In the first part of a 3 part review of the year 2017 Linfieldfc.com reporter Jamie Megarry looks back at January - April. In his next section he will reflect on May- August before concluding the review with a look back at September - December as we prepare to bid farewell to the year that saw a welcome return of the Irish League and Irish Cup trophies to Windsor Park.
The year didn’t get off to the start Linfield were hoping for as Coleraine came to Windsor Park on January 3rd and the Bannsiders defeated the ten men of Linfield 1-0 to dent Linfield’s title challenge.
The Blues, however, bounced back as goals from Stephen Lowry and Andrew Waterworth saw Linfield overcome Glentoran at the Oval in the fifth round of the Irish Cup. David Healy’s team followed that up with league victories over Glenavon, Ballymena United and Dungannon Swifts to keep their title hopes alive.
Off the pitch, the Blues were boosted by the contract extension of star striker Waterworth. He penned a deal to keep him at the Club for a further two years.
Twice-capped Nigerian international attacker Kevin Amuneke was brought in as an amateur with a view to impressing and possibly signing professional terms further down the line, although the 30 year-old would find opportunities limited due to the team’s rich vein of form.
Roy McGivern was elected as Club chairman at the end of January, replacing the outgoing Jim Kerr who stepped down after nine years as chairman.
Linfield Rangers enjoyed Lisburn League Youth League Cup Final success, defeating Portadown Colts 6-1 to win the trophy.
The month ended on a sad note as the Club were left mourning the passing of an all-time Linfield great. Billy Simpson, who was a local boy from the Village area of South Belfast, achieved great fame as a player of great pedigree with Linfield, Glasgow Rangers and Northern Ireland. Billy sadly passed away at his home in Scotland, aged 87.
Above - Andy Waterworth celebrates his goal at the Oval in the Irish Cup.
Linfield kicked off the month of February in winning fashion, travelling to the Riverside Stadium, Drumahoe in the Irish Cup where goals from Cameron Stewart and Andy Waterworth helped Linfield progress to the Quarter Final of the Cup.
Manager David Healy then enjoyed his first taste of success as Blues boss when his team defeated Crusaders 3-1 in the County Antrim Shield final at the Ballymena Showgrounds. Goals from Cameron Stewart, Mark Stafford and Stephen Lowry on his 100th Linfield appearance helped Linfield to a 43rdCAS success.
Returning to league action, Linfield defeated Carrick Rangers the following Saturday at Taylors Avenue before being held to a 1-1 draw by Portadown at Windsor Park the following week. Many thought the Portadown result had killed off Linfield’s title hopes, but a 1-0 win away to Glentoran the following week and Crusaders dropping points in Portadown the following week meant Linfield went into March with a glimmer of hope. The gap was back to seven points between the Blues and then league leaders Crusaders.
The Blues were drawn away to Crusaders in the Irish Cup Quarter Final and a battling performance saw Linfield progress to the semi-final, thanks to goals from Stephen Lowry and Niall Quinn in front of a packed away end at Seaview. The Cup journey continued, and after the game Linfield were drawn against Dungannon Swifts with a place in the showpiece final at stake.
Next up was Cliftonville at home in the league. Linfield kept the pressure on Crusaders with a convincing 3-0 win in front of the Sky TV cameras to cut the gap back down to seven points once more. An emphatic 5-1 win over Ards followed as Andrew Waterworth netted his 100th Linfield goal, before a 2-1 win at Ballinamallard thanks to a spectacular Stephen Lowry winner in the closing moments closed the gap to four points, as title rivals Crusaders had lost at Coleraine. This was quickly shaping into a remarkable title race with five league fixtures to go.
Linfield Swifts continued their impressive season as Alan Dornan’s team won the league, adding to their Steel and Sons Cup victory with an Intermediate Cup semi-final still to come.
Off the park, Linfield honoured three of the Club’s greatest ever players. The three hospitality suites in the South Stand were named the Noel Bailie MBE suite, the Tommy Dickson suite and the Joe Bambrick suite.
