Jamie Megarry’s review of 2020

Posted : 31st December 2020 at 21:40:11

2020 was a year that will go down in history due to the corona virus pandemic and that has brought challenges for us all. In this review of a crazy year, we look back at all the highs and lows in a year where Linfield fans were boosted by their Club becoming the world’s joint most successful football club, equalling Rangers Football Club’s 54 league titles.

January

The Blues started the new year and a new decade in winning fashion, as goals from Waterworth, Haughey and Lavery secured a 3-0 home league win over Institute. Three days later – just four days into 2020 – came one of, if not the biggest low of the year. Linfield were on the wrong end of a cup upset as Championship side Queens University knocked the Irish Cup’s record holders out of the prestigious trophy in the fifth round with a 2-1 scoreline at The Dub, on a day Ethan Boyle made his debut after signing from Shamrock Rovers. The response was initially a positive one from David Healy’s men who went to Solitude to beat Cliftonville 2-1 in front of the Sky Sports cameras, with Andrew Mitchell scoring a penalty on his second-last Linfield appearance and Mark Stafford bundling in what proved to be the winner. That win was followed up by a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Dungannon Swifts as Linfield continued to struggle to find consistency and momentum. A week later came an outstanding 8-1 victory over Glenavon with eight different goal scorers, before a 3-1 defeat away to Larne to round off a busy month ensured that inconsistency remained a concern for David Healy.

Towards the end of the month there was transfer activity in both directions as Larne bought midfielder Andrew Mitchell from Linfield and young striker Daniel Reynolds was loaned to Carrick Rangers for the remainder of the season. Eamon Scannell, Adam Carroll and Brandon Doyle were loaned to Warrenpoint Town for the remainder of the season. Scottish striker Rory Currie arrived on loan from Hearts. Midfielder Kyle McClean was available from early January as he returned from St. Johnstone in October but couldn’t be registered until the January window opened.

Linfield mourned the sad news of the passing of legendary defender Ken Gilliland, a star of Linfield’s immortal seven-trophy clean sweep winning team of 1962/62, and undoubtedly one of the Club’s All-Time great players having made over 400 appearances for Linfield.

Former Linfield Ladies captain Sarah Venney was bestowed with a Life Members ticket following her retirement, in recognition of Sarah’s contribution to 3 Premier League successes, 3 Irish Cups triumphs, 3 league Cup final victories and four times winner of the County Antrim FA Cup trophy.

February

After struggling to mount consistency and momentum for a couple of months, David Healy’s men went on a ruthless streak when it mattered most. It started with a 2-1 win over Dungannon Swifts at Windsor Park as Andy Waterworth – just like Linfield – hit form when it was required, as the striker netted a brace. The next game saw Linfield record a hard fought 2-1 win in Warrenpoint as Andy Waterworth notched another two goals. On Valentines Day, Linfield were in top gear again as they won 4-1 away to Ballymena United as Waterworth grabbed another goal, as did Jordan Stewart and defensive custodians Mark Haughey and Jimmy Callacher. A brilliant month on the pitch was rounded off with another emphatic win as Linfield were on their game again to defeat challengers Crusaders 4-0 at Windsor Park in a real statement of intent. Jimmy Callacher scored a brace, Stephen Fallon slotted one in and Andy Waterworth made it six goals in four games.

The end of February brought sad news as popular Linfield steward Rodney Anderson sadly passed away.

Andy Waterworth’s six goals in four matches in February won him the vote for NIFWA Player of the Month award.

March

Linfield went to Carrickfergus looking to continue their fine form and performances, and they did just that to make it five wins on the bounce. A brace from Kirk Millar gave Linfield a 2-0 win over Carrick Rangers and everyone was looking forward to an exciting title run-in. However, things took quite a turn. Prior to the game the customary pre-match handshake was aborted due to the corona virus outbreak and that was very much a warning sign of things to come. Little did we know that the match in Carrickfergus would be our last fixture of the season, which was subsequently halted early as the pandemic escalated.

The Irish FA initially announced on March 13 that all NIFL football until at least April 13 would be postponed, with everyone in local football and indeed the general public of Northern Ireland following Covid guidelines such as staying at home, social distancing, using hand sanitiser and wearing face masks. Until the situation became clearer, and with health at the forefront, Linfield decided to close the Club office and shop. A few weeks later, the IFA extended the suspension of football in Northern Ireland until April 30.

April

Linfield mourned the passing of former goalkeeper Ken Barclay on April 10 2020, aged 70. Ken was another successful Linfield player in his ten years at the Club having won two Irish League titles, an Irish Cup, a County Antrim Shield, three Ulster Cups, and the Steel and Sons Cup when he was breaking through with Linfield Swifts.

