For the final time in 2014, Linfield were on the road. The destination was Ballymena. With the vital Christmas period coming up, a win was essential for Linfield, with Cliftonville having a tricky game at Coleraine and Crusaders going up against Portadown.
It might sound strange, but Linfield didn’t make that good a start. There were long balls played hopefully up, going straight to Ballymena’s keeper, or giving possession away in an outfield position. Ballymena had some attacks where Linfield didn’t look too comfortable.
However, it was Linfield who took the lead with the first real bit of quality in the game, as Andrew Waterworth broke down the left and pulled the ball back. It was just behind Sammy Morrow, but Stephen Lowry was there to fire home.
Within minutes, it was 2-0, again coming from the left, as Aaron Burns crossed and Sammy Morrow finished. No doubt, the two ex Coleraine players enjoyed that.
Having lost 7-0 last weekend, and 2-0 down so early on, it looked like Ballymena were going to be on the end of another thrashing.
Linfield dominated but couldn’t get a third goal that would have killed the game. In fact, it was Ballymena who got the next goal when Allan Jenkins ran behind Linfield’s defence to finish and make it 2-1.
Thankfully, Linfield dusted themselves down and just got on with it, and tried to make it 3-1.
Andrew Waterworth had two goals disallowed before getting the goal he craved with less than ten minutes remaining of the half when he got a slight touch to an Aaron Burns cross. The cross was so good, all it needed was a slight touch to divert it into the net.
The goal changed the dynamic of the half-time teamtalks. Ballymena looked like they were going to spend 15 minutes working out how to get an equaliser, now they were going to spend 15 minutes trying to launch a fightback.
In the previous meeting at Windsor Park in October, Linfield led 3-1 at half-time, before conceding and then having to hang on in what turned out to be a nervous afternoon. We were all dreading a repeat of it.
It was an afternoon which saw some players make their first appearance in a while – Kirk Millar, Reece Glendinning (substitute for the injured Mark Haughey) and Warren Feeney.
With a packed fixture list coming up, especially with games on 1st and 3rd of January, the full squad will have to ready for action.
Linfield tried to get a 4th goal that would have secured the points but were unable to, but Ballymena never really looked like scoring in open play. Unfortunately, they got one from a dead ball situation, when awarded a penalty for handball …… at the second time of asking after the referee ruled that Matthew Tipton could retake his kick after encroachment.
Like with Ballymena’s first goal, Linfield dusted themselves off and tried to restore their two goal lead. Warren Feeney had a low shot saved by Stuart Addis.
Again, Ballymena didn’t look like scoring in open play. All Linfield needed to do was keep their heads.
As the minutes wore on, there was no repeat of the scenes against Glentoran a few weeks earlier, taking it to the corner flag with five minutes to go.
There was one final scare, in injury time, when Ballymena had a free-kick within shooting range. As the free-kick was set up, i’d resigned myself to a 3-3 draw.
Ross Glendinning tipped the ball over. From the resulting corner, Aaron Burns had to head clear off the goal line and away. Linfield’s fans sang songs of victory. They knew their team would have enough about them to see the game out. They were.
It would have been nice to have had the game wrapped up earlier, but we got the three points, something neither Cliftonville or Portadown managed at Ballymena this season.
As scores from around the country filtered through, Linfield remained two points off the top, but significantly, moved up one position, one point about Cliftonville, and now six clear of Crusaders.
It would have been nice if Portadown had dropped points on Saturday, but seeing Crusaders fall further behind wasn’t too bad, as the traffic jam at the top of the league looks set to become a three team race.
It seems strange for a team that desperately needs a striker, Linfield have scored at least two goals in each of their last six league games. We’ve had to. The lack of clean sheets remains a concern.
I’d remarked after the Glentoran game that the run of four games upcoming must bring four wins to set things up for the potentially season defining Christmas/New Year games against Portadown, Glentoran and Crusaders.
The first three of those have brought three wins, meaning Linfield know that wins in the next two games will see them lead the table at Christmas.
This weekend at home to Ballinamallard is especially important, as you’d expect wins for Cliftonville (home v Institute), Portadown (away v Warrenpoint) and Crusaders (away v Ballymena)
With Portadown playing on Friday night, it’s more than likely Linfield will be five points behind at kick-off, making Saturday a must-win game.
They’re all must-win games. It’s what makes watching Linfield so much fun.