Linfield and Dundalk set for final shoot-out
Unite the Union Champions Cup final, first leg
Linfield 1 Dundalk 1
If David Healy’s Linfield are to get their hands on the inaugural Unite the Union Champions Cup they must do it the hard way after being held by Dundalk at a bitterly cold Windsor Park on Friday night.
The South Belfast side got off to the best possible start with Shayne Lavery – named in the Northern Ireland squad for next week’s Euro 2020 qualifier against the Netherlands – firing them into an early lead.
But the visitors turned the screw after the break and levelled early in the second half through Daniel Kelly.
It means the odds will be stacked against the Blues when they travel to Oriel Park on Monday night for the return fixture.
Even though Irish Football Association recently poured cold water on a proposed All-Ireland League, suggested by Irish businessman Kieran Lucid, Unite still signed up to a three-year deal to sponsor the cross-border tournament that will see the Danske Bank Premiership champions go had to head with the League of Ireland title holders in a two-legged shootout.
It’s certainly a lucrative prospect for both clubs – the eventual winners will pocket a hefty 50,000 Euro, with the runners up picking up half of the package.
Importantly, there is a further 25,000 Euro ring-fenced for community projects in the competing teams’ local areas.
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Linfield boss David Healy admitted in the build-up to the game that his priority is retaining the League title and would have preferred to be facing Dungannon Swifts, instead of this double header against Vinny Perth’s lads, whose season was concluded on Sunday when they lost out to Shamrock Rovers in the final of the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium.
Although the game wasn’t a priority for Healy, he still named what was almost a full-strength side which included fit again international striker Lavery. Goalkeeper Gareth Deane was drafted in to replace Rohan Ferguson, while Kirk Millar took over from Andy Waterworth.
Dundalk boss Vinny Perth retained only four players who featured in the cup final at the weekend – goalkeeper Gary Rodgers, Sean Hoare, Patrick Hoban and Jamie McGrath.
Healy’s boys got off to the best possible start with Lavery requiring merely nine minutes to forge the breakthrough.
The former Everton man gobbled up a pass from Jamie Mulgrew, tricked his way between Hoare and Andy Boyle before rattling home a beauty, giving Gary Rodgers no chance.
Dundalk attempted to come back off the ropes with skipper Patrick Hoban blasting wildly over the top before an eye-catching move on 24 minutes, involving Daniel Kelly and Hoban resulted in Jordan Flores curling a 20-yard shot inches past the post.
The visitors grew into the game they were almost level six minutes later.
John Mountney’s corner kick was met by the head of Boyle, but his thumping effort was superbly finger-tipped on to the bar by Gareth Deane who was at full stretch.
But the Blues should have increased their lead two minutes before the break. Matty Clarke’s inch perfect pass sent Joel Cooper free, but instead of squaring to the unmarked Lavery, he decided to take on the shot, but blasted shamefully wide.
Dundalk asked the early questions after the break and Flores again went close on 49 minutes with another low curling shot form the edge of the box sneaked just wide.
The Blues immediately hit back with Kirk Millar’s free kick headed away by Jamie McGrath when his shot appeared to be destined for the top corner.
But the team from the south were level on 51 minutes. Kelly was allowed time and space to pick his way through the middle after latching on to a pass from Hoban before drilling a low shot past Deane.
They almost struck again with another lightning raid. This time Kelly provided the inch perfect cross that Hoban somehow failed to convert just six yards out.
It’s now back to Oriel Park with the pendulum now tilting firmly in the favour of Dundalk to pick up the trophy.
LINFIELD: Deane, Stafford, Callacher, Cooper (Waterworth 65), Millar, Lavery, Clarke Fallon (Mitchell 86), Hery, Mulgrew, Quinn .
Unused subs: Ferguson, Robinson, Shevlin, Reynolds, Casement.
DUNDALK: Rogers, Hoare, Shields, Flores, Mountney (Duffy 58), Hoban (G Kelly 81), McGrath Dummigan (Gannon 63), D Kelly, Jarvis, Boyle
Unsed subs: Gartland, Benson, Massey, McCarey.
REFEREE: Ian McNabb.
Man of the match: Mark Stafford.
Match rating 7/10.
Belfast Telegraph Digital