It may be the festive season but referee Raymond Crangle can’t expect much goodwill from Dungannon Swifts fans this Christmas.
His controversial penalty call proved decisive as Linfield kept their faint title hopes alive with this narrow but hugely important victory at Windsor Park.
Despite another battling display, Dungannon were denied by an early Peter Thompson header and that Brian McCaul spot-kick.
The goals came at crucial times in the game – Thompson scoring after 105 seconds and McCaul doubling that lead four minutes after the restart.
Dungannon did pull one back through Stefan Lavery, while Alan Blayney produced a wonder save from his own defender, but the Blues held on.
Although far from a convincing Linfield performance, it keeps them in the title race – just about – heading into a crucial period of the season.
They sit 14 points behind Cliftonville, but that gap can easily change during a make-or-break spell which sees each team play six times in four weeks.
It is a particularly important period for Dungannon, who face two of their main relegation rivals – Glenavon and Lisburn Distillery – during that run of games.
Manager Darren Murphy can take confidence from parts of this performance, albeit Swifts rarely showed the ambition and authority to suggest they could beat Linfield.
They did not help themselves by conceding a sloppy goal within two minutes of the kick-off.
A foul on the impressive Mark McAllister handed Linfield a free-kick, and Thompson was left free to direct home Michael Carvill’s delivery.
Just why Thompson was not picked up in the box will be one issue examined by Murphy.
Suddenly what was already a difficult task seemed much tougher for Dungannon, but the Blues onslaught typical of previous years never materialised.
Indeed the first half was notable by the absence of chances and goalmouth pressure.
Dungannon’s first chance came when Josh Cahoon’s cross reached Neal Gawley, however, the ball was cleared before he could take advantage.
At the other end Niall Morgan was quickly off his line to stop Carvill converting Jim Ervin’s pass while a Michael Gault volley flashed narrowly over the bar.
Murphy would have wanted Dungannon to stamp their authority on the game after the break, but a second Blues goal dealt a major blow to their hopes.
A scrap between Billy Joe Burns and Fra Brennan continued into the box, with the referee harshly penalising the visitors’ defender. McCaul calmly converted the resulting penalty.
McCaul nearly added to the scoring when he connected with Carvill’s free-kick but headed the ball straight at the ‘keeper.
Dungannon continued to battle, however, with a 25-yard Matt Hazley strike flashing narrowly wide.
And they were right back in the game when Lavery halved the deficit in the 67th minute.
The teenager, a 54th minute replacement for Johnny Topley, edged ahead of William Murphy to convert a probing cross from Gawley.
It briefly stirred Linfield back to life. McAllister, whose hold-up play and tireless work was a feature of Linfield’s performance, set up Carvill but his low shot was easily stopped.
Then Morgan pulled off a superb block to deny McCaul after he took possession on the edge of the box, turned and landed a shot on target.
Those misses could have been punished by Dungannon but for a magnificent save from Alan Blayney.
Lavery cut down the right wing and his cross was directed towards his own goal by Ervin. However, the Linfield ‘keeper made a superb stop to claw his header clear of danger.
LINFIELD: Blayney, Armstrong, Gault (Garrett, 46), Murphy, Thompson, Carvill, Burns, Ervin, Mulgrew, McCaul, McAllister
Subs not used: Lowry, Fordyce, Watson, Clarke
DGN SWIFTS: Morgan, R O’Neill, Grieve, Hazley, Fitzpatrick, Topley (S Lavery, 54), Brennan, Friars, C Lavery, Cahoon (S O’Neill, 61), Gawley
Subs not used: Harpur, Hutchinson, Glackin
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)