Matchday 33 is one of the milestone points in the Irish League season. Everybody has played each other three times, and now top and bottom are ready to breakaway, as the final five games of the season approach.
For Linfield, the fixture computer dealt them a repeat of the opening day of the season, an away trip to Ballinamallard.
As well as the fixture being the same as the opening day of the season, we even got August weather. The picnic area at Ferney Park would have been perfect if it had a view of the pitch, although the fact it didn’t would have been definite plus point in the opening 45 minutes.
It wasn’t a day for picnics and sunbathing in the Fermanagh sunshine, it was a day for three points. Vital at any time of the season, especially at this time of year.
Linfield began the game on the attack, Paul Smyth causing problems for Ballinamallard. When Ballinamallard had their first attack, they were more effective, with Ryan Mayse forcing Gareth Deane into a save. Dean was deputising for Roy Carroll, who has been called-up to the Northern Ireland squad for the match against Norway. Shane McGinty also forced him into a save, as Ballinamallard set about reminding Linfield that this was not going to be a stroll in the sunshine for them.
Kirk Millar had Linfield’s first attempt on goal, but his volley from inside the penalty area went over.
Linfield fans went into panic when Gareth Deane went walkabout, losing possession to Ryan Mayse in the left back position, his goalward shot only hitting the side netting.
Jimmt Callacher had a header saved as Linfield looked to find an end product that their pressure and possession had so far failed to provide.
Ballinamallard took the lead when Ryan Curran got enough space to fire a shot past Dean from just outside the penalty area. It had been coming. It was the first time that Ballinamallard had ever led Linfield at Ferney PArk. What a time for it to happen, at both ends of the table.
Linfield responded. They had to. Andrew Waterworth broke into the penalty area and had his shot saved. Mark Haughey had a penalty appeal turned down, before heading over.
Niall Quinn was next to have a header over as Linfield started to play, thirty minutes later than they should have. He was then followed by Kirk Millar. Both should have forced the keeper into a save.
A careless pass set up Ryan Mayse to have another shot. Ballinamallard were making the most of the ball when they attacked, Linfield weren’t. Linfield were relieved to go in at half-time only 1-0 down.
As the left the pitch, news emerged that Crusaders were trailing 1-0 at Coleraine.
It brought back memories of April 1999 (Glentoran 1-1 Cliftonville, Linfield 1-1 Coelraine) and April 2009 (Glentoran 3-3 Lisburn Distillery, Linfield 2-2 Cliftonville), when Linfield had been chasing Glentoran for most of those seasons, waiting for them to slip up, and when they did, being unable to take advantage.
Linfield fans had been marking this game in the fixture list as a potential Crusaders slip-up, and when it came, their side wasn’t taking advantage of it.
David Healy turned to his bench at half-time, bringing on Aaron Burns for Paul Smyth. A bit surprising that Smyth left the field, though it was later revealed by Stephen Lowry that he was feeling ill at half-time.
It was no surprise that Burns would be brought on, perhaps a bit earlier than some would have expected.
The second-half had a flurry of Linfield pressure, the ball was mostly in Ballinamallard’s half.
Linfield got their reward when Andrew Waterworth chased down a through ball and managed to get a cross from the byline, missed by a Ballinamallard defender and fell perfectly for Aaron Burns to finish from close range.
Waterworth giving a lesson as to why you should always chase a “lost cause” and that, if you do, you make your own luck.
Waterworth had a flick saved while Niall Quinn had an effort cleared off the line, as Linfield chased the lead.
David Healy again turned to his bench, bringing on Josh Carson for Kirk Millar. Not that surprising to see Carson come on, I thought it would be for Niall Quinn.
With ten minutes to go, there was almost a dramatic winner …… for Ballinamallard. Mark Stafford left a kick upfield for Gareth Deane, unaware that Jason McCartney was behind him. There might have been twenty-two players on the pitch and hundreds in attendance, but now, there was only two people in Ferney Park, Jason McCartney and Gareth Deane.
Time stood still. McCartney lobbed Deane, but the ball hit the bar. Linfield fans were relieved to see the ball go over.
The incident only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity for both sets of fans.
The game was now at the “goal the winner stage”. If Ballinamallard had scored, there would surely have been no way back for Linfield.
It was surely going to be Linfield day now. There was no way a team could survive a moment like that and not come away with three points.
With just six minutes left, Linfield got the breakthrough. A cross was headed clear, falling to Stephen Lowry on the edge of the box. I screamed for him to keep his shot low, but he fired it high, and into the back of the net. Once again, it was proved that I know nothing about football.
Some people got so excited, they ran onto the pitch to celebrate. They thought it was over, but it wasn’t quite.
You can never settle on a one goal lead, but Ballinamallard never looked like getting an equaliser, as Linfield saw the game out.
As they left the pitch, the full-time whistle blew at Coleraine where the home side beat Crusaders 1-0 to reduce the gap at the top of the table to four points. It was the breakthrough that Linfield had spent months waiting for.
Crusaders are Linfield’s next League opponents on April 8th at Windsor Park, with Linfield knowing that a win will reduce the gap to one point, and really put the pressure on Crusaders.
Linfield will have nothing to fear. They’ve won three and drawn two of the five games against Crusaders. It really should be five out of five.
The remaining fixtures are :
April 15th : Ballymena v Linfield, Cliftonville v Crusaders
April 18th : Linfield v Glenavon, Crusaders v Coleraine
April 22nd : Ballymena v Crusaders, Coleraine v Linfield.
April 29th : Crusaders v Glenavon, Cliftonville v Linfield.
These games were arranged before the split. Using the formula to devise the fixtures, Crusaders should have been facing Coleraine rather than Cliftonville on April 15th.
Call me a cynic, but it seems odd that Crusaders avoid facing in-form Coleraine the week after facing Linfield, but instead will face out of sorts Cliftonville. Odd. Very odd.
Linfield will take a break from League action to face Dungannon Swifts in an Irish Cup Semi-Final at Mourneview Park.
Football is a numbers game. The numbers this morning were seven (points off the top at kick-off) and four (point off the top at full-time). The numbers this evening were seven (hopefully the number of games remaining this season) and three (the number of trophies Linfield hope to win this season)
Linfield still don’t have the title destiny in their own hands, they still have to win and hope. What they are hoping for, is a lot less than it was this morning.