Continuing Jamie Megarry’s review of 2021, this third part of the feature reflects on events from July until September.
Experienced midfielder Chris Shields joined Linfield from Dundalk, upon the opening of the summer transfer window after nine years at Oriel Park where he captained Dundalk through a golden era.
A week later Shields was joined by Hull City duo Ahmed Salam and Billy Chadwick, with the two young players arriving at Windsor Park on loan from Grant McCann’s team.
A home friendly in early July against St. Mirren got Linfield ready for their return to competitive action on July 6 when they travelled to Lithuania to take on Zalgiris Vilnius in the Champions League 1st Round Qualifier. Unfortunately, the Blues were beaten 3-1 despite Christy Manzinga’s goal. Linfield had a tough task to try and overturn the deficit a week later at Windsor for the return leg and they exited the competition with a 2-1 defeat. Chris Shields scored his first goal for Linfield from the spot.
The Blues then dropped down into the newly-created UEFA Conference League in its first season of existence. After a friendly against Michael O’Neill’s Stoke City, Linfield embraced the challenge with a memorable European night as they emphatically defeated Bosnian champions FK Borac Banja Luka at Windsor Park by four goals to nil with goals from Michael Newberry, Christy Manzinga, Jamie Mulgrew and Jimmy Callacher. Despite the absence of several players and manager David Healy, Linfield put in a disciplined and organised performance in the intense heat and hostile environment to get the job done in Bosnia with a goalless draw to progress to the third qualifying round.
Linfield continued in European action in August but it would bring probably the biggest disappointment for the team. A 2-1 home defeat against Fola Esch of Luxembourg in the UEFA Conference League was disappointing, but Linfield believed they could overturn it – and any other night they would have. The Blues battered their opponents but just couldn’t put the ball in the net and ended up being eliminated, despite a remarkably one-sided game.
One final friendly followed, against Dungannon Swifts, before Linfield kicked off the defence of their title against Crusaders on August 28, as two goals from Christy Manzinga ensured a winning start to the campaign for David Healy’s men.
In the last of Linfield’s transfer activity, there was movement in both directions. On August 16 Linfield completed the signing of Martin Donnelly from Larne, whilst Navid Nasseri moved the opposite way, to Inver Park. The final arrival came on August 23 when experienced English frontman Matt Green joined the Blues after leaving Grimsby Town.
The Blues had four tough league games in September, the first of which they won to make it six points from their opening two games. Linfield had to show spirit to come from behind to beat Portadown 3-2 at Shamrock Park, courtesy of goals from Matt Green and Christy Manzinga (X2) – one of which was a superb strike to win it late on.
Coleraine possessed a formidably difficult challenge a week later at Windsor Park, as the spoils were shared. Christy Manzinga continued his great start to the season to put Linfield ahead early in the second half but it was cancelled out by an impressive late leveller from Coleraine’s Conor McKendry.
The Blues drew again the following week but it was more frustrating as Christy Manzinga saw red in a goalless draw against Glenavon at Mourneview Park. It certainly wasn’t the most memorable game of 2021.
The following Tuesday, Linfield returned to winning ways emphatically, with a 3-0 win over Glentoran in the first ‘Big Two’ derby meeting of the season. Matt Green, Trai Hume and Cameron Palmer were all on the scoresheet at The Oval.
There was also cup action as Linfield progressed past Ballyclare Comrades in the opening round of the League Cup, thanks to unanswered goals from Matt Green, Billy Chadwick and a brace from Stephen Fallon. David Healy added former Northern Ireland International George McCartney to his coaching staff.