The IFA again announced the suspension of football in Northern Ireland would be extended until 31 May.

At this stage no football was being played across the world but there was some news to lift the spirit of Linfield supporters as Mark Haughey signed a one-year contract extension and Jake Corbett signed a first Pro contract after impressing for Linfield Swifts.

May

Similar to April, it was just a waiting game with no sign of football returning and again David Healy brought good news to the Linfield support as Mark Stafford, Daniel Kearns and Shayne Lavery each signed one-year contract extensions.

June

After much debate and a long process around the climax to the 2019/20 season, it was decided that the fairest way to end the season with no possibility of playing to a finish was to declare the final placings on a points-per-game basis, which meant Linfield were champions for the 54th time, having led second place Coleraine by four points after 31 matches.

Linfield also released the very popular purple and orange Umbro away kit early in June and it sold out in record time.

The transfer movement started with a number of departures. Linfield’s two Scottish loan players reached the end of their loans and returned to Scotland. Rohan Ferguson enjoyed a successful year as part of the team which narrowly missed out on the Europa League group stages on away goals and won an Irish League title, making 39 appearances in all competitions. Unfortunately for Rory Currie, he wasn’t here long before the Covid pandemic cut his loan short but did make five appearances before returning to Hearts. Rohan Ferguson has since signed for Queen Of The South, whilst Rory Currie has signed for Brechin City. Two more experienced players were also moving on as Josh Robinson rejected a contract extension before signing for Larne, whilst Chris Casement also moved on, moving to England and signing for Stowmarket Town FC. In addition, young strikers Ryan Strain and Daniel Reynolds departed before signing for Ballymena United and Ards, respectively.

July

After four months of lockdown and staying at home, Linfield’s first team were permitted to return to training on July 2. And then on July 20, Linfield finally returned to the pitch again with a 3-0 home friendly win over Bohemians. Four days later The Blues won another friendly, a 1-0 win away to Shelbourne as David Healy’s men prepared to enter a four team preliminary tournament to get into UEFA Champions League Qualifying Round 1.

On July 23, the excellent Joel Cooper was rewarded for two magnificent seasons with Linfield – which included two Irish League titles and 21 goals in 81 appearances off the wing - as Linfield agreed a deal to sell Joel to Oxford United of English League One, not standing in the player’s way to full time football across the water.

Also outgoing was popular Club Doctor, Tim Atkinson who stepped down due to increasing personal commitments and was succeeded by Patrick Noble.

August

In Linfield’s final friendly as part of their preparation for Europe, The Blues won 1-0 away to Dundalk. Linfield arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 7, one day ahead of their Champions League preliminary semi-final against Tre Fiori of San Marino. The match itself took place in Nyon and Linfield ran out 2-0 winners thanks to a thunderbolt from Bastien Hery and a debut goal for Christy Manzinga. It was a day to remember for Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew who became Linfield’s all-time record appearance maker in Europe with his 37th appearance, overtaking Noel Bailie MBE who made 36 during his remarkable career. Linfield were due to play FC Drita of Kosovo three days later with a place in the Champions League Qualifiers at stake, however the match was postponed at the eleventh hour after two positive tests for corona virus amongst the opposition squad. The Drita squad had to quarantine subsequently and this meant there was no time to play the game, therefore the Kosovans had to forfeit the game and Linfield were given a 3-0 win by UEFA. Linfield progressed as winners of the preliminary tournament and their reward was the Club’s first ever trip to Poland to take on a very strong Legia Warsaw team, days after hosting Michael O’Neill’s Stoke City at Windsor Park for a friendly which the visitors won 1-0. In Poland, The Blues put up a good fight with Mark Stafford drawing a great save from Artur Boruc in the Legia goal, and Christy Manzinga rattling the post but Legia nicked it late on after Kirk Millar’s dismissal. A fantastic and proud effort on the night, narrowly losing 1-0.

At the end of August, Linfield received the NIFL Danske Bank Premiership trophy and the players and staff received their winners’ medals during a short socially-distanced presentation.

It was another very busy month on the transfer front as Linfield fans were treated to four new signings in one day. French striker Christy Manzinga joined on a two-year contract from Motherwell, taking the number nine shirt. Also joining on a two-year contract was goalkeeper Chris Johns who signed from Coleraine. Linfield made another two very significant additions in the form of full back Conor Pepper and attacker Navid Nasseri, both making the switch from Glentoran.

