Like last season, Linfield spent the Saturday before Christmas playing the reverse fixture of their opening game of the season, except that it was a role reversal from this time last year.
This time last season, Linfield recovered from being bottom of the league on day one to win a crunch game against Portadown to go into Christmas top of the league. Instead, it was a good start gone awry this year.
Linfield weren’t quite bottom of the league, though it did feel like it, languishing in 5th at kick-off.
Linfield started off on the front foot, with Paul Smyth and Niall Quinn going close, as well as Sean Ward getting more advanced than usual and starting attacks.
After the early flurry, not a lot happened after that. That was, until Ballymena went 1-0 up through David Cushley.
A ball played behind Linfield’s defence was cleared to the halfway line by Ross Glendinning in the full-back position which fell to David Cushley, who fired home. Sat at that side, it was in as soon as he hit it.
At the game, I felt a defender should have taken control of the situation and got the ball and leave Glendinning to come off his line, or even made themselves available for a pass.
Having viewed the TV footage, I was perhaps too harsh.
It didn’t really matter who was to blame, it was a perfect summary of Linfield’s matches since the start of November, as Ballymena took the lead with their first shot on goal, and a speculative one at that.
The goal was celebrated by Ballymena players in front of the Linfield fans. It’s reassuring to know that “The worst Linfield team of the last fifty years” (Copyright, every non Linfield fan on the internet) are still seen as a career highlight to score against.
Soon after, an Alan Blayney headed clearance offered Paul Smyth the chance to do something similar from a closer range, but his effort went over the bar.
Naturally, we were treated to very little football after that and lots of timewasting, Ballymena players kicking the ball away up the pitch whenever Linfield had a free-kick, paying tribute to Mwepu Ilunga doing so against Brazil in the 1974 World Cup, antics I haven’t seen since I spent my lunchtimes having a kickabout in the school playground.
Half-time couldn’t come quick enough for Linfield in the aftermath of going 1-0 down, such was the downturn in performance.
A recurring theme of the first-half was quick free-kicks going astray and becoming wasted. Passes in open play weren’t much better.
Linfield came out for the second-half and were slightly better, but Ballymena saw out the early flurry.
On the hour, Linfield got the equaliser when Sean Ward was put through on goal. All he had to do was lift the ball over Blayney. He did, and Linfield were level.
Niall Quinn and Jimmy Callacher went close as Linfield chased the goal that would put them in front. Andrew Waterworth was barging his way goalwards but not getting the chance to get a clear strike on goal.
Eventually, Linfield got their second goal when a cross from Quinn came to Paul Smyth, who neither shot or crossed when he touched the ball, but the ball bounced for Andrew Waterworth to fire home first time.
Finally, a lucky bounce fell Linfield’s way.
Despite there being only one goal in it, there was no way back for Ballymena. Their only effort on goal was Cushley’s speculative shot for their goal. They had a few corners but they were easily cleared.
Guy Bates came on as a late sub and managed to pack a lot into his brief appearance, smashing home in injury time to make sure of the points.
Players and fans celebrated together at the final whistle, as one win in six has turned into four games unbeaten in the space of a week. Things can change very quickly in football.
Linfield’s run of four successive defeats coincided with Crusaders, Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glenavon hitting top form, making the run of results even worse.
Barring Crusaders, all of the teams above Linfield dropped points this weekend, meaning Linfield are now up to 3rd, just three points (albeit with a game more played) behind Cliftonville.
Up next, is Boxing Day. Never mind keeping up the recent run in the fixture, three points are a must if European football is to be secured for next season.
It would be nice to end 2015 on a high. A year that saw Linfield lose the title, a stand, and a manager. That was a bit careless.
I didn’t blog about it last week as I was still digesting it, but the Euro 2016 draw was a bit, well, underwhelming. Well, for me at least.
As i’ll be based in Paris, I now face a six hour train journey to see Northern Ireland’s opening match against Poland.
And the match I have a ticket for is Republic of Ireland v Sweden. At least i’ll get to see Zlatan in the flesh.
I’m going to apply for the Northern Ireland match, but the relatively low allocation makes it tight if i’ll get one.
If I don’t, i’ll try the ticket exchange for the match i’ve got.
If I do get a ticket for Northern Ireland v Poland, i’ll try to swap the ticket for the other match for Albania v Switzerland in Nice on Saturday 10th, and spend a bit more time in Nice on the Monday.
There’s still a lot of football watching before then, starting with The Oval next Saturday.
I know what I want for Christmas, and i’m prepared to wait until 4.45pm on Boxing Day for it. Oh, and a shiny cup for Linfield in May, even though the Gibson one is a bit ambitious. Oh, and a Binlid in January. Well, it’s up for grabs, might as well.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading my football blogs in 2015, have a great Christmas. Except if you support Glentoran, in which case I hope your Christmas is ruined by your team getting stuffed on the 26th.
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