Cliftonville fell to defeat after being edged out by Linfield at Windsor Park this afternoon.
Despite getting off to the brighter start, the Reds found themselves behind when Stephen Fallon crashed in a right-footed strike, while Andy Waterworth converted a second early in the second period.
A combination of indecision, wayward finishing and referee Andrew Davey’s capricious judgement – particularly where the flashing of yellow cards were concerned – served to frustrate the visitors thereafter as Cliftonville fell to the first Danske Bank Premiership loss in two months.
The visitors should have been in front after just three minutes but, after being threaded through on goal by some smart work from Levi Ives, Jay Donnelly failed to make a telling connection with his shot, allowing Roy Carroll to get down and smother the ball.
Donnelly was in the thick of things again shortly afterwards when he was flattened by an off-the-ball charge by Robert Garrett but, with ref Davey and his assistant seemingly oblivious, play was allowed to continue and, indeed, it took until 12 minutes before action was finally taken against one of the many late challenges Cliftonville had been subject to; Waterworth’s name going into the book for a reckless challenge on Levi Ives.
Garrett escaped a caution for another poorly timed tackle and even a blatant push into the chest of Chris Curran didn’t warrant any intervention from the referee ahead of Rory Donnelly trying his luck with a half-volley that sailed wide of the target.
On 25 minutes, a poorly defended corner almost saw Cameron Stewart put Linfield in front but it wasn’t long before the hosts made the breakthrough when, with their first real foray into the danger area, Waterworth was held up by Jamie Harney and saw his shot blocked by Garry Breen, with Fallon following up with an effort that took a deflection on its way past the grasp of Brian Neeson.
Two minutes later, Garrett’s name was finally taken following a horrible lunge on Curran and, as the Reds pushed for an equaliser, Jay Donnelly delivered a cross that was just too high for Joe Gormley.
Curran and Gormley each had to settle for corners from promising positions before the half ended with yet another Garrett foul and, though the midfielder’s reaction suggested he knew his chest-high challenge on Gormley was worthy of a second booking, ref Davey once again demonstrated leniency; Rory Donnelly firing the subsequent free-kick into the defensive wall.
The second period commenced with Gormley being flattened inside a crowded box as he attempted to get on the end of Tomas Cosgrove’s cross and, having dismissed that penalty appeal, the referee further infuriated the visiting support on 54 minutes when Garrett once again escaped a card after lunging in to concede a free-kick, with Garry Breen instead booked for pointing out the obvious.
The set-piece delivery kick-started the move that led to Linfield going 2-0 up. Carroll took the ball off Breen’s head and rolled possession out to Niall Quinn, who found Jamie Mulgrew and his incisive pass set Waterworth scampering through for a cool finish.
His luck having been pushed on more than one occasion, Garrett was withdrawn by Blues boss David Healy and, though Cliftonville enjoyed the better of the play thereafter, they only really tested Carroll with a vicious Daniel Hughes drive before Josh Robinson headed just wide of his own goal.
There was, of course, still time for further refereeing controversy with Mr Davey once again taking no action when Louis Rooney caught Neeson with a high challenge – the keeper’s reaction clearly demonstrating his feelings on the matter – and, following yet another late tackle in the middle of the park, something of a melee developed and ended with Harney being booked for pushing Rooney (in a carbon-copy example of Garrett’s unpunished indiscretion against Curran earlier in the day), who was also cautioned for his role as tempers flared.
Cliftonville: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, Breen, Harney, Curran, Bagnall, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, R Donnelly. Subs: Dunne, Hughes (Gormley, 62 mins), Winchester (McGovern, 66 mins), Lavery, A Donnelly.