There were also a number of further departures. Adam Carroll joined Warrenpoint Town on loan and Jake Corbett joined Ards on loan but is yet to kick a ball competitively as the NIFL Championship is denied ‘Elite’ status which is required by the governing bodies to permit playing. Gareth Deane went to Coleraine, initially on a short-term loan to replace Chris Johns for their Europa League Qualifiers.

Two further departures saw two very highly rated young stars head across the water. A deal was agreed for sixteen year-old Charlie Allen to join Leeds United, who had made eight appearances for Linfield’s first team and since then, despite only recently turning 17, Charlie has been featuring for Leeds’ U23s – effectively the reserves – and has earned a first Professional contract in recent weeks. Also on the move was young striker Dale Taylor. Dale came to the attention of Linfield fans when he came off the bench against Cliftonville and scored a cracking goal for the first team at just 15 years old, and he was off to Nottingham Forest, where he has also since earned a first Professional contract.

The NIFL Women’s Premiership was due to start in April, but the pandemic prevented that and it finally kicked off on August 26 behind closed doors with a shortened season of just ten matches – each team playing one another both home and away once. The Blues lost two fine players on the eve of the season as the McGuinness sisters Kirsty and Caitlin left for Sion Swifts of Strabane, but Phil Lewis’ side still started the campaign with a 2-0 win over Crusaders thanks to a brace from Casey Howe.

September

Lorcan Forde left the Club by mutual consent, two years after signing from Warrenpoint Town, and would sign for Dungannon Swifts. Caomhan McGuinness moved on loan to Queens University in the Championship, but he too has been prevented from playing competitively due to the lack of elite status. Promising young defender Trai Hume signed a two-year extension before joining his local club Ballymena United on loan. Central defender Ross Larkin and goalkeeper David Walsh also signed two-year extensions.

With a month between the Champions League qualifier against Legia Warsaw and the Europa League game against Floriana of Malta, Linfield drew 0-0 with Coleraine in a friendly which also helped the visitors in their preparation for Europe. When The Blues took on the Maltese at Windsor, David Healy described it as a ‘missed opportunity’ as his side lost 1-0 to end their European journey. Despite awaiting league fixtures, preparation for the season continued with friendly wins over Ards, Ballyclare Comrades and Dundela. The dates for the 2020/21 Irish League season were released on September 17, ahead of the October 17 kick-off.

After 53 years’ faithful voluntary service to the backroom team at Linfield, legendary stalwart Andy Kerr MBE decided to take a well-earned retirement with the best wishes of everyone at the Club. As reward, Linfield bestowed the title of Honorary team attendant on Andy, on top of his Life Membership which was previously awarded.

In September, Linfield Ladies lost 2-0 to Glentoran, followed by a 2-0 win over Cliftonville, a 7-0 win away to Derry City Ladies, before a 4-1 defeat again to Glentoran.

October

Early in October, another departure saw goalkeeper Gareth Deane make his loan switch to Coleraine a permanent one after eight years at Windsor Park. First Team coach Darren Murphy also departed the Club by mutual consent.

In one final friendly before competitive action finally returned, Linfield drew 2-2 with Ballinamallard United at New Midgley Park. The opening two rounds of the County Antrim Shield were used as a season-opener, allowing teams to build fitness ahead of the League restart on October 17. The opening round saw Linfield see off PSNI comfortably, with a 6-0 win to start the season on a night when 17 year-old Joshua Archer scored a cracking debut goal and significantly Linfield were able to welcome back a limited amount of supporters for the match. A week later Linfield defeated Carrick Rangers 2-0 away from home to book a place in the semi-final of the Shield thanks to goals from Navid Nasseri and Jordan Stewart. As well as the strong summer signings, Linfield’s opening two performances boded well for the upcoming season. The signs were positive and they bore fruit with a positive start to the League campaign. Incidentally, just four days after Linfield’s Shield win over Carrick Rangers, the two were paired again on the opening day of the Danske Bank Premiership season, only this time it was at Windsor Park. The outcome was the same as Linfield started with a win, only this time it was a 5-1 scoreline as the ever reliable talisman Andy Waterworth bagged a hat-trick, whilst Ryan McGivern and Jimmy Callacher also got on the scoresheet. A week later David Healy’s men made it two wins from two in the League with a spirited 3-2 win away to Ballymena United at The Showgrounds, with goals from Navid Nasseri, Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart. In the final League fixture of the month, Linfield withstood late pressure to grind out a 2-1 win over Crusaders at Windsor Park, Andy Waterworth scoring once again and Niall Quinn continuing his fine start to the season with a rare headed goal.

Linfield legend Billy Milllen, who was awarded Life Membership by Linfield in August, sadly passed away in Australia, just weeks after the 50th anniversary of the night the forward wrote himself into Linfield folklore with a brace in a 2-1 win over Manchester City in the European Cup Winners Cup at Windsor Park. Prior to the pandemic, it was hoped that Billy would be able to return to home shores for a 50th anniversary tribute night but sadly, it wasn’t to be.

