Linfield’s ten-match winning run came to an end this evening with a 2-1 defeat to Larne at Windsor Park, with The Blues’ lead at the top of the Sports Direct Premiership cut to five points.
With his squad stretched through injuries and suspension, David Healy was forced into changes following Ben Hall’s concussion in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Glentoran at The Oval, with the defender unavailable for selection. Chris Shields slotted into central defence with Michael Newberry the only available right back, and Chris McKee came into the team to partner Matthew Fitzpatrick in attack.
The Blues made a positive start in front of 4,314 spectators, with Matthew Fitzpatrick going close after three minutes. The former Glenavon forward was found in the box by strike partner Chris McKee, and the striker did well to create room for a shot which had to be beaten away by Rohan Ferguson at his near post.
The league leaders then took the lead after 15 minutes as Joel Cooper added to his reel of spectacular goals this season. Chris Shields clipped a ball in behind Larne wing-back Sean Graham and, upon the bounce of the ball, he was tussled with Cooper who got the break of the ball to leather his foot through the ball and dispatch a rocket of a strike into the top corner, giving Larne ‘keeper, Ferguson no chance for Cooper’s 11th goal of the season.
The Blues then threatened again five minutes later with a well-constructed move as Joel Cooper fed the overlapping run of Michael Newberry down the right; he whipped in a dangerous cross which was knocked on into the path of Matthew Clarke at the back post area and his looping volley ended up on the roof of the net.
Current champions Larne then drew level on 24 minutes, meaning Linfield’s lead lasted just nine minutes. Larne midfielder Mark Randall was afforded time and space 30 yards from the Linfield goal, with the Blues’ players probably not expecting him to pull the trigger from such range – but he did, and what a sweet strike it was. Chris Johns seemed to get a slight touch on it, but not nearly enough to keep it out.
Tiernan Lynch’s men almost went ahead ten minutes later when left-wing-back Sean Graham burst past two Linfield defenders to get inside the box and he then pulled the ball back to Leroy Millar, whose goalward shot was crucially blocked by Chris Shields, who threw his body on the line to keep the score level.
Before the break, Chris Johns made a good stop, down low to his left to keep out a shot from Levi Ives who was 20 yards out.
HT: Linfield 1-1 Larne
Linfield had a decent spell early in the second half when they were working an overload down the right side. On one occasion it led to a free-kick out the right, and Kirk Millar delivered it into a dangerous area at the back post, but no Linfield player was peeling round the back to take advantage.
The travelling Inver Reds then took the lead on 54 minutes following a quick break as the left-footed Levi Ives – who was playing right-wing-back – cut onto his stronger left foot to deliver a dangerous cross to the near post where box-to-box midfielder Joe Thomson was arriving to glance a header inside the far post.
The Blues looked to respond instantly as Matthew Fitzpatrick played a one-two with Kirk Millar, but the striker’s left-footed shot from distance skewed wide. Whilst David Healy’s men did have some strong spells of possession, they were just lacking something in the final third to make it count.
Their best chance to level was one on 80 minutes when Kirk Millar’s corner delivery found Michael Newberry with a free header, however his effort lacked the required powered and proved a comfortable save for the ‘keeper.
A minute later, Linfield had a penalty appeal turned away when Matthew Clarke’s cross struck the arm of Larne defender Tomas Cosgrove, with the referee seeming to suggest that the close proximity made it unavoidable for the Larne man who was only about a yard away from Clarke.
Whilst it was a blow for Linfield to have to withdraw Chris McKee and Joel Cooper with injury concerns towards the end of the match, it brought about opportunities for youthful trio Josh Archer and Rhys Annett, who were picked from an inexperienced bench, and they added energy to the Linfield performance, as did Darragh McBrien. Annett particularly was courageous on the ball and unlucky with a few things that didn’t come off to greater effect for him.
Linfield had Larne penned in for much of the seven additional minutes and forced several long throw-ins into the box, but Larne to their credit stood strong and defended it well.
The Blues’ ten-match winning run came about off the back of a defeat to Larne, so David Healy will hope his team can offer the same response again this time, starting with a tough league fixture against Crusaders at Seaview next Saturday. Daniel Finlayson will return from suspension for that one, and Ben Hall will hopefully be available for selection again, too, though Chris McKee will be away on Northern Ireland U21 duty, if he can shake off a knock sustained this afternoon. Joel Cooper’s afternoon also ended early due to a knock.
FT: Linfield 1-2 Larne
Written by Jamie Megarry