As the morning wore on in East Belfast the chances of today's game going ahead looked less and less likely. However a monumental effort from volunteers, fans, board members and the fire brigade meant that NIFL agreed to postpone kick off by one hour before eventually confirming the 4pm kick off would go ahead. A sell out crowd graced the damp Oval grounds with the difficulty of the conditions clear to see. Patches of the famous grass were left muddy and bare and were sure to prove testing for the players throughout.
Glentoran named a 4-4-2 formation similar to that which had such success in last week's victory over Cliftonville. Fra McCaffrey returned to the starting line-up in place of the injured Stephen McAlorum but on a positive for The Glens, vice-captain (and captain in McAlorum's absence) Marcus Kane was passed fit to play despite being doubtful before the game. Aaron Hogg came into goals for Elliott Morris who is suffering from a back issue.
In the deteriorating conditions Glentoran flew out of the traps with Steven Gordon winning the ball off the Linfield midfield in a matter of seconds leading to loud rally cries from the home supporters. In recent years Glentoran-Linfield hasn't quite lived up to the spectacle it usually provides but the opening seconds set the tone for a rollercoaster end to end game. Glentoran continued a bright start with a Jonny Addis long throw being key to Alan Kernaghan's plans, continually delivering into dangerous areas forcing the Linfield backline under pressure.
Then the chances came pouring in. Niall Quinn cut smartly past Barry Holland who was left tumbling to the floor however Quinn's effort was blocked by Jay Magee who was relieved to see the ball deflect over for a Linfield corner. At the other end Curtis Allen hit a free kick well from 25 yards but the effort was well tipped over the bar by Linfield goalkeeper Ross Glendinning. Another Addis throw caused the biggest threat yet as Curtis Allen got on the end of a Marcus Kane flick on at the edge of the six yard box. His smashing effort struck a Linfield player and flew to safety but surely was heading goalbound if not.
The first clear cut chance of the game came soon after when Andy Waterworth played through Glentoran's defence and Jonny Addis got in a twist with the ball sticking in the muddy ground. Kirk Millar pounced for Linfield but Aaron Hogg was out quickly and bravely to block low at the Linfield forward's feet. The pressure was starting to mount on the Glentoran goal and former Glens defender (playing in midfield) Sean Ward hit a dipping effort from 30 yards out. Hogg was perhaps a little casual as the ball struck the crossbar despite the Glens' keeper seemingly unwilling to tip the ball over the bar. Glentoran hit back with another half chance, Kane linked well with McCaffrey down the left hand side who crossed to Curtis Allen whose glancing header just had too much angle on it, heading narrowly wide. Jay Magee soon after went close with a header from a Jonny Smith corner, again narrowly past the far post.
Just as Glentoran were finding their feet Linfield had a golden opportunity to take the lead. Paul Smyth crossed for Waterworth with Magee only able to deflect it up in the air. Hogg came rushing out but Waterworth's backward hook surged past him towards the goal. Magee had reacted smartly though, retreating to the goal line where he was able to head over heroically to preserve the 0-0 score.
It looked like the first half was going to end in a lively stalemate but on 41 minutes Linfield struck a sickening opener. Niall Quinn from 30 yards out didn't look like scoring as he lined up his free kick. The ball perhaps moved in the air but was straight at Aaron Hogg who let the ball squirm through his gloves. It was a poor mistake from the Glens' keeper and he was visibly upset walking off at half time but the Oval crowd roared in encouragement at Hogg; the game was far from over.
In truth Linfield dominated in large parts of the second half. Paul Smyth and Andy Waterworth were taking advantage of the sticky conditions with Linfield continually playing the ball over the Glens defence for the two lightning quick forwards to latch onto. Without Glentoran's fastest centre back Willie Garrett, Addis, Magee and Holland were struggling to keep up and the pressure of a second goal was mounting, an error from Jay Magee almost gifting the Blues the goal as Waterworth robbed his former teammate leaving him through on goal with Hogg. Hoggy responded to his earlier blemish and raced out, timing his smother to perfection and stealing from Waterworth as he attempted to go around him.
On 58 minutes Linfield doubled their lead fortuitously through Paul Smyth. Smyth broke in from the left hand side but seemed to get the ball stuck in his feet. The youngster recovered well on the by-line to cut back in field past the despairing Niall Henderson. His effort at goal though deflected off Jonny Addis past a helpless Hogg as Linfield doubled their advantage. The game looked done but Glentoran hit back immediately with their best move of the game. Marcus Kane started it with a firm pass in field to Curtis Allen who controlled and patiently waited for Kane's overlapping run before feeding the full back in the box. Kane struck hard and low and Glendinning could only parry as Jonny Smith tapped in at the back post. 2-1.
Linfield regained control as Glentoran tired and if it wasn't for smart goalkeeping by the improved Hogg Linfield would have run clear. Glentoran old boys Ward and Waterworth combined with Waterworth running clear of Magee only for Hogg to stop his effort well. Hogg then pulled off the save of the match from Niall Quinn who got on the end of Mark Haughey's pass. Quinn's effort wrong-footed Hogg but with a flailing leg he turned it to safety.
Glentoran had their golden opportunity to sneak an unlikely draw when another Jonny Addis long throw was flicked on again by Marcus Kane. Curtis Allen found space and a free header but with pace on the ball he didn't have full control on his header, heading over Glendinning's bar.
Full time- 2-1 to Linfield.
Glentoran: Hogg, Holland, Magee, Addis, Kane, McCaffery, Gordon, Henderson, McCullough, Allen, Smith
Subs: McMenamin for Henderson
Photographs by Thomas Sewell.