BETMCLEAN CUP FINAL TICKETS

LINFIELD boss David Healy was quoted in the media this week backing his players to ‘restore pride’ following last week’s bitterly disappointing 4-0 defeat to Glentoran at The Oval. In tonight’s dramatic win over Larne his players certainly did that, and then some, as they overcame adversity to come back with ten men and win on penalties to book their place in the semi-finals of the Bet McLean Cup.

You could write a book on this match. David Healy freshened up his side with three changes, and in doing so injected youth into the team, with Dane McCullough (19) coming into the team for his first start for the Club, alongside Josh Archer (20) and Michael Newberry, in place of vastly experienced trio Matthew Clarke, Jamie Mulgrew, and Kirk Millar.

In normal time it was a closely-fought contest with clear-cut chances at a premium, though the Blues edged it on chances. The very impressive, energetic Josh Archer came closest to scoring in normal time – indeed it came just three minutes into the match when a long throw-in fell for him on the edge of the box and he struck the sweetest of volleys, and he was unfortunate to be denied by a brilliant save from Ferguson who tipped it over the crossbar.

Joel Cooper also had a chance midway through the first half when a long goal-kick from Chris Johns was allowed to bounce by the Larne defence, and Cooper anticipated it to race into the box and get a shot off – he got his lob beyond the ‘keeper but it went wide of the post. Later in the half Cooper had another sight of goal as he latched onto a ball into the channel and shot in aim of the far corner, though his effort flashed past the post.

Larne’s best chance of the first half came when Daniel Finlayson’s header out from a corner landed at the feet of American midfielder Jaziel Orozco, but the Real Salt Lake loanee fired wide from the edge of the box.

HT: Larne 0-0 Linfield

The Blues had a strong spell early in the second half, with Kyle McClean twice found running into the box and he got crosses in on both occasions. Firstly, he attempted to pick out Matthew Fitzpatrick at the front post, though the striker was just beaten to it by Larne ‘keeper Ferguson. On the second occasion, McClean’s cross was blocked, and it pinged around until a Larne defender panicked and unconvincingly lashed it past his own post for a corner which was well defended.

Already low on numbers, Linfield’s squad depth was reduced further tonight with three more injuries. The first to depart – and the most serious looking one – was for key midfielder Chris Shields who instantly looked in real pain when he went down from a challenge. The midfielder limped off gingerly and was replaced by Jamie Mulgrew on the hour-mark, and Larne then dominated for the next five or ten minutes before the Blues settled again.

Neither ‘keeper had much to do in the second half, though both teams had a free-kick apiece in dangerous areas in the closing ten minutes. Firstly, Larne had one in a central area, twenty yards out for a foul by Cooper on Graham. Larne striker Lee Bonis took it on and put his laces through the ball, but his effort was blocked by the Linfield wall.

The Blues got a free-kick out wide on the right side for a foul on Jamie Mulgrew. Joel Cooper took it and tried a routine to pick out Kyle McClean to feet inside the box, though when he got to the ball and went down from a challenge, his penalty appeal was dismissed. Larne broke but it came to nothing. The last meaningful action of the 90 minutes was when Chris Johns did brilliantly to race out and beat Lee Bonis to the ball.

FT: Larne 0-0 Linfield

David Healy made two substitutions ahead of extra-time, with Jamie Mulgrew withdrawn despite initially coming on as a substitute on the hour-mark – he appeared to have picked up an injury and was replaced by Kirk Millar who played in central midfield. Dane McCullough was also withdrawn – he did very well on his first start, but a lack of gametime meant his tank was empty, and Matthew Clarke came on to take the armband.

Seven minutes into extra-time, Rhys Annett replaced Matthew Fitzpatrick who was cramping up and could hardly run anymore. Four minutes later, the excellent Josh Archer was also forced off through injury and was replaced by Aodhan Doherty who played in an unfamiliar role of central midfield.

The Blues then went close to taking the lead two minutes before half-time in extra time as Joel Cooper’s low free-kick was excellently saved by Rohan Ferguson down low to his left. Rhys Annett then pounced on the loose ball and clipped a cross into the middle where Ben Hall rose well but headed over the bar.

There was a major talking point in the match in additional time at the end of the first half of extra time as Linfield midfielder Kyle McClean was sent off for a second bookable offence. He was first booked on 66 minutes despite winning the ball, and his second bookable on 105 minutes was also questionable. It left Linfield a man light – and with four central midfielders departed through injuries or a red card on the night, the Blues had no choice but to play players out of position. Joel Cooper and Aodhan Doherty are both wingers, but both did really well in central midfield.

HT extra-time: Larne 0-0 Linfield

Linfield Assistant Manager, Ross Oliver, also received a straight red card at half-time of extra time for approaching referee Ben McMaster on the pitch.

The second half of extra time was worth the wait for cold spectators. A moment of class from 17-year-old Aodhan Doherty saw the midfielder turn brilliantly and whip in a top class cross which was pinpoint for Euan East to head in his first Linfield goal and give the ten men an unlikely lead at the away end of Inver Park on 109 minutes.

The lead lasted just two minutes, however, as Larne attacked down the right and a low cross into the box found Lee Bonis who got across the front post to squeeze in a low shot.

Three minutes later, Larne then took the lead as Cian Bolger crossed for midfielder Leroy Millar to dispatch a bullet header.

Many thought that would be that, but David Healy and a 16-year-old prodigy had other ideas. When Matthew Clarke threw the ball into the box, it popped up for the instinctive Braiden Graham whose strike was so true that it was never in doubt once it left his foot as he rifled a strike into the top corner and drew the Blues level on 118 minutes. The young forward had only been on the pitch for four minutes before popping up with a hugely valuable goal for the holders.

FT AET: Larne 2-2 Linfield

Having lost four penalty shoot-outs last season – two of which came against Larne – the Blues were certainly due one! The impressive youngsters – Rhys Annett, Braiden Graham, Aodhan Doherty – all produced excellent penalties. Kirk Millar was denied for the Blues, however Chris Johns saved from Paul O’Neill and Lee Bonis, and Tomas Cosgrove also missed for Larne, so the holders march on to face either Dungannon Swifts or Newry City away from home in the semi-final.

Each and every player was a credit to the Linfield shirt tonight for the courage and fight they showed in the face of adversity, although we can only hope it hasn’t come at much cost with regards to injuries to an already stretched squad.

Written by Jamie Megarry

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