Linfield will end the year at the top of the Sports Direct Premiership following a hard-fought point at Inver Park this afternoon, where the Blues were good value for their point.
Joel Cooper was added to an extensive injury list during week, whilst captain Jamie Mulgrew missed out through a one-match suspension following his fifth booking of the season on Boxing Day. Cooper and Mulgrew were replaced by Josh Archer and Michael Newberry as David Healy made two changes which initiated a change of formation, with a back five, Archer and McClean in the middle, and Kirk Millar playing in behind Rhys Annett and Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Larne, on the other hand, were without Jaziel Orozco, Joe Thomson and Levi Ives, all of whom were serving one-match suspensions having picked up their fifth bookings of the season in their 2-1 win over rivals Carrick Rangers on Boxing Day, whilst Shaun Want and Dylan Sloan missed out through injury.
The Blues started slowly after found themselves behind after eight minutes. A Linfield goal-kick was won aerially by Larne defender Cian Bolger, who headed the ball down to Andy Ryan, whose through ball split the Linfield backline to send Lee Bonis through on goal. Chris Johns came rushing out of his goal but Bonis nicked the ball past him to run through and slot the ball into an empty net.
The Invermen crafted out a good opportunity to double their lead just three minutes later, but it was an opportunity that wasn’t taken. Micheal Glynn’s cross from the left wing was excellent to find opposite wing-back Tomas Cosgrove coming in at the back post where he couldn’t hit the target with his header.
The Blues improved as the first half went on and got themselves back on level terms after 27 minutes. The excellent Michael Newberry capped a very good all-round individual performance with an assist as he got up the right flank before checking inside and crossing with his weaker left foot, putting it on a plate for Matthew Fitzpatrick to head the ball into the corner for his second goal in two matches, and his sixth of the season.
David Healy’s men threatened again just three minutes later with a good opportunity on the break as Kyle McClean sent Rhys Annett racing into the box with a through ball, however the young forward couldn’t resist an early effort as the ball sat up nicely for a volley, but he sliced his effort wide. With the benefit of hindsight, he’ll regret not taking it in further to give himself a better opportunity.
Linfield momentarily thought they took the lead on 37 minutes as Matthew Fitzpatrick headed in again, this time from a brilliant Kirk Millar cross, though it was chalked off for offside against the striker.
In the closing minutes of the first half, Larne broke dangerously through Mark Randall who slipped the ball to Tomas Cosgrove down the right before the wing-back pulled the ball back to striker Lee Bonis whose strong goalward strike was importantly and bravely blocked by Euan East who put his head in the way.
HT: Larne 1-1 Linfield
The Blues made a positive start to the second half, picking up where they left off following a strong end to the first half, and a spell of possession ended with Euan East unleashing a 30-yard piledriver which drew a good saving save from Larne goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson, who pushed the ball wide before springing up to pounce on the second ball.
Larne also threatened a short time later when they won a free-kick out the left following a foul from Ben Hall on Lee Bonis. Mark Randall delivered it with real pace, fizzing it to the back post area where it was met by Tomas Cosgrove at close range, though his goalward effort seemed to strike his own teammate, Cian Bolger, in front of goal.
Following another bright performance, Rhys Annett had run his race midway through the second half and was replaced by Chris McKee who continues to build up his fitness after returning from injury last week, but shortly before the substitution Annett almost got on the end of a good chance as Daniel Finlayson headed a deep Kyle McClean cross back across goal, but it was just behind the young forward.
One of Linfield’s best chances in the second half fell for Matthew Clarke who got goalside of Tomas Cosgrove in the middle to meet a brilliant cross hooked in by Kirk Millar, but the defender’s effort skidded off the turf and into the arms of Ferguson from close range. It was a difficult one to direct as the ball dropped from height, and Cosgrove did well to put some pressure on. With a bit of luck it might have went either side of the ‘keeper.
Larne passed up two great opportunities in quick succession ten to fifteen minutes before the end.
Firstly, the ball fell for Scottish striker Andrew Ryan, who was in space on the penalty spot, but he uncharacteristically fired straight at Chris Johns with a right-footed half-volley. Then, soon after, Leroy Millar crossed right-footed from the left wing, picking out Paul O’Neill who really ought to have scored, but he headed wide of the far post at the Church End.
The once-again excellent Euan East made a vital goal-saving block late on when a loose ball fell for Larne talisman Lee Bonis inside the box and he shot on the turn, with his effort likely to nestle in the net, only for East to make the brilliant block with his ankle.
The Blues almost turned one point into three right at the death. In the third minute of three additional minutes, Kirk Millar delivered a free-kick from the right and it was met by Ben Hall who headed the ball down and across goal as it bounced just inches wide of the post with Ferguson scrambling across goal.
David Healy’s men will kick off 2024 with their game in hand on Tuesday as they make the short trip to north Belfast to take on Crusaders at Seaview where a win would send the depleted Blues four points clear of Larne at the top.
FT: Larne 1-1 Linfield
Written by Jamie Megarry