Linfield back in top spot as supersub Mark Stafford fires home winner against Cliftonville

Mark Stafford tucks away the game's decisive goal in a victory for Linfield over Cliftonville that sent the defending Danske Bank Premiership champions back into top spot. Pic by Pacemaker.
Mark Stafford tucks away the game's decisive goal in a victory for Linfield over Cliftonville that sent the defending Danske Bank Premiership champions back into top spot. Pic by Pacemaker.

Substitute Mark Stafford bagged the crucial winning goal to take Linfield back to the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.

David Healy’s boys bared their title teeth following one of the worst results in the club’s history, when they were dumped out of the Irish Cup by minnows Queen’s University last time out.

But in horrible wet and blustery conditions at Solitude, the Blues responded to their manager’s rally call to defeat Gibson Cup rivals Cliftonville by 2-1.

The Blues got off to the best possible start with Andy Mitchell converting from the penalty spot.

Joe Gormley had the Reds level when he was gifted the opportunity by Blues defender Ethan Boyle.

But Stafford, a half-time replacement for the injured Mark Haughey, bagged the vital winner early in the second half to take the Blues back to the summit.

The teams approached the fixture with contrasting fortunes.

McLaughlin’s Reds reeled in 12 points from their four-game festive programme, which included wins against title candidates Coleraine, Crusaders and Larne – they also clinically disposed of junior side Hanover in the Irish Cup.

Alarmingly, Healy’s team had won only twice since beating the Reds in early December – and those victories came against basement clubs Warrenpoint Town and Institute.

But the Irish Cup fifth-round defeat against Championship side Queen’s University left a huge dark cloud hovering over the current title holders – they had a big point to prove at Solitude and they didn’t disappoint.

It was the Reds who had the first sniff at goal after only three minutes.

Haughey’s error was pounced on by Conor McMenamin, but his low shot failed to trouble Rohan Ferguson.

The Blues then had a let-off on 11 minutes when Conor McDermott’s corner-kick found the head of Ruaidhri Donnelly, whose effort clipped the top of the crossbar.

But it was the visiting fans who were celebrating two minutes later. Mitchell’s corner-kick fell to Boyle on the edge of the box and his volley was clearly handled by the outstretched arm of Liam Bagnall.

Mitchell took on the spot-kick duties and he sent Richard Brush the wrong with a wickedly hit shot.

Even against the gusting wind, the Reds responded in a positive manner.

Gormley was sent racing down the right and, even though he was forced wide by Jimmy Callacher, he managed to pull the ball back across the face of the goal, which Ryan Curran just failed to turn in at the back post.

But the Reds were back on terms in controversial circumstances on 27 minutes – a goal that will give new signing Boyle nightmares.

He got himself into a horrible mix-up after having his pocket picked by the alert McMenamin. The ball broke to Gormley, who was clearly in an offside position, but referee Raymond Crangle indicated the Linfield defender got the final touch and the big striker delicately dinked the ball over the stranded Ferguson.

The Blues came roaring from the blocks after the restart and a big appeal for a spot-kick was waved away by referee Crangle after Mitchell’s cross appeared to strike the arm of Garry Breen.

Then, a Mitchell corner-kick was flicked on by Callacher only for Ruaidhri Donnelly to get back with a goal-saving header.

But the Blues were not to be denied. They regained the lead on 56 minutes through another set-piece routine.

Mitchell’s corner from the left was flicked on by Boyle at the near post for Stafford to ram home from two yards.

Linfield really should have been out of sight on 64 minutes. Breen was brushed aside by Shayne Lavery, who had a clear run at goal but his weak effort was deflected clear by Brush.

CLIFTONVILLE: Brush, McDermott, Breen, R.Curran, R.Donnelly, Foster (Maguire, 83), Bagnall (C.Curran 61), Doherty, Gormley (McCrudden, 67), McMenamin, A.Donnelly.

Subs (not used): Dunne, Ives, Harney, Wilson.

LINFIELD: Ferguson, Boyle, Callacher, Haughey (Stafford, 46), Clarke, Mulgrew, Fallon, Mitchell, Stewart (Millar, 74), Lavery, Cooper.

Subs (not used): Moore, Waterworth, Shevlin, Kearns, Hery.

REFEREE: Raymond Crangle.