Linfield began their attempt to win the Irish Cup for the first time in four years, with a home tie against the side that eliminated them in 2014, Ballymena United. It was the first of three games between the sides in January.
The yoof of today were spoilt by winning the trophy six times in seven years under David Jeffrey. When I turned 18, Linfield had only won the trophy twice in my lifetime.
Linfield’s first attack saw Jamie Mulgrew taken down as he ran towards Ballymena’s goal at the Railway End, and then the ball just hoofed towards The Kop by a Ballymena player before Linfield could take the free-kick. Ballymena’s Mission Statement was clear to see, they were carrying on where they left off in the league meeting last month..
Linfield started well, mostly camped in Ballymena’s half. Their first real chance came when Chris Hegarty, in for the suspended Mark Stafford, hit the woodwork with a right foot effort from a corner.
Hegarty not quite as deadly with his feet as he was with his head when Ballymena came to Windsor Park in October last season.
Matthew Clarke was then played through by Niall Quinn but he fired straight at Alan Blayney, when going across him would surely have resulted in a goal.
Johnny Taylor then got booked, then spent the rest of the game managing to avoid being booked, despite committing a lot of fouls that were deserving of him being booked.
An off the ball with Paul Smyth, where he was squaring up to his opponent, could and possibly should have been a second yellow for him. Luckily for him, there was no 4th official today, as the incident took place right in front of the Technical Areas.
Linfield searched for the opening goal, and next had opportunities when Andrew Waterworth had a shot saved, and Paul Smyth’s shot across goal was deflected out for a corner by Jim Ervin.
At the start of the second-half, Linfield went in front straight away, when Matthew Clarke broke down the left and played it across goal, which hit a Ballymena player and landed straight to Andrew Waterworth, who fired home.
Logically, that would be the end of the game as a contest. Well, not quite. Ballymena were able to equalise on 62 minutes when a corner was cleared, then not cleared again, and again, before Gary Thompson headed home a few seconds after Niall Quinn almost put the ball into his own net.
Ballymena were suddenly in the game, after Linfield were looking likely to kill it off, after a couple of crosses that just couldn’t quite find a blue shirt, Mark Haughey missing a chance by having too much time, and nobody being there to react when Alan Blayney surprisingly dropped a cross, the only one he dropped all day.
The game had swung to the point where Linfield fans were more than happy to take extra-time.
Paul Smyth fired a shot wide as Linfield were struggling to get out of their own half. Kirk Millar was forced into blocking a Nathan Hanley shot when a goal looked certain, and Jimmy Callacher clearing a shot off the line.
With the possibility of extra-time, Linfield held off with their substitutions. The first of which, was Ross Gaynor, making his debut after joining from Cork City last month.
Linfield had one last chance when a dangerous cross was turned out for a corner. This was going to be the last chance to win the game, but Linfield took so long to take it, the referee blew for full-time.
In a bygone age, we would have all been looking forward to a Tuesday night trip to Ballymena, but not now, with ties being played to a finish. So, we were all set for extra-time.
Guy Bates came on as a substitute for Andrew Waterworth, and was immediately in the thick of the action, seeing a close range shot saved by Blayney when he perhaps should have scored, and then creating space on the edge of the box and having his shot saved by Blayney.
The game then took a dramatic turn when Paul Smyth was sent-off for a second bookable offence.
It didn’t have that dramatic change on Linfield, as Mulgrew and Millar continued to support the front man. It was still a big loss.
Ballymena thought they were going into the lead when Glendinning saved a shot but the rebound was loose in the penalty area, only for Jimmy Callacher to be alert to the danger.
From the moment Ballymena equalised, you had the feeling this game was going to be 2-1 to somebody if there was to be an outright winner.
It was Linfield who got the goal, when Kirk Millar broke down the right wing and got himself free. The crowd were crying for him to pass it to Reece Glendinning, a substitute for the injured Chris Hegarty, who had broken free into the box.
Supporters around me groaned as he opted for the cross. The wrong decision, they cried. Football is such an easy game in the stand.
Except, it turned out to be the right decision, as Guy Bates got space in the box to head home.
Ballymena were deflated and never looked like getting another equaliser. The only thing a Ballymena player managed to hit was Ross Gaynor, with Johnny Taylor seeing a straight red for violent conduct towards him.
It might have taken 118 minutes, but we got the answer to the question we were looking for. The question being, what does Johnny Taylor have to do to get sent-off?
As he left the pitch, he greeted the fans in the North Stand to what is universally known as “The Wanker Sign”. He’ll have plenty of time to greet the fans in the North Stand that way again on Tuesday night from his seat in the Railway Stand, rather than being out on the pitch.
The win set up a home tie against Armagh City in the next round. Without sounding arrogant, that’s a game that Linfield should win. I would have been more excited by the draw if it was away. My only previous visit to Holm Park was in 2006 to see Linfield win the league.
Depending on how the building work goes, that could be the first game that Linfield fans get to use the South Stand.
A sunny day at Windsor Park in May is still a long way away. I know last season’s final was played in torrential rainfall, but that’s because it was at The Oval.
Not as far away is the County Antrim Shield Final, on Tuesday night. Pointless competition, but we’re in the final, so we might as well go out and try to win it.
It would be a good platform to have for the final months of the season.