Bet McLean Cup holders Linfield booked their place in this year’s Final with a hard-fought 2-1 win away to Dungannon Swifts tonight in the semi-final, setting up a clash against Portadown at Windsor Park on Sunday 10th March.
Having fought hard to win the trophy last season, the Blues have had to fight even harder to give themselves a chance of retaining it this season, having now gone to Glentoran, Larne and Dungannon Swifts to win on the road to the final.
In two changes from the team that won at Loughgall on Saturday, David Healy gave starts to Chris McKee and Darragh McBrien in place of Rhys Annett and Josh Archer, both of whom were on the bench. Ethan McGee dropped out of the squad as he was cup-tied having played for Dungannon Swifts previously in the competition.
In a match played in very low temperatures, the Blues took an early lead at Stangmore Park. Club captain Jamie Mulgrew set off on one of those lung-busting runs the Blues fans have been accustomed to seeing over the past 19 years, surging through the midfield before being fouled right on the edge of Dungannon’s box. Kyle McClean took on free-kick duty to bend a beautiful strike into the top corner of the goalkeeper’s side of the wall, giving Linfield the lead in the sixth minute.
Continuing their fast start, Linfield went agonisingly close to doubling their lead on 12 minutes. A clever short corner routine saw the ball taken short to Matthew Clarke who helped it on to Daniel Finlayson inside the box and, unable to get a shot off, he elected to tee up Darragh McBrien just outside the box where he struck a low shot which rifled off the inside of the post against his former side.
Dungannon Swifts improved as the first half went on and they threatened midway through the first half when they had a penalty appeal turned down by the referee. Dungannon midfielder Kealan Dillon slid a neat pass through towards Leo Alves who was darting between two Linfield defenders, though when outmuscled by Euan East he went down in the box but the referee thought it was a fair challenge. Alves himself made no complaints, which would suggest it was the correct call from the referee.
The Swifts’ best chance of the half came through a similar move, this time Dillon was the receiver as he made a dart through the heart of the Linfield defence, and once found by Knowles’ threaded pass he was unable to pick out the corner from the edge of the box, with Chris Johns able to get down to his left and make the save.
The Blues were close to doubling their lead in stoppage time at the end of the first half as Matthew Fitzpatrick connected with an excellent Kirk Millar cross to the front post, only to see his goalward shot excellently blocked by Cahal McGinty. From the corner that followed, Daniel Finlayson’s downward header was well saved by Swifts’ goalkeeper Declan Dunne.
HT: Dungannon Swifts 0-1 Linfield
Linfield manager David Healy made a half-time substitution, changing from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, as he replaced striker Chris McKee with central midfielder Josh Archer, presumably to gain more control of the match.
The Blues were looking comfortable enough until they were reduced to ten men on 58 minutes. From a corner which resulted from a neat turn and shot from Darragh McBrien being excellently tipped over the crossbar, Euan East was shown a second yellow card. The Scotsman’s first booking was a ‘stonewaller’ towards the end of the first half as he pulled down an opponent who was breaking at pace. His second booking was for blocking an attempted kick out by the Dungannon goalkeeper.
David Healy then made another change, bringing on Michael Newberry to fill the void left by East in central defence. Darragh McBrien was the man sacrificed on the hour-mark as the Blues played 4-4-1. Rodney McAree made an attacking change to his Dungannon Swifts team at the same time, replacing central midfielder James Knowles with attack-minder winger Joe Moore.
After a period of Dungannon possession, ten-man Linfield then bagged a valuable second goal on 71 minutes, though it came in controversial circumstances. Kyle McClean surged right through the heart of the Dungannon defence to go through on goal, though he was joined by Matthew Fitzpatrick who dallied and looked tempted to shoot before eventually letting McClean take control before the midfielder arrowed in a left-footed shot after initially having a shot saved, netting his second of the night and his seventh of the season. The controversy surrounds Matthew Fitzpatrick and whether the clearly-offside forward should have been deemed to have been interfering with play or not.
Dungannon Swifts pulled a goal back in the 82nd minute to set up a nervy finish, though their goal was also controversial. Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew seemed to take an elbow to the face from Dungannon’s Kealan Dillon, but play continued with the Blues momentarily down to nine men, and the Stangmore Park men capitalised to pull a goal back as the ball fell for substitute Joe Moore on the edge of the box and he hammered in a low strike.
The Swifts mounted late pressure after changing their shape and sticking Chris Hegarty on as a centre forward, though Linfield defended their box superbly, winning every aerial battle. The closest Dungannon came to a leveller was on 88 minutes when Joe Moore cut in from the right and saw a well-struck curling shot well saved by Chris Johns who palmed it away.
Joel Cooper made a return from injury as he replaced Matthew Fitzpatrick after 89 minutes, topping off a great night for David Healy and his team. Playing more than half-an-hour with ten men, the Blues had to dig deep once again tonight but no matter the trials and tribulations laid in front of them in recent months, they’ve continued to find a way to relentlessly churn out results which must be commended.
Attention now turns to a home League match against Crusaders this Saturday, for which Euan East will miss out through a one-match suspension following tonight’s sending off.
FT: Dungannon Swifts 1-2 Linfield
Written by Jamie Megarry