Key moments on the road to 56 - by Jamie Megarry

Posted : 12th May 2022 at 15:17:19

It was an absorbing title race which went to the wire and with Linfield coming out on top, just a point ahead of spirited Cliftonville, it’s only natural to look back and reflect on significant moments that ensured the Blues would lift a world-record 56th title.

11/09/2021 – Portadown 2-3 Linfield – Shamrock Park

Having lost a number of experienced and successful players in the summer window, this was an opportunity for the new-look Blues to show their resolve, as they were forced to dig deep away to a spirited Portadown team. The Ports took an early lead through former Linfield player Ruairi Croskery, 12 minutes before Christy Manzinga drilled in a low equalising goal after receiving Billy Chadwick’s through ball. However, after Portadown retook the lead through Lee Bonis on the stroke of half-time, Linfield’s character was tested. David Healy made in-game changes, including the introduction of new signing Matt Green who fired in an equaliser on 67 minutes. Then, five minutes before the end, Christy Manzinga popped up with a moment of brilliance to win it for the Blues with one of the goals of the season, finding the top corner from distance. It was well received by a packed away end and it helped Linfield continue to try to build momentum early in the season.



28/09/2021 – Glentoran 0-3 Linfield – The Oval

The Blues put down an early marker with an emphatic victory against rivals Glentoran at The Oval. The in-form Christy Manzinga had scored five of Linfield’s six league goals going into the derby but a straight red card in the previous match – a goalless draw against Glenavon at Mourneview Park – meant the French forward missed out through suspension. With questions over the Blues’ firepower, in came experienced English striker Matt Green who stepped up with the opening goal on 19 minutes, following a smart turn and driven low shot. Trai Hume made it 2-0 with his first senior Linfield goal, heading in at the back post from a deep corner. Cameron Palmer put the icing on the cake when his persistence paid off as an attempted clearance hit off him and trickled over the line. It was a statement win from an unfancied Blues team that they weren’t just here to make up the numbers this season, and having been held by Coleraine and Glenavon in the two previous fixtures, it was important to return to winning ways.



25/10/2021 – Larne 1-1 Linfield – Inver Park

This was another case of Linfield showing their valuable ability to dig out results. Having avoided defeat in their opening seven league fixtures, the Blues’ unbeaten status was under threat when former player Navid Nasseri put Larne ahead on 79 minutes. However, David Healy’s decision to introduce Martin Donnelly off the bench paid dividends when the midfielder whipped in a free-kick which was headed in by the smallest player on the pitch, Jordan Stewart, in the 88th minute in front of another packed away end. It was somewhat ironic given that Nasseri and Donnelly were involved in a swap deal just two months prior. At the time it put Linfield into second, a point behind Cliftonville and again, it kept the momentum rolling.



20/11/2021 – Linfield 1-0 Cliftonville – Windsor Park

The talk amongst supporters and pundits in the lead up to this titanic Windsor Park clash was that if the Blues didn’t win, they’d be out of the title race. This came off the back of a goalless draw away to Portadown followed by a first defeat of the season, going down 2-1 to Crusaders at Seaview. Sandwiched in between those league setbacks was a 3-1 defeat away to Ballymena United in the League Cup and, as we know, three matches without a win is classed as a Linfield crisis. Typically, Linfield produced when they needed to. A number of draws plus the Seaview defeat meant had the Blues lost, they’d have been 12 points behind the Reds, albeit with a game in hand. Jordan Stewart was the hero that day when he headed in a brilliant cross from the left by Ahmed Salam early in the second half at the Railway End for what proved to be the winning goal. Linfield moved six points behind Cliftonville with a game in hand still to play.



17/12/2021 – Larne 0-1 Linfield – Inver Park

This was the first of two wins in a great week for Linfield. Significantly, it was a case of the Blues ‘getting the monkey off their back’ with a first win in five league visits since Larne’s return to the top flight in 2019. The decisive moment in the game came on the half-hour mark, when Christy Manzinga was fouled just inside the box by defender Kofi Balmer who received a red card. Chris Shields stepped up to convert the penalty which proved to be the winning goal. The win took the Blues to the top of the table that night, moving ahead of Glentoran on goal difference.



21/12/2021 – Linfield 1-0 Ballymena United – Windsor Park

Just four days after their win in Larne, Linfield picked up another important three points. There were two key and memorable moments in the match and young full-back Trai Hume – who transferred to Sunderland just weeks later – was at the heart of both. No more than 30 seconds into the second half with the game still goalless, Ballymena United attacker Paul McElroy nipped in between Linfield’s Jimmy Callacher and Chris Johns to lift the ball over the Blues ‘keeper, only for Trai Hume to deny his home-town club what looked a certain goal with a heroic goal-line block. The Northern Ireland International full-back then set up what proved to be the winner on 76 minutes, as he drove forward and slid a neat ball for Christy Manzinga running off the shoulder before the French attacker lifted the ball brilliantly over the onrushing goalkeeper. It was a time in the season when the Blues were relying on Manzinga to find the net and he was continuing to deliver.



