Jamie Megarry’s review of 2021 - Vol 1 of 4 - Jan until Mar

Posted : 1st January 2022 at 01:45:21

2021 proved to be another successful year for Linfield Football Club, with changes aplenty, on and off the pitch. It will be remembered as the year that brought a 55th league title, a 44th Irish Cup and a 25th League and Cup ‘Double’ - but perhaps we will also look back in future at 2021 as a year which had significant impact on the growth of this footballing institution, with the foundations laid down this year, including the introduction of Full Time status for the first team, the Academy Scholarship scheme and the launch of a five-year strategic plan.

January

In the midst of a global pandemic, the year started once again with matches being played in empty stadiums. Limited capacity crowds had been allowed into Irish League matches up until mid December but the NI Executive tightened restrictions going into 2021. The year started with a comeback victory in Lurgan, as Niall Quinn’s header drew Linfield level after Danny Purkis’ opener for Glenavon at Mourneview Park, before a stunning late winner from NIFWA ‘Player of the Month’ Jordan Stewart with a dipping volley from distance which proved to be the Goal of the Season.

It was then three weeks before the Blues would take to the pitch again after the NI Football League announced a three-week suspension of football, in line with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation. Upon return, Linfield showed no signs of rust as they hit Warrenpoint Town for six at Windsor Park, as Andy Waterworth scored four, alongside goals from Navid Nasseri and Jordan Stewart.

The month ended with a setback when Linfield travelled to Solitude, where they were edged out by Cliftonville in a seven-goal thriller, despite goals from Jordan Stewart, Jamie Mulgrew and Kirk Millar. One positive on the night was Joel Cooper coming off the bench to make a second Linfield debut, having signed back on loan from Oxford United, and the following day David Healy also completed the signing of Northern Ireland U21 International midfielder Cameron Palmer from Rangers FC. Three days after that, Linfield completed their third and final signing of the January transfer window, as defender Michael Newberry joined from Vikingur Olafsvik. There were also players moving on during the window, as Matthew Shevlin moved to Coleraine, Bastien Hery transferred to Bohemians, Daniel Kearns to Cliftonville, as well as loan moves for Brandon Doyle (Warrenpoint) and Eamon Scannell (Portadown). Defender Ethan Boyle also left the club, before signing for Finn Harps.

February

February was to be a busier month with six matches. It started positively as young striker Shayne Lavery kick-started his season with a hat-trick against Portadown in a 3-0 win at Windsor Park.

Then the Blues recorded a dramatic smash-and-grab 2-1 victory over Crusaders at Seaview on a day when Linfield weren’t near their best. Niall Quinn’s corner fortunately went directly into the net and Philip Lowry’s equaliser for Crusaders late on only set up the stage for Jimmy Callacher to head in a valuable winner in the second minute of injury time.

David Healy bemoaned his team’s lack of consistency over that period, as back-to-back draws followed. Shayne Lavery’s early opener away to Carrick Rangers was cancelled out late on in a 1-1 draw, before a goalless draw at home to Coleraine – a quiet affair where Chris Johns made a great save late on to make sure of a point. Then, when the derby match against Glentoran originally set for Boxing Day was eventually played, there was more disappointment, as Linfield went three games without a win as Conor McMenamin netted a late winner for the Glens.

Thankfully, Linfield returned to winning ways with a much-needed win against title challengers Larne, thanks to two goals from Shayne Lavery in a 2-1 win at Windsor Park to end the month on a high, moving six points clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.

March

March was a hectic month when Linfield’s squad depth was really tested with eight matches in the month. Ultimately, with six wins from those eight matches the Blues strengthened their title aspirations significantly. It didn’t get off to a good start, as the champions were beaten 3-1 by Glentoran at The Oval, but in hindsight that was a moment which Linfield used to kick themselves into gear.

The games were coming thick and fast and crucially, Linfield bounced back with an important 2-0 win over Cliftonville at Windsor Park. Shayne Lavery once again scored both goals, with the first coming on 72 minutes and not to be forgotten before his 93rd minute clincher, was a monumental goal-saving tackle by Mark Stafford on 86 minutes.

A 5-0 win over Warrenpoint Town at Windsor Park followed, with Jordan Stewart, Shayne Lavery, Joel Cooper, Jimmy Callacher and Andy Waterworth all getting on the scoresheet. It would have been a perfect night for Linfield, had Kyle McClean not sustained a devastating ACL injury.

The Blues continued in a rich vein of form, with Carrick Rangers heavily beaten at Windsor. Shayne Lavery continued his good form with a hat-trick. There were first Linfield goals from January signings Michael Newberry and Cameron Palmer, whilst Jordan Stewart and Kirk Millar also found the net in an emphatic 7-0 victory. It was a fitting way to mark Linfield Football Club’s 135th anniversary weekend and days later, the club revealed their strategic five-year plan.

Goals from Shayne Lavery and Joel Cooper gave Linfield a 2-0 home win over Dungannon Swifts for a fourth consecutive league victory. Three days later, the Blues were in north Belfast to take on Crusaders at Seaview and they responded well to Ross Clarke’s early thunderbolt for the Crues, as Cooper and Lavery both scored again in a 2-1 Linfield win.

Linfield’s run of five consecutive league wins came to an end on March 23 at the Ballymena Showgrounds. Central defender Conor Keeley scored twice from set-plays for David Jeffrey’s Sky Blues, including a winner with the last kick of the game to cancel out Andy Waterworth’s equalising penalty. In-form striker Shayne Lavery missed the game, as he was on International duty with the senior Northern Ireland team, playing against USA and Italy.

David Healy’s men once again bounced back with a hard-fought win to round off the month of March, as Jordan Stewart’s early goal proved decisive in a 1-0 win over Portadown at a windy Shamrock Park.

Below - Jordan Stewart nets a memorable winner at Mourneview in January

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