As we await a ruling on Glentoran’s fate in the Irish Cup, the title race continues to captivate as Linfield survived a huge scare at Warrenpoint.
The champions are four points ahead of the Reds, who now have a game in hand, and David Healy’s side go to Solitude on April 9. Can the Blues be reeled in? Their next two fixtures, against the Reds and Glentoran, should help us answer that question. Here’s what we learned at the weekend.
1. Devine intervention
Linfield fans must be starting to believe their name is on the trophy. Another late winner and a healthy dose of luck after Alan O’Sullivan’s effort bounced off the hard surface and sailed over. You can say ‘lucky Linfield’ but scoring late winners is what champions do. Fortune favours the brave. An early kick off on a bumpy surface against a side fighting for their lives was a real banana skin for the Blues and only Ethan Devine’s late header stopped them from slipping up. He loves a late goal, doesn’t he. But Linfield got away with this one, they will need to play much better in the post spilt matches and next up it’s Cliftonville at Solitude. It’s Glentoran’s turn to handle the pressure tonight, at home to Carrick.
2. Warr weary
Warrenpoint were cursing their luck at Milltown, they came so close to grabbing at least a point against the champions. Such a performance leaves you thinking where was that fighting spirit and hunger until now? This was top v bottom but in true Irish League fashion, it was fiercely competitive and a game of fine margins. The late goal was a kick where it hurts for 'Point and summed up their season. Broken hearts and broken spirit.
3. Crues control
Stephen Baxter left out some of his key performers for the win over the Swifts ahead of next Friday’s Irish Cup blockbuster semi-final with Cliftonville and it turned out to be a useful warm-up for the derby. A third straight win takes them to within five points of third-placed Glentoran and in this league it’s an achievement to be playing your football in the top four. But Irish Cup success is their number one target and next Friday’s game should be a cracker. We can only hope it doesn’t end in a penalty shootout. Cliftonville are chasing treble and look formidable but they will know this final four battle is too close to call.
4. Keeper’s off day
Mixed emotions for Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton. A fantastic big 3-2 win at Coleraine moved his side back above Ballymena United into seventh place but goalkeeper James Taylor could face a long ban following a possible headbutt. Referee Tim Marshall initially showed Taylor a yellow card but after consulting with his assistant he then produced a red card for the goalkeeper. It’s a shocking incident, particularly at this time of the season when the club wants to fight for a European place. Hamilton is now left looking for a goalkeeper, such a key position, just when the stakes are so high. The fact that his team-mates performed with admirable character only serves to highlight the folly of the keeper’s actions.
5. Sky blue thinking
Three goals and a big away win on Friday night... we’re not Northern Ireland, we’re Ballymena United. The Sky Blues recorded a brilliant result at Larne to bolster their European play-off hopes. Finish seventh in the table and you’ve a fighting chance of landing a European place and financial windfall. Going to Inver Park and sweeping past Larne is a big statement of intent and a display of courage and character. Another big statement of intent from the part-timers.
6. Larne lethargy
What’s happened to Larne’s season? For all the quality they have, performances haven’t been good enough. For a full time side that has invested in its playing staff, their showings are bewildering. Soul-searching is required and perhaps a new mindset. This team shouldn’t be 21 points behind Linfield. The Inver Park club has come a long way and there will inevitably be tough times. Before criticism is hurled at any club, the league’s real competitive edge must be acknowledged.
7. Cup confusion
The Irish Cup is once again drifting into farcical territory. Why is the Irish FA taking so long to rule on Glentoran’s appeal? The semi-final involving Ballymena United has been knocked back to a provisional midweek date of April 13, taking some of the shine over what is a massive fixture. It’s not fair on the clubs involved, especially the Sky Blues. We need clarity and certainty. Is it rocket science knowing whether a player is eligible or not? It’s been reported that the Glens offered to replay the game but that’s a non-starter for me. Either a rule was broken or it wasn’t.
8. Ell of a player
Elliott Morris has called time on his playing career and the longest-serving player in the club’s history has certainly earned all the praise coming his way. Over 19 years of service he has shown tremendous loyalty to a club that hasn’t always been in a healthy state. When you look at the players who have moved on from the east Belfast side, his longevity and commitment is remarkable. In the modern game you rarely see a relationship like that and it’s no surprise he remains part of the family as a goalkeeping coach. Perhaps we should reflect on where the Glens might be if he hadn’t saved them on countless occasions.
9. Crues in a rush
Crusaders fans took the plunge into the deep end and voted to accept the significant investment proposal from Irama, supported by Liverpool legend Ian Rush. Some supporters are nervous about the future and that’s natural. We don’t know yet how the new investors are going to approach this marriage. They need to repay the faith shown in them by the fans and handle this new partnership in a professional manner.
10. Simply champion
The race for the Championship title is also on edge, with Newry City and Annagh United in the hunt. City hold a four points lead and the stage is set for a big showdown on April 9. Automation promotion to the Premiership is a golden prize and the rivals are in great form, both blasting in five goals on Saturday. Newry came from behind to hammer Ballyclare Comrades 5-1 and second-placed Annagh thrashed Dundela 5-2. With just five matches left it’s a tense time and Annagh will have home advantage for the huge game. If they can win that it really is squeaky bum time for all concerned.