Joel Cooper was announced as the NI Football Awards Player of the Year after 13 goals and 17 assists last season, putting himself in a unique bracket of players to have won both Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year.

Former Linfield captain Michael Gault took over as coach of Linfield Rangers (U18s) in October, although has had little time with his players to date, due to the pandemic and concomitant circumstances. Along with Michael as assistant coach is another former first team player, Chris Kingsberry.

November

The beginning of the winter saw Linfield make the trip to Inver Park to take on Larne in the semi-final of the County Antrim Shield, before losing 4-1 to the Inver Reds after Stephen Fallon’s early dismissal. David Healy’s men bounced back the following Saturday with a hard-fought 2-1 win away to Portadown. Again, it was Andy Waterworth who scored the winning goal. Kirk Millar had given Linfield the lead before Bastien Hery was dismissed but The Blues made it 12 points from a possible 12. A week later Linfield recorded their first away win at the Coleraine Showgrounds for three and a half years thanks to goals from Andy Waterworth and Jordan Stewart. The momentum continued as goals from Stephen Fallon and Shayne Lavery gave Linfield a 2-0 win over Glenavon at Windsor Park a week later to make it six wins from six. However, a few days later, Linfield dropped points for the first time in the season in a classic ‘Big Two’ derby against rivals Glentoran, with Jimmy Callacher heading a dramatic equaliser with the last action of the game to make it 3-3. The month of November ended on a real low as Linfield were beaten 2-1 away to Warrenpoint Town, which knocked The Blues off the top of the table. Number one goalkeeper Chris Johns was injured in the warm-up and that paved the way for 18 year-old David Walsh to make his debut between the sticks.

Long-serving photographer for this website, Colin McMaster deservedly received the Linfield Merit Award trophy as reward for his good work over the years. David Sales was also appointed as a Trustee on the Board of Directors.

The in-form Kirk Millar received the NIFWA Player of the Month Award for November following a blistering month of goals and assists.

Stephen Fallon was voted by fans as the Linfieldfc.com 2019/20 Player of the Year.

Linfield Ladies were drawn away to an excellent Anderlecht side in the UEFA Champions League and although it ended in a heavy 8-0 defeat, it was a great experience for the team and staff in a first class stadium against a team worthy of playing in it. Attentions had to swiftly turn back to League focus and Linfield Ladies recorded a hard-fought 3-2 win away to Cliftonville and then an ever harder-fought victory away to Crusaders with a 1-0 win. Linfield finished the month with a characteristic fightback in Strabane to draw 2-2 with Sion Swifts and it was a special moment for Alison Smyth who had recently returned from a two-and-a-half year recovery from a shocking leg break to bag the equaliser.

December

David Healy demanded a response from his players after their disappointing performance and result in Warrenpoint and he got it as his team returned to winning ways with a 2-0 win over Cliftonville with goals from Shayne Lavery and Kirk Millar. However, Linfield would taste defeat again a week later in a top of the table clash away to Larne. It ended in a 3-1 defeat despite Shayne Lavery putting Linfield ahead in the first half. In the final game of 2020, Linfield ended on a positive note with a return to winning ways. They had to be patient against a dogged Dungannon Swifts but once Andy Waterworth broke the deadlock on 66 minutes it turned into a good afternoon as Shayne Lavery added a second before Jimmy Callacher’s late double made it a four-goal victory.

Linfield Ladies finished the campaign with two home wins, beating Sion Swifts 4-2 and Derry City 4-0 to round off a transitional rebuilding reason following a number of departures of players who had contributed to four League titles on the bounce.

David Healy gave the Linfield support a great Christmas gift, in the form of Joel Cooper, with the mercurial winger returning to the Club on loan from Oxford United for the remainder of the season upon the opening of the January transfer window.

Linfield will go into 2021 two points off League leaders Larne who have a game in hand, but the signing of Joel Cooper - who is no stranger to the Linfield support – is good reason for optimism and given how good he was in his two-year spell at the Club previously, the thought of adding him to the team in the new year is an exciting prospect to look forward to.

Unfortunately, this year was massively impacted by the global Covid-19 outbreak and that affected us all in many ways, and for a lot of our Academy players that meant they hardly kicked a ball competitively this year which was no doubt a mental and physical blow to many. We can only look forward with optimism and believe that 2021 will be a much better year for us all. If anything it has reminded us that our health is our wealth and here’s to better days ahead. A very Happy New Year to the Linfield family.

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