Thursday, December 27, 2007

Brilliant Whites, Fading Blues?

'Twas a windy Wednesday at the Oval office in East Belfast when the protagonists took to the field for another instalment of the Big Two Derby. But this was to be different, this is Big Two in the 21st Century, even if the setting did not reflect same. Satellite television technology was beaming this game - for the first time ever - live into millions of warm comfy sitting rooms across the British Isles and beyond.

All the more kudos then to the hardy souls who levered their backsides from warm barstools and armchairs to roar on the sides. within three minutes of Adrian McCourt's opening bars, Glenn Ferguson had alerted Elliot Morris to his threat as the wind-assisted Blues took the contest to their hosts. Undaunted the Glens retaliated through David scullion, but the midfielder scuffed at his excellent opportunity.

We were still inside the opening ten minutes when Ferguson again threatened- this time he was blown up for a foul as he forced his way in to meet Jamie Mulgrew's centre. There was scarcely time to draw anything before the oldest man on the field - match official aside - was hogging the close-ups again. Oran Kearney was the creator from his perch on the Blues' left-hand side; his clever pull-back was found by the inrushing striker, whose drive was blocked. Some seconds of panic ensued in the hearts of Glenmen worldwide before the ball was hacked away for the relative safety of a corner kick; it turned out to be one of those fruitless ones.

The dizzying openness of the game continued unchecked; Gary Hamilton was about to announce his intentions for the evening. It was a defining statement - Noel Bailie's reluctance to engage the striker in anything resembling a challenge must have unnerved all Blues brothers. The learned defender reversed, and reversed, and back pedalled until Hamilton was left with no option but to strike for goal. Fortunately, Alan Mannus was equal to the task. The ball stubbornly refused to depart the linfield penalty area; Bailie finally intervened, unconvincingly, as he hacked the ball upwards but not away. Another fruitless corner ensued - Baile redeemed his earlier efforts with a crucial intervention which set his side off on the break.

From the corner which resulted, Elliot Morris failed to cover himself in glory, but his teammates bailed him out. Then as the 20th minute approached the first gaping chance of the game presented itself for conversion. It was Philip Carson's ball that set Gary Hamilton into motion; again the former Blackburn Rovers man was afforded an excess of time and space. He waited patiently for a white shirt to arrive into the sparsely populated lands on the right-hand side of Alan Mannus' box - Kyle Neill obliged, and the delivery was perfection. Neill's attempt was not forgettable and not nearly on target - it was to be the first of four fine chances for the left-footer.

The game continued in a harem-scarem fashion with little time afforded the midfielders for purposes of creativity or garnish. A speculative long throw into the hosts' box extracted a soft corner kick from Paul Leeman - the Glentoran backline was looking brittle and disorganised. It seemed that if they were to take anything from this game then they would most definitely have to score - for it seemed a certainty that they would concede. The scrappy midfield exchanges continued as the half hour marker came and went. Gary Hamilton continued to offer the best chance of a goal. A long punt from Mannus brought Peter Thompson and Elliot Morris into collision - both recovered.

Gary Hamilton again offered Kyle Neill the chance to open the scoring - frustatingly for Neill the ball refused to cooperate with his intentions and combined with Mark Dickson's attentions, were enough to snuff out the danger. When Daryl Fordyce fed Hamilton out on the left, the striker crossed into a dangerous channel. Strike partner Michael Halliday looked set to meet the ball - it didn't happen and the ball flew threateningly across the goal to safety. The final threat of the opening forty-five came from Ferguson's driven free kick; it was too high and Glentoran's wind-assisted half was ended.

DJ withdrew Dickson at the break; the introduction of Paul McAreavey offered the hope of some better football during the second half. The Neill/Hamilton axis combined again. This time the latter drew the cover towards him on the right as Neill raced unchaperoned into the central area. Fed perfectly, he refused the offer of a right foot strike; this delay proved decisive as the ball was uncooperative when it camed to the left footed alternative. Again, Linfield struggled to deal with the movement of the duo; again Glentoran failed to capitalise.

Next it was David Scullion who burst through onto Neill's ball - Pat McShane earned his sterling to thwart the former Dungannon Swifts man. for the third time in the opening ten minutes of the second half Glentoran threatened - Kyle Neill's deadball delivery had the opposition defence at fives and sixes before Bailie nullified the danger. then events took a familiar turn for the worse for Glentoran fans. After years of disappointing Boxing Days the injury to Elliot Morris offered little hope of an improvement to that record.

Whether it was a dead leg or a tight hamstring, signs were he wouldn't be continuing. When Paul McAreavey lined up a free kick before the ailing 'keeper the air hung heavy with portent. Thompson met the ball superbly, Morris reacted superbly - it remained scoreless as the hour mark passed.

Alan McDonald's side were making light of the adversities of the elements; the Blues were spurning the advantage offered them. Neill delivered another fre from the right, dropping it dangerously close to Mannus' goal. Colin Nixon followed the trajectory of the ball closely enough to arrive underneath it at the perfect moment. Muscling his way into primacy, he met the dropping ball on the volley, leaving Mannus rooted. The ball flew towards goal. 1-0. No. The woodwork took the brunt of the impact and the ball sat-navved it's way into the arms of the still immobile Mannus.

The anticipated retaliation from the Blues never emanated. Damien Curran made a rare appearance in lieu of Kearney; the hosts continued to exert pressure. Still, their slack defending offered hope to Bluemen. Their were sixty six minutes on the clock when Neill popped up in an unlikely position on the right side of the Glens' attack. Forced into crossing on his right foot, the ball stood up beautifully for Michael Halliday. Ball. Head. Net.1-0 to the Glens.

Once the euphoria had not died down, Linfield responded well initially, through Thompson. That early optimism soon evaporated for their fans though as their heroes soon settled back into their lacklustre comfort zone. Sloppy work from Stephen Douglas heralded the visitors return to the average; he recoverd his error to cut out he immediate danger, the ping-pong nature of the pressure ended with the ball in the arms of Mannus. Then Ferguson, drawing on all of his guile, extracted a free kick from Sean Ward. From the placed ball Michael Halliday appeared to handle - most importantly not in the eyes of the referee - a couple of corners resulted but came to nowt. McAreavey met a free with his head but was wide.

Meanwhile, goalscorer Halliday was perpetual motion personified. Not for the first time, Bailie was made to look human - his error allowed Neill in with just the 'keeper to beat. Not for the first time, Neill's finish was disappointing, especially so if you are a Glens fan. Glentoran were exuding confidence now, passing the ball well as the Blues faded. To their credit, Linfield mustered one last rally - it was not to be however.

The whistle sounded, the Whites celebrated. The monkey was cast aside. Gusto - too much gusto for a game which produced nothing more for the victors than three points in a title race. A sign of blinkered ambition? DJ's post-match benevolence suggested that he could see the bigger picture, his side were still in touch and in line for a royal roasting from the big man.

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