15/01/2022 – Linfield 1-0 Ballymena United – Windsor Park
Remarkably similarly to their previous meeting just a month prior, it was another case of a Manzinga winner and another heroic goalline block, as the Blues continued to find a way to win, despite a host of players unavailable. The only goal of the match arrived after 15 minutes when Niall Quinn teed up Christy Manzinga on the edge of the box and he lashed in his 18th goal of the season. Then, in stoppage time, a remarkable piece of individual defending from Niall Quinn denied United a last-gasp equaliser. The ball fell kindly at the feet of Sky Blues defender Conor Keeley who was only a few yards out and Quinn threw himself in the way with a superb block to stop the ball going into the net. The danger wasn’t over however and when the rebound was headed back goalwards, it took equally great defensive instincts from Kirk Millar to get back and hook off the line.



25/01/2022 – Cliftonville 2-2 Linfield – Solitude

Given how the title race would unfold, this proved a very valuable point. The Blues had to dig deep and show guts once again, coming from behind twice to salvage a point. The Reds went 1-0 up after 15 minutes through Jamie McDonagh, before Matthew Clarke headed in a leveller on the hour-mark. However, Linfield were only on level terms for two minutes before McDonagh restored Cliftonville’s lead. An inspired substitution from David Healy paid dividends as Ethan Devine – on only his second appearance for the club since joining from Knockbreda a few weeks before – came on to net a precious equaliser on 84 minutes, heading in a great cross from Matthew Clarke from the left. It earned Linfield a point in a tough game, and crucially denied Cliftonville a further two points which proved greatly significant.



08/02/2022 – Linfield 2-1 Larne – Windsor Park

It was a night where Linfield had to show character and bouncebackability. Questions were being asked as the Blues went into the game off the back of consecutive defeats to Coleraine (3-0 – League) and Larne (Irish Cup – 2-0). David Healy’s men were knocked out of the Irish Cup by Larne just four days earlier but they took their chance to get immediate vengeance. Stephen Fallon put the Blues ahead in the first half with a wonderful chip over the goalkeeper. Ronan Hale equalised from close range for Larne in the second half but Christy Manzinga popped up with a vital winner, slamming in at the back post from a corner delivery on 73 minutes for an uplifting victory.



11/03/2022 – Linfield 3-2 Crusaders – Windsor Park

Once again the Blues showed why they were champions and why they would go on to win the title as David Healy’s men showed the grit and character to find a way to win an enthralling five-goal thriller. Chris McKee’s early strike was soon cancelled out by Crusaders’ Johnny McMurray, then Chris Shields restored Linfield’s lead on the brink of half-time from the penalty spot following a handball. Crusaders responded again as Ben Kennedy made it 2-2 from the penalty spot on 58 minutes. David Healy was brave and threw a number of attackers on from his bench and it paid off as Ethan Devine popped up with another hugely important goal, rising highest in the third of four additional minutes to head in from a corner and seal another massive win



26/03/2022 – Warrenpoint Town 1-2 Linfield – Milltown

This match was quite literally decided by the finest of margins. Warrenpoint Town, fighting for their lives, certainly gave the Blues a major scare and proved that you cannot take anything for granted in the Irish League. Barry Gray’s men went ahead early on through Steven Ball who headed in from a long throw-in. Jordan Stewart – who was a first half substitute, replacing the injured Eetu Vertainen – brought Linfield back on level terms with a clinical finish right at the end of the first half. The game was edgy and on 83 minutes with the score at 1-1, the title almost swung Cliftonville’s way. Warrenpoint striker Alan O’Sullivan nipped in to lob the ball over the onrushing Chris Johns, following defensive hesitancy and it looked for all the world that he’d scored. However, it just happened to be a scorching day in South Down and as a result it was a very dry, hard and bumpy pitch. Subsequently, and remarkably, the ball bounced just over the crossbar. It probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that had it happened on any other day of the year, it probably would have been a goal. To make things even more dramatic, Linfield dug out another last-gasp winner and once again it was Ethan Devine! The young forward headed in Jake Hastie’s corner in stoppage time for an incredible ending to a memorable match.



19/04/2022 – Crusaders 1-2 Linfield – Seaview

With three matches remaining and Cliftonville only one point behind Linfield in the table, the Blues simply could not afford to slip up. Thankfully, they got the job done at Seaview, a historically tough place to visit. Jimmy Callacher picked a good time to score his first league goal of the season, as he headed in Niall Quinn’s free-kick delivery from the right. Crusaders levelled at the end of the first half through Jordan Forsythe’s header at a corner. Once again, cometh the hour, cometh the man. When Linfield needed someone to step up, Ethan Devine delivered once more. Seven minutes after coming on as a substitute, Devine was found by Matthew Clarke in the box before finding the far corner with a fine left-footed strike low beyond Crusaders ‘keeper Tuffey for what proved to be another priceless winning goal.



30/04/2022 – Linfield 2-0 Coleraine – Windsor Park

It was a case of ‘all or nothing’ for Linfield on the final day of the season. Their task was clear; win and you’ll be champions. Coleraine were the opposition and they went full strength to try and build momentum going into the European Qualifying play-offs. The Blues seized the opportunity and relished the occasion in front of almost 6,000 fans to clinch a world-record 56th title success. Ben Hall netted his first goal for the club to put the Blues 1-0 up after 43 minutes with a brilliant header, and then Chris McKee settled nerves with an insurance goal just two minutes later with a great finish into the far corner after being picked out by a neat through ball by Niall Quinn. After that, the second half was a case of managing the game to see out the 2-0 win before the celebrations could truly begin



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