BETMCLEAN CUP FINAL TICKETS

Linfield’s eleven-match unbeaten run – which consisted of ten wins and a draw following defeat to Glentoran on December 2 – came to an end this afternoon as Dungannon Swifts came from behind to record a shock victory at Windsor Park.

It was a day for the history books as Dungannon Swifts ended their long Windsor Park winless record. It was not a case of third time lucky, but 30th time lucky for the Stangmore Park men who had 24 defeats and 5 draws in their previous 29 League visits to south Belfast since their promotion to the Premiership in 2003. It’s the first time since 2019 that Linfield have lost a home League match a team other than Larne and Glentoran.

However, Linfield’s narrow, hard-fought wins in the three previous meetings between the teams this season – all of which Linfield won by a single goal (2-3, 4-3, 1-2) – should have had the Blues on red alert for a potential upset. Unfortunately, they didn’t heed the warnings and failed to produce a performance of the required levels to continue their good form.

Before the match, the team news brought encouragement to Linfield supporters. Joel Cooper was making his first start since Boxing Day, having recently returned from injury, whilst Chris Shields also returned having been out injured since December 5, though he was an unused substitute. Euan East returned from a one-match suspension, whilst Ben Hall was serving a one-match ban having picked up his fifth booking of the season last week, so East replaced Hall, whilst Joel Cooper came in for Josh Archer who dropped to the bench.

The Blues were looking to make a quick start, trying to get an early goal to stifle a compact Dungannon backline, but it wasn’t forthcoming. A couple of moves down the left saw Linfield threaten in the opening 15 minutes, first of all through Joel Cooper, whose cross from the left flashed just past the far post, not far beyond the reach of Matthew Fitzpatrick, the intended target in the middle.

Ethan McGee also headed not far wide of the post against his former side from a free-kick delivery from Kirk Millar after Darragh McBrien was fouled out left. Soon after, Cooper slid a pass through to allow Matthew Clarke to bomb into space high up the left, and his low cross took a defensive touch which took it just beyond the reach of Fitzpatrick.

The match then went into a lull, with Dungannon well organised and preventing the Blues from clear-cut chances. The Swifts’ only real chance in a fairly low-key first half was midway through the half when they countered a Linfield corner. Gael Bigirimana sent Leo Alves away into the Linfield half where he was 1v1 with Matthew Clarke, and he did well to get a shot off from the edge of the box, though he fired wide of goal.

The Blues’ best chances of the first half, and probably their only real clear-cut chances of the half, came in stoppage time when a deep corner from Kirk Millar found Euan East peeling off to the back post where his volley was well saved before the ‘keeper got up again to deny Kyle McClean’s strike on the rebound to make it a fine double save.

HT: Linfield 0-0 Dungannon Swifts

Dungannon Swifts passed up a golden opportunity three minutes into the second half following a lapse in midfield as Kealan Dillon sent Andrew Mitchell bearing down on goal. The striker – who scored at Windsor Park for Coleraine six weeks ago before returning to Dungannon Swifts for a second spell – was stood up by Euan East, but still managed to get into the box and get a shot off. He hit it on his weaker right foot and was denied by a good save from Chris Johns to push it around the post.

Other than that, the Blues did make a bright start to the second half and they took the lead on 51 minutes. Darragh McBrien did well to spin past Cahal McGinty down the left and he pulled the ball back to Matthew Clarke who slotted in from a central position inside the box for his third goal of the season.

A second goal could have put the Blues firmly in control, but they were unable to take an opportunity to double their lead on 59 minutes and it proved game-changing. David Healy’s men were awarded a penalty when Dungannon Swifts midfielder Gael Bigirimana handled a Kirk Millar cross. Kyle McClean took the penalty but was unable to take his tally to eight for the season as Declan Dunne guessed correctly and made a good save down to his right.

The penalty save lifted the Dungannon Swifts team and supporters, and they drew level four minutes later. John Scott got a cross in from the left and midfield runner Gael Bigirimana ghosted in to convert unchallenged at the front post.

The Blues almost offered an instant response as Kirk Millar’s cross fell kindly for Matthew Clarke to volley, but he was unlucky not to score a second as his effort flashed wide of the far post.

With 20 minutes remaining, David Healy changed things up. Matthew Fitzpatrick, Darragh McBrien and Jamie Mulgrew were replaced by Chris McKee, Aodhan Doherty and Stephen Fallon, with a view to adding freshness to the team. McKee had a good chance five minutes after coming on as Cooper set him for a shot on the edge of the box, but he dragged a shot wide of the post with his left foot.

Dungannon Swifts then struck what proved to be the winner ten minutes before the end. A foul by Daniel Finlayson led to a free-kick for the visitors around 30 yards from goal. Kealen Dillon hooked in the delivery and Dean Curry got away from Finlayson to rise head and convert well with a good header,

The Blues went to a 3-4-1-2 and got bodies forward but weren’t able to create much in the final ten minutes plus another five additional minutes. The closest they came to a leveller was in the second minute of added time when Chris McKee curled a shot agonisingly wide of the far post.

Credit to Rodney McAree's side, they worked hard for their victory in a very organised performance and were clinical when their chances came along, whilst also keeping the ball well when they had it. Although they remain tenth – which Linfield fans would say is a false position based on their performances against the Blues this season – they are now just five points off the top six.

A very disappointing result for Linfield, whose lead at the top of the Sports Direct Premiership is cut to one point ahead of Larne, while a win for Cliftonville at Glentoran on Tuesday would see the Reds move within two points. With Larne and Cliftonville’s strong form, it’s important the Blues get back on track and put another run of form together, although their initial focus will be on the Irish Cup as they host Ballymena United at Windsor Park next Saturday.

FT: Linfield 1-2 Dungannon Swifts

Written by Jamie Megarry