Linfield prove they can mix with the champions after last year’s humbling
Cliftonville 0-0 Linfield
Plenty of passion, no shortage of drama and an abundance of near-misses and flashpoints told the story as Cliftonville and Linfield played out a scoreless draw at Solitude last night.
The hosts dominated the first-half but found the Blues a more telling prospect after the interval yet, with neither keeper overly exerted during a competitive 90 minutes, both ended a titanic battle with a point to show for their efforts.
Still on their travels due to early-season construction work at Windsor Park, the Blues — whose only previous Belfast fixture this season was the exhilarating derby comeback defeat at Glentoran in the opening week — arrived in the north of the city armed with 10 points in the bag from five outings as well as a few scores to settle with their opponents.
Though Warren Feeney’s arrival as manager has heralded widespread change among the club’s playing staff, there are still more than a few among the Linfield contingent for whom memories of last season’s capitulation to Cliftonville remain painfully fresh.
As well as losing all four Premiership meetings between the sides, the Blues also saw an eight-point advantage overhauled at the top of the table as Cliftonville roared back to claim their second successive Gibson Cup crown — a fact that the home support didn’t hesitate to remind their visitors of last night.
Kick-off delayed by 15 minutes to accommodate the queues for the turnstiles, the teams strutted out to a cavalcade of noise as a raucous atmosphere greeted one of our calendar’s stand-out occasions.
A capacity Reds support — who, in a pioneering first for Irish League football, had availed of their club’s new online system which provided the option to print their match tickets from the comfort of home — raised the volume levels in the hope of inspiring their team to a first home win of the new Premiership campaign.
Their acquaintances in the visiting end were similarly forthright in their backing of a Linfield side which, though still under scrutiny for last week’s embarrassing League Cup exit to Ballyclare Comrades, had already demonstrated its propensity for delivering when the pressure was on — as evidenced in not only that Oval triumph over the Glens last month, but also in their historic Europa League victory over Swedish giants AIK at Mourneview Park.
Bossman Feeney had always admitted that the bread and butter of domestic duty would provide an entirely different test to those experienced on the continental stage and, in his first meeting with the champions, made no changes to the side which had returned to winning ways by getting the better of Dungannon Swifts at the weekend.
Opposite number Tommy Breslin, meanwhile, welcomed goalkeeper Conor Devlin back to an XI otherwise unamended from Saturday’s hammering of Ballinamallard United and they almost pulled ahead on nine minutes when Martin Donnelly threaded Joe Gormley through on goal but, from a narrow angle, he wasn’t able to steer his left-footed drive on target.
Shortly afterwards, Gormley missed out again when Mark Haughey deflected a close-range snapshot behind before Davy McDaid shot wide of the mark.
Chris Curran then passed up a golden opportunity when he missed the target from a promising position in a crowded penalty area, with Gormley and Donnelly also failing to net in a dominant first-half performance from the Reds.
The second period was an altogether different story with neither side able to fashion any kind of passing system, with long-balls very much the order of the day.
Stephen Lowry threatened for the Blues before both Ivan Sproule and Aaron Burns tested their luck ahead of Chris Curran, shooting straight at Jonny Tuffey from distance.
Linfield’s best chance came on 70 minutes when Sproule ghosted in behind the home defence and teed up substitute Sammy Morrow but, just as he prepared to pull the trigger, in came Barry Johnston with a vital challenge.
Then, at the other end, Cliftonville saw a golden opportunity escape them when Johnny Flynn beat Tuffey to a high ball and, with the home fans starting to celebrate, a perfectly-positioned assistant referee ruled that Haughey’s last-gasp clearance had come the right side of the goal-line as far as the Blues were concerned.
Curran thrashed a close-range attempt across the face of goal as the Reds ended strongly and, when Jaimie McGovern of all people curled an 88th minute strike wide of the mark, the writing was on the wall for both sides to settle for a share of the spoils.