Linfield returned to the summit of the Sports Direct Premiership this afternoon with a dramatic comeback victory over Dungannon Swifts at Windsor Park as Kirk Millar popped up with the winner in the third minute of stoppage time.
Having picked up six injuries in Tuesday’s energy-sapping League Cup Quarter-Final shoot-out victory away to Larne, Linfield boss David Healy had to assess his options in the days leading up to today’s match. Josh Archer, Michael Newberry and Matthew Fitzpatrick all recovered in time to start, despite being subbed due to injuries during the week. Kyle McClean was serving a one-match ban following his midweek sending off, whilst Chris Shields missed out through injury – Rhys Annett and Kirk Millar came into the starting eleven in their place.
The first half of the match was disappointing for the Blues, with boss David Healy describing his team’s defending as ‘carnage’, believing that his team created problems for themselves. They gave away three cheap goals in the first half, going behind after 13 minutes through a penalty. A quick sequence of one-touch passing caught Linfield wide open on the counter-attack as Leo Alves slid through the pacey Niall Owens who ran off the back of Daniel Finlayson to go through on goal and he was faced with the onrushing Chris Johns, however the Linfield ‘keeper caught the winger and Dungannon Swifts striker Matthew Lusty stepped up to convert the penalty for his seventh goal in as many games, and his 16th goal of the season.
Dungannon Swifts’ initial lead lasted just four minutes, however. The Blues hit back and in some style as 19-year-old Rhys Annett brilliantly scored his first Linfield goal. The young striker saw his initial shot from the edge of the box blocked following a corner, however he had a second effort which he hit so sweetly past the ‘keeper.
The Blues then went close to taking the lead through a 25-yard free-kick from Kirk Millar which was well saved by the ‘keeper down low to his left. Ten minutes before half-time Linfield could, and probably should have taken the lead as Millar whipped in a dream of a cross from a free-kick out the left and it found Matthew Fitzpatrick unmarked, but he headed wide from a position he will have been disappointed not to have scored from.
In the final few minutes of the first half, Linfield hit the self-destruct button. A foul by Michael Newberry out the right led to a free-kick in a dangerous area and it was well delivered by Kealan Dillon for Cahal McGinty, who got in front of Daniel Finlayson to head in at close range as Dungannon reclaimed the lead.
Just a minute later, on the stroke of half-time, Dungannon Swifts went 3-1 up courtesy of a disastrous own-goal scored by Michael Newberry in a mix-up with Linfield ‘keeper Chris Johns. Hesitancy and uncertainty led to the defender’s backpass beating Johns and ending up in his own net at the Railway End.
At this stage, the Stangmore Park outfit were dreaming of a first ever League victory at Windsor Park, and what could have been just their second ever win at Windsor Park in all competitions, having won there in a League Cup tie in 2008.
HT: Linfield 1-3 Dungannon Swifts
Dungannon boss Rodney McAree told the media after the match that he’d been very disappointed with his team’s first half performance. Ultimately, the Blues had given them a leg-up, and in the home dressing room Linfield boss David Healy had some things to sort out, which he got spot on.
He had the fortune of being able to call upon an All-Time Linfield great, Jamie Mulgrew, whose ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck is second to none. Even at the age of 37, the central midfielder’s leadership, drive and determination is a nightmare for opposition teams, and he was exceptional this afternoon as he led the comeback charge. He might well have started the match had he not picked up an injury during the week, which makes his ‘Man of the Match’ display all the more remarkable.
Aodhan Doherty was the other half of that double half-time substitution, with Michael Newberry and Dane McCullough making way. 17-year-old Doherty was also immense at left wing-back. Every time he got the ball he looked dangerous, and the vast majority of the time he was beating his full-back opponent and getting balls into the box.
The Blues were targeting a quick start to the second half to give them hope, and they got it. Aodhan Doherty sparked the move with a nutmeg and a fizzed pass into Joel Cooper inside the box – he was challenged and set the ball sat up nicely for the instinctive Rhys Annett to latch onto and caress a low finish past the ‘keeper from 12 yards for his second goal of the match.
Dungannon managed to calm the storm for ten or fifteen minutes after that, and they had a big chance to possibly put the game beyond Linfield on 54 minutes as Blues’ defender Ben Hall was dispossessed and it led to a 2v1 scenario in the Swifts’ favour, with Lusty putting Ethan McGee in, however he was denied by a big save from Chris Johns in what would prove to be a big moment in the game.
It was remarkable that Linfield didn’t draw level midway through the second half when the Swifts blocked the ball on their goalline several times in quick succession. It came from a corner which was fumbled by the goalkeeper, and a couple of Linfield players had shots blocked before Euan East’s driven shot was deflected wide.
A short time later, Rhys Annett’s eyes must have lit up as he had a chance to seal his hat-trick as he got in behind after Dungannon defender Caolan Marron misjudged a header, however the young forward’s touch got away from him, otherwise he was in on goal.
With Dungannon leading and standing strong to Linfield pressure, they made things harder for themselves as they had a man sent off on 69 minutes. Former Linfield midfielder James Knowles, who’d only been substituted on 19 minutes prior, put in a nasty, lunging tackle on his former teammate Jamie Mulgrew, and the recklessness of it left referee Steven Gregg no choice but to issue a straight red.
The Blues had Dungannon penned in for the majority of the last twenty minutes, though perhaps weren’t creating as many clear-cut chances and making the ‘keeper work as much as they’d have liked, though they had a decent chance on 77 minutes when Aodhan Doherty’s cross from the left found its way through to Kirk Millar at the back post area and he lashed his shot the wrong side of the post when slightly off balance.
The equaliser finally arrived on 86 minutes when Kirk Millar’s cross from the right was clawed out by ‘keeper Conor Mitchell, who’ll be disappointed he didn’t catch it. In fairness, he did make a great initial save to beat away Joel Cooper’s thunderous volley when the ball dropped at the attacker’s feet, however there was nothing he could do when Cooper arrowed in the rebound for his 12th goal of the season. It was a clever finish, because he hit it into the ground which took a covering defender out of the equation when the ‘keeper was beaten.
There was to be a late winner in it for the spirited Linfield team, who showed immense character for the second time this week. Braiden Graham – who is just 16 years and 32 days old – was thrown on after 84 minutes as reward for netting a dramatic equaliser against Larne during the week, and the highly-rated forward came up trumps again as he turned in the 93rd minute before firing the ball across goal for Kirk Millar to convert at the back post for a winning goal – his sixth goal of the season.
FT: Linfield 4-3 Dungannon Swifts
Written by Jamie Megarry