Larne 1 Linfield 1
‘That’s why we’re Champions’ sang the Linfield fans after Jordan Stewart’s equaliser two minutes from time at Inver Park — and it’s hard to argue.
The Blues had precious few opportunities in front of the Larne goal, but they took the big one when it came their way to maintain their unbeaten start to the season.
The hosts thought all three points were coming their way when Navid Nasseri came off the bench to score his first goal for the club against his former employers.
However, it was Linfield who showed their experience at the right end to move to within a point of leaders Cliftonville at the summit.
In a game which wasn’t burdened by clear cut chances, the vast majority came the way of the home side, which will leave boss Tiernan Lynch a frustrated figure at leaving with only a point.
The game itself began as it would continue throughout most of the night — at a high tempo. The early chances fell the way of Larne and Lee Lynch in particular.
With five minutes on the clock, the former Sligo Rovers man tried a snapshot from just outside the box, which was comfortably stopped by Chris Johns.
Soon later, he was better placed for a sight of goal down the right flank, but he didn’t connect with his shot properly and fired well wide once inside the box.
Inver Park was playing host to its first capacity crowd since the construction of the two new stands at either end of the ground and the majority of the almost 3,000 spectators were on their feet when the best chance of the arrived on 17 minutes.
Larne have become well known for their free-flowing football and it was straight out of boss Lynch’s playbook with skipper Jeff Hughes starting the move at the back before the ball was moved into midfield and fizzed out to Dean Jarvis on the left.
The full-back played a first time cross into Ronan Hale, with the striker firing well over the bar from 15 yards.
There was action of different short on the half hour mark, when former Linfield stopper Rohan Ferguson rushed out of his box to make a challenge on Christy Manzinga. Referee Tim Marshall blew for a foul and duly booked Ferguson, as a melee ensued between most of the rest of the outfield players.
After the handbags eventually died down, Marshall brandished three more yellows, with Kofi Balmer, John Herron and the Blues’ Stephen Fallon going into the book.
The incident belied a game played at a high intensity between two sides looking to claw their way closer to the top of the table as the season reaches the quarter-way stage.
While there remained an edge to the remainder of the half, there wasn’t much in the way of action to trouble either goalkeeper.
The closest Larne came was through defender Balmer, who has already scored four goals this season, when he headed narrowly wide from Ben Doherty’s right wing cross on 34 minutes.
At the other end, on the stroke of half-time, Trai Hume strode forward from full-back and shot from just outside the edge of the box, but Ferguson held on to the effort.
In the second-half, it took until the 58th for the first opportunity to arrive.
Tomas Cosgrove switched the play to the left flank to find Andy Scott in space. The diminutive winger cut inside but his effort was too close to Johns, allowing the keeper to save low down to his left. This sparked a good spell for the home side, who went on to fashion two decent chances in the space of a minute on the hour mark.
Firstly, Doherty saw his searching effort deflected just wide after cutting in from the right flank. From the resulting Lynch corner, Balmer was again a threat but his header just lacked the pace to beat Johns at the back post.
Nasseri came off the bench with 65 minutes on the clock. After successful spells with both Glentoran and Linfield, he was yet to register a goal for Larne since the move from Windsor Park.
That all changed 11 minutes from time. Lynch was the architect of the goal, with a lofted ball from just inside the Linfield half to find Davy McDaid.
The striker controlled it well and held on to the ball until he spotted the run of Nasseri and slipped his fellow sub in on goal and he danced past Johns to lash home.
David Healy emptied his bench of attacking threats and it was two of them who combined to earn his side a point with two minutes left.
From a free-kick wide on the right, Marty Donnelly — who moved to the Blues as part of the deal that saw Nasseri go the other way — whipped in a dangerous cross and Stewart popped up with a header to send a packed away stand into raptures.
Ferguson, Balmer, Sule, Herron (Mitchell, 81 mins), Hale (McDaid, 68 mins), Doherty, Scott (Nasseri, 65 mins), Lynch, Cosgrove, Hughes, Jarvis
Argyrides, Kelly, Watson, Randall
Johns, Roscoe, Shields, Callacher, Millar (Stewart, 65 mins), Hume, Manzinga, Clarke (Chadwick, 85 mins), Fallon, Mulgrew (Donnelly, 85 mins), Green (Quinn, 66 mins)
Walsh, Newberry, Salam
Tim Marshall (Irvinestown)