David Jeffrey made his first return to Windsor Park as an opposition manager, and Linfield paid tribute by getting a dramatic late winner that would have made him smile during his 17 years in charge.
There wasn’t many chances in the opening moments of the game. Andrew Waterworth stretched to get on the end of a cross, but couldn’t get the direction to put the ball in the net, the ball going over, while a Kirk Millar cross went agonisingly across the penalty area. Ballymena’s best attacking moment came when Roy Carroll had to rush out of his penalty area to stop a through ball becoming dangerous for Linfield.
Like Andrew Waterworth, Niall Quinn got a foot on a cross but couldn’t direct it in, the ball again going over.
In the final minutes of the first-half, Waterworth had the ball in the net after a Sean Ward pass but it was ruled offside. I haven’t seen TV footage of it yet, but it didn’t look offside from where I was.
A score of 0-0 was bad enough for Linfield fans, but they were treated to the worst case of the continued deterioration of the music on the tannoy at Windsor Park. I was looking out for someone to sort me out for some Es and some glow sticks, that’s how bad the music was.
The second-half still had the same lack of urgency from Linfield, though it wouldn’t be long until a goal, when Jimmy Callacher headed home from a free-kick, his third goal in two games.
Linfield couldn’t build on this advantage, with players having a lack of options on the ball, too often taking the easy option or being forced to play it backwards.
In short, Linfield had a lot of the ball but were not doing a lot with it.
Roy Carroll was forced into a save from a header, while Cahir Friel fired just wide from outside the box.
A reminder, if it was needed, that Linfield had not yet won this match.
One way Linfield were trying to wrap up the game was by getting Jamie Mulgrew on the ball, to run at Ballymena’s defence and trying to make things happen.
You could say it was Classic Mulgrew. Unfortunately, that meant he was usually fouled within five seconds of getting the ball. A lack of yellow cards only encouraged Ballymena with their tactical fouling.
Linfield sent on Aaron Burns from the bench to try and clinch the game. His first touch was to flick on for Stephen Lowry to run on to. Lowry made contact with the ball, unfortunately so did Alan Blayney, getting his body in the way to make a save.
Burns then had a shot saved in the penalty area, from the rebound of an Andrew Waterworth shot that was blocked from close range.
The one positive for Linfield was that Ballymena didn’t look like scoring in open play.
Unfortunately, the referee gave Ballymena a penalty on 87 minutes when Niall Quinn was judged to have handled the ball after a shot came at him from close range. A soft penalty, made even worse when you see the one Carrick didn’t get for a similar incident. Irish League referees never one for consistency.
Naturally, Tony Kane made it 1-1.
Linfield seemed stunned, and unable to raise themselves to win the game again.
However, in injury time, an Aaron Burns cross was headed in by Mark Stafford. The South Stand had it’s first LimbsAOTS moment. A lesson that if you take a chance and get the ball into the box, and take a chance by making a run, you will get rewarded.
There were two more lessons as well.
If you act the big lad running to the opposition fans after scoring, don’t concede an injury time winner, You’ll just look stupid.
If you boot the ball into an empty stand when the game is stopped for an offside decision, don’t complain if there is enough added time for the opposition to score.
New manager, same old Ballymena.
With Crusaders and Cliftonville winning, it was an understatement to say that Linfield needed to win as well.
It sets things up nicely for next Monday and a match so big it gets introduced as “The small matter …….” by the media. The small matter of Boxing Day.
With Cliftonville facing Crusaders, it means that if Linfield win, they’ll either get closer to Crusaders or pull away from Cliftonville. Or possibly both if it ends a draw.
No point worrying about the Half Scarf Derby, all that matters is that Linfield do the business, just as they did today. Just about.
Where Linfield are “Lucky”, Crusaders are labelled “Resilient”.
You may remember that I critcised the club for inconvenient arrangements for selling tickets. I think it’s only fair to congratulate them on having extended opening hours last Thursday for supporters to get tickets.
There is no first team match next Saturday, but the Swifts have the Steel and Sons Cup Final against Dundela. I was always planning to go this year as it was on Christmas Eve (won’t happen again until 2022, calendar fans) and Linfield being in it is a nice bonus.
Getting out of bed for a 10.45am kick-off will be fun after a week off (Sorry for the humblebrag that my Christmas Holidays began at 4pm yesterday)
Talking of Cup Finals, Ballymena United and Carrick Rangers will face each other in the League Cup Final in February at an as yet undecided venue. Tempted to go to this as a neutral. Well, in the Carrick end.
I am a sort of good luck charm for them, having attended the 2014 Steel and Sons Cup Final and the penultimate game of their 2014-2015 promotion season.
Over the next week, it is anticipated the 2017 League Of Ireland fixture list will be published, allowing me the opportunity to look at possible games to go to when the Irish League is in pre-season.
Already planning my football watching in 2017, there’s still three games for me to go to in 2016. Hopefully it brings six points and a trophy.