BETMCLEAN CUP FINAL TICKETS

Linfield maintained their four-point lead at the top of the Sports Direct Premiership with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Loughgall at Lakeview Park in front of a large crowd this afternoon.

Thankfully for Linfield and David Healy, the old Manager of the Month award curse that is often alluded to in Irish League circles did not haunt them as they took maximum points the day after the Blues’ boss won the award for the 17th time in his managerial career.

Unsurprisingly, David Healy made six changes to the team that beat Warrenpoint in the fifth round of the Irish Cup last weekend, with David Walsh, Michael Newberry, Ryan McKay, Aodhan Doherty, Darragh McBrien and Chris McKee being replaced by Chris Johns, Ben Hall, Matthew Clarke, Kyle McClean, Kirk Millar and Rhys Annett. Joel Cooper didn’t quite make it due to injury, however new signing Ethan McGee was in the squad for the first time as he was named on the bench.

Loughgall, meanwhile, continue to be without left-sided centre half Luke Cartwright, with the 23-year-old missing the last month through injury, and winger Caolan McAleer, who has been out for two months. Former Portadown youngster Alberto Balde is also on the sidelines. Other than that, The Villagers had a full panel available.

The Blues struggled to get into any real rhythm in the first half, though Loughgall must be commended for that as they were well set up and very hard-working. The Villagers even threatened twice in the early stages – firstly through Benji Magee whose left-footed shot from 25 yards was well held by Johns after Linfield struggled to deal with a long ball, and secondly through Andrew Hoey who received the ball on the edge of the Blues’ box from Daniel Finlayson’s attempted clearance, only to see his goalward effort crucially blocked.

Linfield were the team who were closest to scoring in the goalless first half, however. Kyle McClean’s goalward shot from inside the box was blocked after neat link-up play before the ball came out to Daniel Finlayson who was high up the right wing and he clipped a cross to the back post area where Matthew Clarke got a bullet header on the end of it, only to see his effort strike the underside of the crossbar before the hosts managed to scramble the ball away from danger.

A moment of class from Jamie Mulgrew to open up space in midfield laid the platform for the Blues’ best move of the first half as he picked out Kirk Millar on the right and the winger pulled the ball back to Rhys Annett on the edge of the box, however the young forward’s first-time effort on his weaker left foot flashed wide of goal.

In a similar move, Kirk Millar precisely picked out Matthew Fitzpatrick running the right channel and the striker drove in a low cross in search of Rhys Annett, but Loughgall ‘keeper Turker did well to anticipate it and to get down low to claim the ball.

Loughgall’s best move of the half came not long before the interval – a neat passage of play down the left as Jamie Rea found Benji Magee on the edge of the box and he did brilliantly to make room for a left-footed shot which he leathered not far wide of the far post.

HT: Loughgall 0-0 Linfield

The Blues made a positive start to an entertaining second half and, with a bit of fortune, the league leaders took the lead two minutes after the break. It came from a free-kick delivery from Kirk Millar out wide on the right, and Loughgall midfielder Tiernan Kelly volleyed the ball past his own ‘keeper when trying to hook the ball away.

With a rocket of a 20-yard strike from Josh Archer flashing just over the crossbar in between, the Blues doubled their lead just eight minutes after their opening goal. A deep free-kick was pumped into the Loughgall box by Euan East on the halfway line and it was headed out only as far as the unmarked Kirk Millar who brilliantly volleyed in the dropping ball from just inside the box for his seventh goal of the season.

Loughgall pulled a goal back just three minutes later, however. Former Linfield Youth player Pablo Andrade set off on a driving run before reaching the edge of the Blues’ box where he teed up Benji Magee to his left, and his shot deflected off Ben Hall to take it past Chris Johns, as the Villagers’ 21-year-old forward claimed his 15th league goal of the season.

Man of the Match, Kirk Millar looked to restore Linfield’s lead a short time later when Matthew Clarke was fouled just outside the box, but Millar’s free-kick was well saved by the diving Loughgall ‘keeper Turker on his side of the wall.

With 25 minutes remaining, David Healy freshened up his team with two substitutions, as new signing Ethan McGee came on in central midfield to make his Linfield debut, whilst Darragh McBrien replaced Rhys Annett in the frontline.

The Blues went close to a third goal from a corner 20 minutes before the end as Kyle McClean’s left-footed volley from the left of the box was deflected into Matthew Fitzpatrick, who was unlucky to see his shot blocked on the line. McClean also slipped Fitzpatrick in inside the box a short time later, but this time his low, driven shot was well saved by the leg of the ‘keeper.

As the game entered the final twenty minutes, Loughgall went close to levelling the score as the Blues allowed Andrew Hoey time and space for a 20-yard shot which drew a good acrobatic save from Chris Johns, who also did well to keep up and block Benji Magee’s rebound effort.

Another Linfield corner spelled danger for the Co. Armagh side, with Matthew Clarke’s delivery met by the head of central defender Ben Hall, whose header was cleared off the line by Loughgall left back Jamie Rea.

Some nervy Linfield fans were probably wondering in the closing stages if it was going to be ‘one of those days’, but the Blues defended Loughgall’s crosses well in the closing stages to secure a hard-fought win in a tough match on Matchday 25.

Attention now turns to Tuesday night’s Bet McLean Cup semi-final against Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore Park, with the Blues hoping they can retain the trophy they won last season. There will be a cash gate in operation, priced at £13 for adults and £9 for concessions. Linfield’s Ethan McGee will be cup tied against his former side, whilst Linfield boss David Healy hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Joel Cooper being available for selection.

FT: Loughgall 1-2 Linfield

Written by Jamie Megarry