After two Saturdays on the road, Linfield returned to Windsor Park hoping to rectify poor home form which has contributed to them kicking off seven points behind Crusaders. Today was the first Saturday game at Windsor Park since December 17th 2016, five weeks ago, when Ballymena united, incidentally, were the visitors to Windsor Park.
Linfield’s dramatic win that day saw them be five points behind Crusaders. Poor home results since then against Glentoran and Coleraine have seen the gap increase to seven points.
Linfield got off to a slow start, with Joe McKinney having the first shot on goal for Ballymena when his shot was saved by Roy Carroll.
Eventually, Linfield got more into the game and the pressure began to build. Aaron Burns had a head just wide from close range and he couldn’t get an opportunity to adjust his body.
That pressure was soon rewarded when Alan Blayney could only palm out a Ross Gaynor free-kick, and Stephen Lowry was first to the loose ball, creating enough space to drill the ball across, landing at Mark Stafford who guided the ball into the net via a Ballymena defender. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as his goal against Ballymena last month, but it was just as important.
Aaron Burns got a header goalwards from the next set piece, but a better execution didn’t bring a better result, as he was denied by a Ballymena defencer heading away.
The next time the ball was cleared off the line came at the other end of the pitch when Conor McCloskey was denied, before Johnny McMurray had a volley saved by Carroll, reminding Linfield that this game was far from won.
Sandwiched inbetween, Andrew Waterworth was able to pull away from Ballymena’s defence, but his low drive was saved by Alan Blayney.
Linfield went in search of a second goal that would clinch the game at the start of the second-half that would more than likely clinch the game.
Aaron Burns was played through but was on his right foot. The delay in setting himself onto this left foot allowed Jim Ervin to get a block in and deflect the ball over.
Burns was soon to get the feeling that today was not to be his day when he got in behind Ballymena’s defence, lobbed the ball over Blayney, only to see the ball hit the bar.
Linfield fans were soon feeling similar. That’s the sort of chance you rue when you drop two points.
As Linfield chased the clinching goal, David Healy turned to his bench, with Kirk Millar coming on for Stephen Fallon, while Cameron Stewart came on for Ross Gaynor.
That goal became even more essential as Linfield were soon reminded of the perils of a one goal lead when Conor McCloskey fired just wide from a good position.
Cameron Stewart’s first involvement in the game came when he got a yellow card for kicking the ball away at a free-kick. No complaints about that. However, a Ballymena player did the same thing in the first-half and wasn’t booked.
That’s the sort of consistency we all love from Irish League referees.
Finally, Linfield got the goal they needed, when Andrew Waterworth got in behind Ballymena’s defence, took his time, and then took some more time, before eventually putting the ball in the net.
Ballymena might have been able to score one, they were never going to score two. The game was won for Linfield.
The atmosphere soon reflected that around Windsor Park, as Linfield fans began to feel more relaxed.
Stewart created space for himself in the box, and decided to set up Matthew Clarke rather than going for goal himself, the shot going just wide.
It was now time for Kevin Amuneke to make his Linfield debut. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get many chances due to the level of attacking not being as intense when you lead 2-0 with less then ten minutes to go. He did get into some good positions when the ball was out wide, the delivery not quite going to him
Ballymena tried to make the final moments nervous for Linfield, with Roy Carroll once agains denying Johnny McMurray, as Linfield got a long awaited clean sheet, their first since the match against Ards on December 10th.
Sandwiched inbetween Crusaders and Cliftonville, there was always going to be a result going Linfield’s way at Seaview when the sides met.
A 1-0 win for Crusaders meant that Linfield pulled six points clear of Cliftonville but still remain seven points behind Crusaders.
However, fixtures over the coming weeks before the split (yes, it’s the time of year when we can actually start talking about the split) offer Linfield a chance to gather some winning momentum.
That’s not arrogance, Dungannon-Carrick-Portadown-Glentoran-Cliftonville-Ards-Ballinamallard is a run of games Linfield should be getting maxiumum points from going into the split.
Crusaders meanwhile, have games against Glenavon and Ballymena coming up, as well as a trip to Coleraine in March. Just a pity that game against Coleraine wasn’t sooner, given the run of form they are on.
That match against Ballymena is the week before the League Cup Final. Half assed saving themselves or highly motivated with cup final places up for grabs? Hopefully the latter.
Meanwhile, tickets for the County Antrim Shield Final went on sale, Linfield’s last home match before that game. Not sure why it needs to be ticketed when Linfield have never been ticketed at Ballymena for a League game.
Carrick Rangers have announced that Linfield’s visit there in February will be all ticket. Logically, that would suggest it will be all ticket for Linfield fans.
If it is, there are no home games for Linfield between now and then. You’d think they would have known about this and made tickets available for Linfield fans earlier, especially as Linfield’s visit there in August 2015 (at eleven days notice) was ticketed. I wasn’t at the game in September 2016 so I don’t know if that was ticketed.
Talk about making it difficult for people to attend.
Oh, and I finally got round to purchasing Every Other Saturday. Looking forward to getting stuck into this.
Up next, a trip to Dungannon, and hopefully the start of the charge.