After a three week absence due to postponements, rearrangements and not being able to get out of work, I was back football watching as I headed to Windsor Park to see Linfield take on Ballymena United in the Irish League.
It was my first match at Windsor Park in four weeks. Since my last visit, significant progress has been made on the redevelopment of the stadium, with a the early stages of a link between Railway Stand and South Stand starting to take shape.
There has been rebuilding on the pitch as well in those four weeks, with Grant McCann and Glenn Belezika making their home debuts after playing at Ballinamallard in midweek.
That match at Ballinamallard, a 1-1 draw, represented two dropped points for Linfield, taking the title destiny out of their own hands. Today represented a chance to get back to winning ways as poor results and Linfield inactivity allowed Crusaders a chance to turn a four point defecit into a six point lead, albeit, having played a game more.
Once again, Linfield’s inability to keep a clean sheet cost them dear. It wasn’t much a problem in November and December when scoring 2+ every game. Inevitably, the goals would dry up, meaning Linfield would need to start grinding out 1-0 wins. Those games against Coleraine and Ballinamallard, Linfield should have been able to grind out a 1-0 win.
The defence received a boost before kick-off with the return to action of Mark Haughey. Very timely, especially with a game against Warrenpoint (he likes scoring against them) coming up soon.
Glenn Belezika got caught out from kick-off, misjudging a pass and allowing a Ballymena player to get a run at goal. The rectified the situation immediately, by winning the ball back. He had a few dodgy moments early on, but got better as the game went on.
Grant McCann partnered Jamie Mulgrew today, having partnered Stephen Lowry on Tuesday night, and showed why he had spent most of his career playing at a higher level. He kept it simple a lot of the time, and was often found starting and stopping attacks (at the right end, thankfully) during the game.
Ballymena’s defending during the League Cup Final last week was generous, and they started today in similar fashion, when a poor clearance gifted an opportunity to Peter Thompson, who fired over. It looked a bad miss watching in the stadium, but viewing the replay, I was a bit harsh, as it was a half-chance which would only be hit immediately, under pressure from a defender.
However, it was Ballymena who took the lead on 18 minutes, when a quick free-kick gave David Cushley room to shoot, albeit from long range, and he did, into the back of the net.
As good a finish as it was, it was poor to switch off defensively and allow him the opportunity to shoot.
The goal briefly woke Linfield up as they immediately went on the attack and had a succession of corners, but couldn’t do anything with it.
For the rest of the half, Linfield had a lot of possession but couldn’t make it count. There always seemed to be a block, or the ball getting stuck between the attacker’s legs, or just something.
Watching the game, you knew Ballymena weren’t going to be keeping a clean sheet today. Linfield just had to stick at it, and a reward would come their way.
Sean Ward had a chance when he fired a curling shot just wide from the edge of the box. He probably should have passed to Andrew Waterworth, but from the position he was in, you couldn’t blame him for shooting. The wait for his first Linfield goal goes on.
Just before half-time, Linfield got an equaliser, and it came from a first time scorer. It wasn’t Sean Ward though, it was Grant McCann, winning a loose ball on the edge of the penalty area and firing home. It was in the goal in a flash. It showed why he has been playing in England and for his country for most of his career.
It changed the momentum of the game, though if Linfield went in 1-0 down, you wouldn’t have been too alarmed.
Linfield finished the half strong and Andrew Waterworth headed wide from a corner. Half-time cam at a bad time with Linfield on top and looking likely to score.
The half-time whistle was blown at exactly 46 minutes on the clock. Laughable, considering the amount of timewasting Ballymena did in the half. Another game where a referee has been made a mug of by this.
Linfield began the second-half with an Andrew Waterworth goal disallowed for offside. Again, Linfield had possession but couldn’t create that goal that would give them the lead. It was one of those games where they just needed one moment of brilliance to take the lead.
That moment looked like coming when Grant McCann had a free-kick in shooting position, but his shot hit the top of the net rather than the back of it.
Eventually, Linfield took the lead on 75 minutes, when some interpassing saw Ross Clarke create a shooting position for himself, firing the ball into the back of the net.
Surprisingly, for a player involved in most of Linfield’s attacking play, it was his first goal of the season.
There was only to be one winner, as Ballymena never looked like getting an equaliser. There was a natural nervousness due to late equalisers conceded against Coleraine and Glentoran at home being a recent memory. In reality, there was no danger of this being repeated as Linfield comfortably saw the game out.
It was a big win, both in the context of recovering from three bad results and lifting the mood around the club, and the fact that three other results went in our favour, with Crusaders, Cliftonville and Portadown all drawing.
Linfield are now four points behind Crusaders and three points ahead of Portadown (with a game in hand) and eight ahead of Cliftonville.
Linfield’s next league match is at home to Cliftonville on Tuesday week. To say this is a big game is an understarement. Linfield had three chances to kill off Cliftonville last season, and didn’t. Linfield had the chance to open up a gap in October, and didn’t.
To change that trend would put a massive dent in Cliftonville’s title hopes, pull Linfield further clear of Portadown and start to breathe right down Crusaders necks.
Those ten days are a long way away, especially as Linfield have a game inbetween, in the Irish Cup against Warrenpoint. One game at a time.