Team attendant Andy Kerr MBE was also honoured at a function in Jumna St Linfield Supporters Club to celebrate 50 years great service and dedication to Linfield FC.
There was more sad news as the Club learned of the passing of popular former director, Ivan Foster MBE.
Linfield Ladies kicked off their league title defence with a 5-2 home win against Sion Swifts and a 4-0 win away to Ballymena.
Above - Stephen Lowry celebrates his goal at Seaview in the Irish Cup.
On the 1st of April Linfield travelled to Mourneview Park, Lurgan to take on Rodney McAree’s Dungannon Swifts in the Irish Cup semi-final. It was a tight contest between the teams which was decided in the last ten minutes. Roy Carroll pulled off a stunning save to deny Dungannon’s Peter McMahon in the 82nd minute, before Stephen Lowry picked up Mark Haughey’s low cross, took a touch and coolly slotted home an 89thminute to fire Linfield into the Irish Cup final.
A crunch top-of-the-table clash with Crusaders followed. Linfield knew a win would close the gap to a single point with four games to go, whereas a Crusaders win could have effectively sealed it for the Hatchetmen. Linfield came out 1-0 winners thanks to a first half strike from Aaron Burns as the race for the title heated up. Linfield academy graduate Niall Quinn made his 150th appearance for the Club in the win over Crusaders.
The Blues followed that up with impressive wins over Glenavon and Ballymena United. However, the gap remained one point with two games to go as Crusaders also won. Legendary winger Billy Murray was a welcome guest for the Glenavon game and he was awarded the Torrans Trophy award prior to the match.
The 22nd of April was a day which will live long in the memory for many Linfield supporters as the title race took a dramatic twist. Linfield were away to Coleraine while title rivals Crusaders were in Ballymena. Shortly into the second half, Coleraine took the lead against Linfield. Thankfully, it was short lived as the Blues hit top gear and hit the Bannsiders for five with one of the best performances of the season. Midway through the second half, Linfield were effectively home and dry. Therefore, all attention turned towards Ballymena. As was apparent by the roar coming from the away end in Coleraine each time Ballymena scored, Ballymena had defeated Crusaders by three goals to nil. Linfield went top of the table for the first time of the season with just one week to go. There was sheer jubilation from the Linfield support.
The Blues took a two point lead into the final day, although they knew a draw would be enough to get them over the line due to their superior goal difference. Linfield travelled to Solitude, where Cliftonville had brought in popular manager Tommy Breslin for the short term and they were expecting a reaction. It was tough, as expected, and the Reds took an early lead which, had it stayed that way, would have sent the title to Seaview. However, a second half onslaught and a masterclass in finishing from Andy Waterworth who netted a hat-trick saw Linfield crowned Champions with a 3-1 win. The Gibson Cup was on its way back to Windsor Park for the first time since 2012 and what a magnificent effort from the players, winning 20 of their last 21 matches to claw back a 10 point gap.
After the match, the Club organised a ‘homecoming’ for the team and the Gibson Cup as supporters filtered into Windsor Park to salute their heroes of 2016/17 in a hugely successful event enjoyed by players and fans.
Aaron Burns made his 250th appearance for Linfield while team mate Chris Casement made his 100th appearance for the club against Cliftonville. Talismanic goalkeeper Roy Carroll signed a one-year contract at the Club to the delight of the supporters after making a phenomenal impact in his first season.
Linfield Swifts kept their great run going with a remarkable comeback to defeat Newington 5-4 in the Intermediate Cup semi-final at Dixon Park, meaning they would take on Limavady in the final in May, whilst Linfield Rangers defeated Ballinamallard 3-0 to win the Youth Cup at Stangmore Park.
Inspirational Captain Jamie Mulgrew was named Ulster footballer of the Year, whilst Linfield striker Paul Smyth was announced as the Young Player of the Year at Belfast City Hall.
Linfield Ladies recorded a 7-0 league victory at Solitude and a 3-1 home league win against Glentoran.
To be continued