There have been some epic battles between Cliftonville and Linfield at Solitude over the years and Wednesday night’s hard fought encounter between the top two teams in the league was another that fell into that memorable category.
Linfield came into this game missing several key regulars - goalkeeper Lauren Perry, defenders Ashley Hutton, Lauren Robson and Jennifer McDade and inspirational midfield captain Sarah Venney.
It meant a senior first team debut for 19 year old Swifts goalkeeper Jamie Lee Wilson and a first league start up front for young Casey Howe, with 4 other young Swifts players taking up roles on the bench.
The captaincy armband went to Kirsty McGuinness on a night when Linfield’s ‘oldest’ player was 25 year old Louise McFrederick.
The Linfield team lined up as follows
12 - Jamie Lee Wilson
3 - Louise McFrederick
14 - Kelsie Burrows
19 - Abbie Magee
7 - Megan Bell
9 - Rebecca Bassett
22 - Louise McDaniel
97 - Chloe McCarron
18 - Rebecca McKenna
24 - Casey Howe
11 - Kirsty McGuinness
26 - Caitlin McGuinness - replaced Casey Howe
16 - Kirsty Cameron - replaced Louise McDaniel
6 - Emma Doyle
21 - Caitlin Rae
Cliftonville started strongly, eager for the win that would reduce their 4 point deficit at the hands of their cross city rivals.
Linfield came close to scoring early on through a Megan Bell free kick and later on, through a couple of snap shots from young striker Casey Howe. The latter was also prevented from rounding the keeper by an infringement from the home keeper for which she received a yellow card in the 5th minute.
Overall, it was an opening half in which the home side were on top and they took the lead at the half way point in the first half. A long ball forward was deflected into the path of Marissa Callaghan and the Northern Ireland captain tucked the chance away to put her side in front.
The Linfield defence had a couple of lucky escapes when an effort hit a post and then the Reds’ Billie Simpson headed a corner onto the crossbar. The home team thought the ball bounced over the goal line but the referee waved away their claims and so the first half ended with Cliftonville a goal to the good.
Half time - Cliftonville 1 Linfield 0
Linfield attacked the away end at Solitude in the second half and within 2 minutes, the Blues had grabbed an equaliser.
Megan Bell drove forward from midfield and released Rebecca Bassett wide right. Bassett had the class to cut inside the Reds defender and then the composure to tuck her strike between the keeper and the post to draw Linfield level.
It was Bassett’s first goal for Linfield since her mid season signing for the club and what a time and what a game to grab such a precious and well taken goal.
Two minutes later, the same two players combined to put Linfield in front.
Megan Bell won the ball in midfield and powered forward. She again released Bassett wide right and this time Bassett fed the ball back into the path of Bell who side stepped past the last defender, before slotting the ball past Callaghan in the home goal to put Linfield 2-1 ahead. What a turn around in the first five minutes of the second half.
Gradually, Cliftonville recovered from the shock and Midway through the half they enjoyed a spell where they put the Linfield rear guard under some considerable pressure, forcing several corners but the Linfield defence, superbly marshalled by the experienced Louise McFrederick, stayed calm and held firm.
However, from a corner with 15 minutes remaining, the loose ball broke to Rachel McConnell on the edge of the box and she fired home into the roof of the net to draw Cliftonville level at 2-2.
Linfield introduced Caitlin McGuinness, sister of Kirsty, for her league debut in place of Casey Howe, another league debutante up front. With the clock running down, Kirsty Cameron replaced Louise McDaniel.
Stand in keeper Jamie Lee Wilson made a crucial intervention pushing a free kick destined for the top corner, behind for a corner kick and it looked like the fiercely competitive game would end with honours even at 2-2.
However, in the final minute the game and the pendulum in the title race swung Linfield’s way. A goalkeeping clearance was latched onto in midfield by Linfield’s Kirsty McGuinness and sensing that Callaghan was off her line, Linfield’s star striker immediately fired from distance over the head of the stranded keeper and into the back of the net, to seal a stunning, unlikely but crucially important victory in the context of the title race. It was a predatory strike from the star forward.
Before the end, a Reds defender picked up her second yellow and Linfield held firm to see out the win.
This was a gutsy, courageous, backs to the wall win, full of the traditional Linfield togetherness, pride and passion and never-say-die spirit.
There were Stand out performances in every Linfield shirt but the nomination for player of the match goes to Louise McFrederick, a calm reassuring presence in a rearranged Linfield back line.
Final score - Cliftonville 2 Linfield 3
Glentoran’s win against Derry City put them in second place and it’s now only the Oval Side who can mathematically catch Linfield.
Linfield have 4 games remaining.
Sunday - Portadown away
Wednesday - Sion Swifts away.
TBA - Glentoran away
TBA - Crusaders home
Linfield lead Glentoran by 6 points and a better goal difference of plus 14.
Linfield need 4 points to clinch the title.
Glentoran’s 3 remaining games are
Wednesday - Cliftonville home
The following Wednesday - Portadown away
TBA - Linfield home
And of course Linfield and Glentoran will face each other in the Windsor Park Irish Cup Final om Saturday September 22.