Cliftonville 2-2 Linfield
Ethan Devine plundered his first Linfield goal to rescue a late, late point just when Cliftonville looked to be on the verge of blasting themselves even more firmly into the title mix.
The one-time Reds striker — whose Solitude career amounted to one substitute appearance last season — was snapped up from Knockbreda earlier this month and made a vital impact off the bench as the Blues avoided what could have been a costly defeat.
Twice they had trailed to well-taken Jamie McDonagh finishes, only for Matthew Clarke to first level at 1-1 and then provide the cross for Devine to have the contest’s final say.
Visiting boss David Healy made two changes from the side that saw off Glenavon at the weekend, with Michael Newberry and Chris McKee handed starts in the absences of Niall Quinn and Ahmed Salam.
The Reds stuck with the same XI that kicked off their victory over Larne on Friday, with Paddy McLaughlin — suspended from the dugout after being sent off at Inver Park — unkeen to tinker with a winning team as his men sought their first victory over Linfield at the fourth attempt.
Their bid to do that almost got off to a disastrous start when McKee took a tumble inside the penalty area, but referee Tony Clarke was adamant that Luke Turner had not made sufficient contact.
Soon later, the Reds carved out their first opening when the lively McDonagh seized on possession but, after surging forward, was unable to steer on target.
Ten minutes later, the former Derry City man was celebrating breaking the deadlock.
Cliftonville had enjoyed some patient build-up in a move that eventually saw the ball fed to Conor McDermott on the flank and, when his delivery into the middle found its way into Ryan Curran’s path, he saw his shot charged down, with McDonagh picking up the pieces to rifle a low effort across keeper Chris Johns and into the corner.
Linfield’s best chance of a low-key first half from their perspective came when Stephen Fallon lifted the ball harmlessly over the top after home goalkeeper Luke McNicholas had punched Kirk Millar’s corner into his path.
Just as the game had started with a tame penalty appeal for the visitors, so too did the second period resume with the Reds support screaming for a handball by Fallon but, again, referee Clarke was having none of it.
On 56 minutes, Johns clawed a McDonagh curler out of the top corner and that proved particularly crucial as his side levelled with their first effort on target. Newberry whipped a wonderful ball in from the right and Clarke simply couldn’t miss.
However, the pendulum fell back in Cliftonville’s direction almost immediately. A loose pass allowed Kris Lowe to take control and he threaded an inch-perfect ball through for McDonagh to rifle in off the base of the post — and, having been booked in the first half, he could count himself lucky not to have seen red after scaling the fence to join fans in the McAlery Stand.
The Blues have only lost one league game this term and their never-say-die spirit was in evidence in the closing exchanges, with only a fine last-gasp challenge from Chris Gallagher stopping Millar from firing in a shot.
The subsequent corner sparked a scramble that ended with McNicholas making a wonderful flying save to keep Clarke out but Linfield weren’t finished and got their leveller when Clarke’s delivery was glanced in by Devine. There was still time for Clarke to fashion one last chance in injury-time, but McNicholas made the stop.
CLIFTONVILLE: McNicholas, McDermott (C Curran 46), Ives, R Curran, McDonagh, Lowe, Addis, Doherty (Donnelly 77), Turner, Gallagher (Gormley 90), Kearns (O’Neill 65).
Unused subs: McKenna, Harney, Coates.
LINFIELD: Johns, Roscoe-Byrne, Newberry, Callacher, Millar, Manzinga, M Clarke, McKee (Devine 69), McClean (Palmer 69 mins), Fallon, Mulgrew (Stewart 82).
Unused subs: Walsh, Donnelly, A Clarke, Carroll.
Referee: Tony Clarke (Newtownabbey)
Man of the match: Jamie McDonagh
Match rating: 8/10