Sub Stafford seizes his big chance to fire Linfield back to the summit
What a response from Linfield. From an embarrassing Irish Cup exit to beating fierce rivals Cliftonville at Solitude and moving to the top of the Irish Premiership.
This was much more like it for David Healy.
The Blues boss demanded far better from his side after their humiliating defeat to Queen’s and that’s exactly what he got.
Linfield showed the type of character that helped them become champions last season and with games in hand on all their title rivals, they will now be favourites to retain their crown.
Defender Mark Stafford, who conceded the penalty that gave Queen’s their famous victory earlier this month, was the hero this time, netting from close range on 56 minutes after coming on at the break.
Earlier, the excellent Andrew Mitchell opened the scoring from the penalty spot before Reds record scorer Joe Gormley equalised with a goal that the visitors thought should have been ruled out for offside.
The home side had penalty appeals in a frantic finish but the Blues held on to jump ahead of Glentoran and Cliftonville at the head of the Danske Bank Premiership on goal difference. They are one point clear of Crusaders and three in front of Coleraine with more fixtures to play than the rest.
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This was Linfield’s fourth win over the Reds this season. The loss will be a massive blow to Paddy McLaughlin’s men, who had won their previous five matches. That run started after defeat to the Blues at Windsor Park. McLaughlin will look for the same again from his players.
There has been much soul searching for Healy and his team since the Queen’s upset which left them with just the league title to play for.
Last night, Healy made five changes to the line-up with Stafford, Bastien Hery, Kirk Millar, Daniel Kearns and Andy Waterworth dropped to the bench with Mark Haughey, Stephen Fallon, Mitchell, Jordan Stewart and Shayne Lavery replacing them.
For Cliftonville, Ruaidhri Donnelly started after much speculation about his future. New signing from Derry City, Michael McCrudden, came on late in the fray for his debut.
With windy conditions and the poor surface not helping, it was a scrappy start. The first opportunity of note came in the 11th minute when Donnelly headed Conor McDermott’s corner onto the top of the bar.
With 14 minutes on the clock, the visitors were in front after referee Raymond Crangle awarded a penalty for handball against Liam Bagnall from an Ethan Boyle shot. Mitchell stepped up and made no mistake.
That stung Cliftonville and a brilliant cross from Gormley ought to have provided a leveller for Ryan Curran. On 27 minutes, Gormley did the job himself by dinking the ball over Linfield goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson.
Blues players were furious it was given after a linesman’s flag went up for offside. Crangle ruled, however, that the ball came off Linfield’s new signing Boyle rather than Conor McMenamin before Cliftonville’s record scorer found the net.
Healy was fuming with the call but had Boyle, booked moments before, not dithered at the back and allowed McMenamin to pressure him, Gormley’s goal would not have happened.
The Blues started the second period strongly. They had claims for another penalty with Mitchell’s dangerous free-kick appearing to strike Gary Breen on the hand. Then, inside his own box, Donnelly did superbly to clear a Jimmy Callacher header.
That dominance paid off on 56 minutes. Mitchell’s corner was nodded on by Boyle and Stafford, on for the injured Haughey, pounced from close range.
Lavery should have sealed the points but the Northern Ireland striker lacked conviction and allowed Richard Brush to save.
Then came a late storm from Cliftonville, with handball appeals turned down and Aaron Donnelly missing a glorious chance in stoppage time.
When the final whistle sounded, the pain from the Blues’ previous outing at The Dub was replaced with joy at Solitude.
Linfield are back on top in every sense. The plan for Healy will be to stay there.
CLIFTONVILLE: Brush, McDermott, Breen, R Curran, R Donnelly, Foster (Maguire 83), Bagnall (C Curran 61), Doherty, Gormley (McCrudden 66), McMenamin, A Donnelly. Subs not used: Dunne, Ives, Harney, Wilson.
LINFIELD: Ferguson, Boyle, Callacher, Haughey (Stafford 46), Clarke, Mulgrew, Fallon, Mitchell, Stewart (Millar 74), Lavery, Cooper. Subs not used: Moore, Shevlin, Kearns, Hery, Waterworth.
Referee: Raymond Crangle
Man of the match: Andrew Mitchell (Linfield)
Match rating: 7/10
Belfast Telegraph Digital