Bank Premiership.
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Healy is happy to be on top right now but his aim is to be there at the end of the season.
"Trophies are not handed out in December but hopefully we can take belief from going top at this stage," said Healy.
"Cliftonville ended up throwing the kitchen sink at us at the end. They had players to cause us problems but our goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson didn't have many saves to make.
"I thought we were the better team before they had a sending off. Even at half-time we were the better side but when the goal came there was relief and winning the game was important for us."
While Healy was more accepting of the decisions from referee Keith Kennedy to dismiss Bagnall and Millar, opposite number McLaughin described them as 'ridiculous'.
The Reds boss added that he feels midfielder Bagnall has become a marked man with officials, claiming that it seems every time the player makes a foul he receives a booking.
Bagnall's two yellow cards came for fouls on Jamie Mulgrew. Ruaidhri Donnelly, who hit the bar in the second half, was also cautioned for bringing down the Linfield captain.
Frustrated by the outcome and Bagnall's dismissal, which he felt was the turning point in the game, McLaughlin said: "It was not a case of us being out to stop Jamie Mulgrew who is a top player. It's not our style. We are not a team that sets up to kick people.
"The game was on a knife edge between two good footballing sides and then it was decided on a poor refereeing decision," added McLaughlin, who was also booked.
On the upside for Cliftonville, defender Conor McDermott has made his loan move from Derry City permanent, signing a long term deal with the Reds until 2023.
Linfield: Ferguson, Robinson, Callacher, Cooper, Millar, Lavery (Waterworth, 75mins), Clarke, Fallon (Hume, 87mins), Hery, Mulgrew, Casement.
Unused subs: Moore, McGivern, Mitchell, Reynolds, Allen.
Cliftonville: Brush, McDermott, Harney, C Curran, R Curran (Maguire 87), R Donnelly, Foster (McMenamin 71), Bagnall, Doherty (McCurry 90), Gormley, A Donnelly.
Unused subs: D Breen, G Breen. Wilson, Maguire, Gorman.
Referee: Keith Kennedy
Man of the match: Jamie Mulgrew
Match rating: 7/10