Linfield’s already slim title hopes were effectively ended tonight. The Blues needed to beat Larne at Windsor Park this evening to put pressure on Larne going into the last day, but David Healy’s men were unable to make pressure count as they were held to a 1-1 draw.

Larne came for a point that would effectively win them the League, and they got it. Of course, it’s still mathematically possible for Linfield to overtake them on the final day, but given that a goal swing of 17 goals would be required, it’s over in reality – Larne will be champions for the second year in a row.

The Blues were without captain Jamie Mulgrew who missed out through injury. He was replaced in the starting eleven by 16-year-old forward Braiden Graham, a brave call by David Healy but the promising youngster certainly didn’t disappoint his manager. Graham’s pace, energy and directness was influential in the Blues taking the game to Larne. Matthew Fitzpatrick also came back into the side in place of Matthew Clarke, with Joel Cooper operating as a left wing-back.

It took only four minutes before talking points arose in the match. Kirk Millar went into the book for his first foul and a theme emerged of countless fouls going unpunished for the remainder of the first half. In the fifth minute, the Blues also appealed to referee Tony Clarke for a penalty as Chris McKee nipped in from Leroy Millar’s blindside in the Larne box – he went down as Millar appeared to swing at the ball, but the appeals were turned away.

Braiden Graham drove through the Larne penalty area but with the angle against him, he couldn’t justify pulling the trigger once he raced past Larne ‘keeper Ferguson, so he checked back inside and saw his goalbound shot blocked. McKee, and then Graham again, were both denied by blocks, but the following corner resulted in the opening goal.

The Blues deserved to take the lead when they did in the 21st minute, even if there was a hint of fortune about it. Kirk Millar’s corner from the left flew over the head of Larne ‘keeper Ferguson and went into the net. Larne’s Leroy Millar was on the back post and he got a touch on it but could only divert it into his own net. Kirk Millar will claim the goal regardless.

David Healy’s men almost doubled their lead immediately as Ethan McGee released Braiden Graham who again showed good movement down the left to get inside the Larne box. He delivered a dangerous cutback across the box and Larne midfielder Chris Gallagher cleared it over his own crossbar.

Larne then equalised with their first shot on target in the 34th minute. A quick one-two from Larne wing-back Tomas Cosgrove saw him get goalside of Joel Cooper whose challenge was deemed to be a push in the back and a foul. Andy Ryan stepped up and confidently dispatched the penalty into the bottom right corner.

The Blues had a good opportunity to retake the lead a few minutes before the interval as Kirk Millar’s deep free-kick delivery found Daniel Finlayson peeling off into space at the back post. Scottish defender Finlayson showed good awareness to head the ball back into the path of Chris McKee who was disappointed to fire over the bar from around 15 yards out.

HT: Linfield 1-1 Larne

The Blues were getting joy down the right side and almost score from that a couple of minutes into the second half as Kirk Millar’s cross found Braiden Graham unmarked in the middle, however his diving header went wide. Kirk Millar in particular was getting plenty of crossing opportunities.

Presumably that is why Larne manager Tiernan Lynch made a change on 51 minutes, replacing Leroy Millar who is a central midfielder by trade but was operating at left wing-back, and bringing on Micheal Glynn, who is more natural in that position.

Whilst Linfield remained on top, they were largely unable to turn that into clear-cut opportunities. In fairness, Larne dug in – they were organised and displayed just why their defensive record is so strong this season.

Whilst Chris Johns had little to do in the match, he was called into action in the 77th minute and he came up trumps with a big save. Johns pulled his teammate Chris Shields out of the trenches as Shields’ weak backpass put Larne striker Lee Bonis through on goal. Bonis had the chance to score a league-winning goal, however Johns did well to stand the striker up and make the save when Bonis attempted to clip the ball over him.

Given the circumstances, David Healy emptied his bench of all its attacking options. The closest Linfield came to a winner was in the 83rd minute when Chris McKee connected on the volley when Kirk Millar delivered a free-kick from the right, however the forward’s effort struck the outside of the post.

Six minutes were added on at the end, however the Blues were unable to craft out any opportunities of note. Rohan Ferguson did well to claw away a header across goal at one point, and Jordan Stewart tried his luck with a driven shot from the edge of the box but, unfortunately, it struck his own teammate and deflected wide for a goalkick.

The Blues finish the League campaign this Saturday, taking on Cliftonville at Windsor Park in a rehearsal for the following Saturday’s Irish Cup Final. That being the case, it is expected that both teams will make several changes and use it as an opportunity to give gametime to players currently on the fringes of their squads.

FT: Linfield 1-1 Larne

Written by Jamie Megarry


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