The last time Ballinamallard United visited Windsor Park, it was a dramatic day. Ten months on, Linfield find themselves in the same position as that day, trying to regain their title.
Linfield received a boost pre-match when Portadown lost 2-1 at Warrenpoint Town. It changed the dynamic of this game. Many had expected Linfield to be needing a win to keep in touch with Portadown, suddenly they were looking to win to leapfrog them and go top ahead of next weekend’s meeting.
With Crusaders and Cliftonville having games they would be expected to win, it only added to the importance of getting three points.
The match, resembled a training exercise at times, Attack v Defence, with Linfield doing the attacking and Ballinamallard doing the defending.
Though, Ballinamallard had some moments in Linfield’s half, winning a corner and having a shot go wide, but there was never a moment when you thought they were doing to score. Most Ballinamallard attacks were snuffed out as soon as they got over the halfway line.
Linfield had a lot of build-up play but not a lot to show for it. Most of the attacking down the right with a combination of Reece Glendinning and Kirk Millar, getting some joy, but finding that their crosses were dealt with by Ballinamallard defenders.
For most of the first-half, it just didn’t happen for Linfield, the final ball was just short. Linfield’s best chance of the half came when Aaron Burns fired over from a corner.
Despite not getting much joy trying to get through Ballinamallard’s defence, Linfield kept at it and kept passing. It could have been so easy to get frustrated and just launch the ball forward. That didn’t happen. It was noticable, it was pleasing, it was refreshing.
With Crusaders and Cliftonville both in the lead, it became even more important for Linfield to get the breakthrough.
You could see Warren Feeney getting frustrated and animated, rushing from his dugout at the South Stand to the changing rooms at the corner of Kop/North Stand, to try and make every second of half-time count.
It was 0-0 at half-time but no need to panic. The goal would come. It’s a 90 minute game and there was still 45 to go.
Some of the South Stand Moaners, relocated for a season, it felt like the world was going to end, going in 0-0 ta half-time in a game where we dominated possession and looked the most likely team to score.
There wasn’t an immediate change in tempo at the start of the second-half, but there was a goal within five minutes, when a corner hit Aaron Burns and went in.
All that passing and build-up play, and it was a set piece that just hit somebody that gives Linfield the lead.
Linfield tried to get the second but couldn’t. Ballinamallard never looked like scoring, but you can never be comfortable on a 1-0 lead.
One incident summed up the Attack v Defence nature of the game, when Jimmy Callacher stood on the ball and fell over, but managed to get up and retrieve the ball unchallenged.
The second goal that Linfield needed came on 85 minutes when a free-kick was finished by Aaron Burns, but an offside flag was raised, but the referee overruled him, and allowed the goal to stand. It was like Stephen Lowry’s goal against Institute in October all over again.
The points were secure but the game didn’t just fizzle out. Ross Glendinning made a good save from a header at a corner, before Andrew Waterworth was sent through in stoppage time.
He had the option of passing to Ivan Sproule, but that wasn’t going to happen, considering he hadn’t had his customary goal for the day. He finished and made it 3-0. It was the last meaningful kick of the game, as the final whistle blew as soon as Ballinamallard kicked-off.
Everybody, including possibly the South Stand Moaners, went home happy with Linfield top of the league. Top of the table one week short of everybody playing each other twice, and over the halfway point in the season.
Also pleasing from the game, was a clean sheet. Life is always easier if you aren’t conceding goals.
I wrote after the Glentoran game that the next 4 games presented an opportunity for 12 points to set them up for a potentially season defining run of games, and so it has proved.
Suddenly, it is now 5 wins from 6, as opposed to the 1 win from 5 it was on November 15th.
The last time Linfield went top, was in October, which was followed by a run of games against teams nearby in the table.
The fixture list brings about a similar challenge with games against Portadown (3rd – 1 point behind) and Crusaders (4th – 4 points behind)
Sandwiched between, is the Boxing Day clash against Glentoran, a game that needs no introduction.
Back in October, against Cliftonville and Crusaders, Linfield performed at times, but didn’t make it count when they did, and got punished when they didn’t.
Throughout the season, players and management have had some harsh on the job learning. It took until the second-half of the Crusaders game in October, and the starting eleven against Glenavon the following week that Linfield have found what you would describe as their best starting XI, the nucleus of which has been playing ever since, injuries permitting.
The nervousness of being a goal up late on against Glentoran was replaced by calm assurance against Ballymena three weeks later. Hopefully, Linfield will be better equipped to face top of the table clashes than they were in October.
Next Saturday is big, as it gives Linfield a chance to open up a four point lead on Portadown. It wouldn’t rule Portadown out of the title race, far from it, but it would give Linfield some breathing space from a title rival for the first time this season. With so many games in such a short space of time, who knows what the table will look like come January 4th.
Next week also, Cliftonville visit The Oval, a ground they don’t have a good record at. They failed to win in any of their four visits in their two title winning seasons.
I’m not saying I want a Glentoran win, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they got something from that game. Ideally if they do, it will be from an attritional game with a few red cards for either team.
A byproduct of that would be Glentoran turning up at Windsor Park on Boxing Day pumped up on momentum on confidence. Though, a win over Portadown would see them face a Linfield team in a similar state of mind.
All season, i’ve been saying that Linfield need an attacker and need to defend better. This game was the 6th succesive league game where they have scored at least 2 goals.
Looking at the defensive records, Linfield have only conceded one more goal than Portadown and two more than Cliftonville. Maybe we’re not as bad defensively as we think?
Just goes to show that there’s something to work with and we’re not as far off as people think.
The persuit of the Gibson Cup takes a rest on Wednesday with the draw for the 5th Round of the Irish Cu. Crossing my fingers for an away game against a lower league team, ideally at a ground i’ve never been to. My first pick would be Dundela, although I have been to Wilgar Park before.
That game woun’t be until January 10th
Let’s hope that when Linfield begin their cup campaign, they will do so as the side top of the league. A long way to go until then.