Linfield lifted the Bet McLean Cup today for the second year in a row and for the 32nd time in the Club’s illustrious history, defeating Portadown 3-1 in the final at Windsor Park in front of 9,179 spectators.

Portadown might be a championship club, but they approached the match with no lack of belief, having defeated Premiership sides Loughgall, Crusaders and Glenavon on their route to the final. However, Linfield had also had to fight hard to book their place in the showpiece occasion following an opening round win over Queen’s, beating Larne at Inver Park in extraordinary circumstances, as well as going to the Oval to beat rivals Glentoran, and a hard-fought semi-final win away to Dungannon Swifts on a night when the Blues played more than half-an-hour with ten men.

David Healy was without influential central defender Euan East who picked up a hamstring injury in last week’s Irish Cup Quarter-Final win over Institute, and Ethan McGee who was cup-tied, having played in the competition for Dungannon Swifts earlier this season, whilst long-term absentees Chris Shields, Stephen Fallon, Ryan McKay and Robbie McDaid missed out. Ethan Devine also missed out through injury, whilst it came too soon for the returning Jordan Stewart who continues to make progress.

In today’s final, Linfield dominated possession whilst Portadown offered a threat on the counter-attack, and two brilliant goal-saving blocks from Linfield defenders in the opening 15 minutes proved critical, otherwise it could have been a different game. Firstly, four minutes in, Portadown midfielder Ryan Mayse ran into space in the Linfield box, and once his shot was blocked it rebounded kindly for Eamon Fyfe at close range, however he was denied by a brilliant goal-saving challenge by Ben Hall. Then, on 12 minutes, Mayse found Fyfe with a low cross, and this time it was Finlayson who got in the way to rescue Linfield with a goal-saving block. Ports’ left back Aaron Traynor also went close after 20 minutes as he struck a shot sweetly from 20 yards and it flashed just over the crossbar.

The Blues also had a good opportunity of their own in the opening ten minutes when Josh Archer found Kyle McClean down the right and his accurate cross found Matthew Fitzpatrick for a free header in the middle, however he headed over.

Fitzpatrick was then unfortunate not to put the Blues ahead with a clever effort midway through the first half when Kirk Millar’s free-kick delivery from the left was headed back across to the striker who struck a bicycle kick, with his effort rattling the crossbar. He also had the ball in the net after Ports ‘keeper Hogg parried Matthew Clarke’s drive from distance, though the flag was up straight away for offside.

With the score goalless, Daniel Finlayson went close with a left-footed drive from distance, and Josh Archer saw his goalbound shot blocked wide against his former team after great creatvity from Kyle McClean to engineer the opportunity.

The breakthrough in the match arrived five minutes before the break. It came for Linfield via a corner, which came about after Portadown ‘keeper Hogg made a good stop to save Rhys Annett’s left-footed shot from the edge of the box. Kirk Millar delivered the corner from the left and it was touched on at the near post before Ben Hall stooped to head Linfield in front.

Up until that point, Portadown’s gameplan was going brilliantly, however their heads seemed to drop after conceding the first, and Linfield pounced again before the break from another corner, delivered from the right by Joel Cooper as Portadown defender Luke Wilson headed past his own ‘keeper.

Despite not being at their best in the first half, Linfield suddenly didn’t want the half to end, such was Portadown’s struggle to shake off the disappointment of conceding, as their manager Niall Currie admitted in his post-match interview. It could even have been three at the break, but Fitzpatrick fired the wrong side of the post from a great position when teed up by the influential ‘Man of the Match’ Kyle McClean.

HT: Linfield 2-0 Portadown

The Blues netted a third goal eleven minutes into the second half to put themselves further in the driving seat and it was a lovely team goal. Josh Archer pinged the ball to Matthew Fitzpatrick running the left channel, and he then found Kyle McClean running beyond, before the midfielder fizzed the ball across for the grateful Rhys Annett to tap in his fifth goal of the season.

The 19-year-old striker almost scored again a short time later when he turned inside the box and hit a strike from a tight angle which had to be saved, with Hogg pushing the ball over his crossbar.

Portadown boss Niall Currie made a double substitution with Zach Barr and Mark Russell replaced by Paul McElroy and Kenneth Kane. This change saw them become a threat in the match again, with Kane’s pace and energy particularly giving them a new dimension.

The Ports made things interesting when they pulled a goal back on 75 minutes. In fairness, it was nothing less than their fans deserved as the didn’t stop singing all afternoon in their first major final for nine years. It was a well-worked goal as Ryan Mayse got down the left before standing up a nice cross to the back post where former Coleraine attacker Eamon Fyfe headed in.

Suddenly, things weren’t just so comfortable for Linfield, and every time the Ports attacked you could sense new belief and excitement among their support. They put a dangerous cross into the near post area shortly after their goal and Ben Hall managed to prevent Fyfe from turning it in at an important time in the match.

On 85 minutes Portadown midfielder Gary Thompson had a snapshot tipped over by Chris Johns, and the following corner was dangerously delivered by Ryan Mayse, although it ultimately went through the box untouched. After that, Linfield weren’t troubled and saw the match out comfortably.

The Blues will hope this trophy success will give them momentum as they aim for further success in the final stretch of the season now, currently two points behind league leaders Larne with seven matches remaining, and an Irish Cup semi-final to look forward to. Portadown, on the other hand, will put all their eggs in one basket now, and that is to aim to get what is a big club back into the Premiership.

FT: Linfield 3-1 Portadown Man of the Match: Kyle McClean