Gap at the Top cut to two as Linfield and Crues chalk up big derby wins in the Dankse Bank Premiership!!!
It’s perenially the biggest day of the Irish League calendar, and Boxing Day 2019 has once again, failed to disappoint local football fans!
Derby day saw five of the league’s traditional grudge fixtures take place with North-Coast, North Belfast and Mid-Ulster derbies,on the agenda, as well as the Big Two match-up at Windsor, and the Mourne Ultimatum at Warrenpoint.
Perhaps, fitting, then, that we begin with the anomaly at the Brandywell, where Ards drew the short straw that saw them travel the biggest distance this afternoon, and, unfortunately for Colin Nixon and co., come home with nothing to show for their Yuletide endeavours.
One goal proved good enough for Paddy McLaughlin and his Institute charges to take all three points at home – the game settled by a first-half penalty from, that man again, Michael McCrudden, who grabbed his fifteenth of the season.
Whilst another impressive victory over fellow early season contenders for relegation moves ‘Stute further clear from danger, things are beginning to look ominous for the North Down side. That stretches their winless run to eleven, having suffered their seventh successive defeat on the road up in Derry.
The big basement battle of the day came at Milltown, where Dean Watters struck at the death to salvage a draw for Warrenpoint against second-from-bottom, Newry City.
The visitors had taken a 40th minute lead through Mark McCabe before Danny Wallace struck before the break, to ensure parity at half-time. Things swung back in the favour of the visitors early in the second-half when McCabe was fouled in the penalty area by Anto Reilly. After Reilly had received his marching orders for a second yellow, it was Dale Montgomery who kept his cool from the spot to put City back into the ascendancy.
But the man advantage that Darren Mullen’s side held, vanished ten minutes from time, when Darren King suffered the same fate as Reilly and saw his yellow for the second occasion. That reinvigorated the Point, and it would be Watters who would find himself at the right place at the right time to stab home after an injury-time goalmouth scramble.
The point moves Newry five clear of Ards and the dreaded automatic trap-door to the Championship, whilst Warrenpoint are a further three points clear in ninth.
Filling tenth spot are Dungannon Swifts who themselves were to be denied a big win, in unlikely circumstances, when Stephen Donnelly grabbed a late equaliser for Glenavon at Stangmore Park.
The Lurgan Blues have lost ground to Ballymena and Linfield at the top of the table over recent weeks, but would have fancied themselves to take three points in the Mid-Ulster battle, especially when Seanan Clucas was dismissed just before half-time, leaving the Swifts to play the second forty-five a man light.
But it was the home side who took the lead against the run of-play, with twenty left on the clock, when Paul McElroy swooped to punish Glenavon’s missed chances.
Donnelly, however, ensured Gary Hamilton’s side would return up the M1 with a share of the spoils, when he smashed home from a 93rd minute corner.
As a result, Glenavon retain their third place spot, but only on goal difference from current title-holders Crusaders, who travelled the short distance to Solitude to visit North Belfast neighbours, Cliftonville. It’s been a strange old season for Stephen Baxter and the Shore Road men, having struggled to find any type of consistency as they bid to defend their crown.
But the black and red faithful won’t be worrying about that tonight, as the Crues smashed five past their fierce rivals. A David Cushley brace and a hat-trick from Paul Heatley put smiles on their otherwise suffering supporters faces, with Rory Donnelly’s 88th minute effort, providing scant consolation for the Reds.
The biggest smile this evening, may be reserved for David Healy, however. He saw his side reassert their dominance over cross-city foes Glentoran, in a classy 4-0 victory at Windsor Park.
Jimmy Callacher got the ball rolling for the Blues, converting Kirk Millar’s free-kick to give Linfield a fifteenth minute lead. And having held the advantage at the break, three goals in ten second-half minutes wrapped up the points for the home side as Jordan Stewart and Joel Cooper stretched the lead before veteran marksman Andy Waterworth got in on the act with fifteen still left to play.
The Blues boss saw his second-place side, halve the deficit on Ballymena United at the top of the table, after the Braidsmen could only manage a draw at home to Coleraine. But it was a draw David Jeffrey would have bitten your hand off for, after Ian Parkhill put the Bannsiders 3-1 to the good with twenty five minutes to play.
Coleraine, who held a 2-1 advantage at half-time thanks to goals from Stephen Lowry and James McLaughlin, which sandwiched a Cathair Friel penalty for the home side, had been reduced to ten on the hour when McLaughlin received his his second yellow card of the afternoon. And despite Andrew Burns making it 3-2 seconds after the restart from Parkhill’s strike, it looked like Rodney McAree and the Irish Cup holders would grab a morale boosting win in the North Coast. But on a day of late drama in the province, Ballymena were not to be outdone, as Jonny McMurray pounced in the final minute to ensure the league leaders impressive unbeaten run continued. The Light Blues last tasted defeat in late September – a spell of form that has catapulted them to the head of proceedings.
Jeffrey will hope his side can turn the year in top spot, and will do so, should they beat Newry at the Showgrounds on Saturday. Elsewhere, the weekend programme sees another huge clash at Solitude as Cliftonville take on Linfield, third place Glenavon host Institute at Mourneview Park, whilst Crusaders travel to the Oval to face Glentoran.
Two teams that had contrasting fortunes late on today will face each other in South Down, as Warrenpoint welcome Coleraine, while Ards will hope to turn around their wretched form around when they travel to Dungannon.