With Coleraine, Glenavon and Crusaders not in League action this weekend, the trip to Ballymena was a must win game which presented them with an opportunity to cut the gap at the top of the table. Defeat means that next Saturdays game against Coleraine at Windsor Park is more about staying in the title race rather than becoming actively involved in it.
There were two enforced changes from the starting eleven against Ballinamallard the previous week with Roy Carroll (International Duty) and Josh Robinson (Suspension) being replaced by Gareth Deane and Mark Stafford.
It didn’t take long for Linfield to take the lead in this game. Just three minutes were on the clock when a headed clearance fell to Robert Garrett who fired home low from outside the box to put Linfield 1-0 up.
It looked like it was going to be the first of many for Linfield as Ballymena looked nervous in defence, panicking and needlessly conceding cheap throws and corners. They looked like they were going to gift Linfield a goal at any time.
More Linfield pressure followed. Stephen Lowry had a shot cleared off the line and Kirk Millar fired over from a similar position to which Garrett scored.
Garrett tried his luck again from outside the box, but it was turned around the post by Ross Glendenning.
Inbetween that, there was a brief flurry from Ballymena. The best effort was a free-kick that Gareth Deane dropped it out for a corner when he should have held it. The resulting corner was headed over, reminding Linfield that this game was far from won.
Linfield led 1-0 at half-time and it could have been more. The game was far from won. A second goal should have been enough.
Linfield never got going at all at the start of the second-half, and it was no surprise when Conor McCloskey equalised from a long range free-kick.
The response was immediate, and Josh Rooney had a chance, but he toepoked wide, the finish of a player who is struggling for goals.
On the hour, Ballymena took the lead when a goal kick was flicked on for Johnny McMurray to spectacularly score from long range.
There’s no doubt it was a world class finish, and a video of the goal has been doing the rounds all over the internet.
However, from the defending team’s point of view, there have to be questions about the goalkeeper’s position (from an opposition goal kick) and why a defender close to him wasn’t immediately putting him under pressure as soon as he got the ball.
Linfield had their chances to equalise. Jordan Stewart fired over from inside the box just after Ballymena scored. He really should have scored.
Aaron Burns came on for Louis Rooney as Linfield searched for a comeback win. They closest they came was when a Mark Stafford header was saved by Glendenning.
That was the problem. Ross Glendenning was making saves, but he wasn’t making top class saves. They were just saves. Saves that you would expect any goalkeeper to make.
Linfield couldn’t get any momentum going.
Brandon Adams was brought on for Chris Casement. The Killers might not be in Belfast until the following Friday. Linfield fans were hoping that this would be the Friday night for Brandon to shine.
Kirk Millar fired wide on his left foot when he should have hit the target.
The problem when you miss the target at Ballymena is that it takes and age to get the ball back. Ballymena weren’t slow in slowing the game down, as Ballboys seemed to be reluctant to distribute the ball to restart the game.
Once again, another referee made a mug of. A referee who gave Andrew Waterworth a talking to for scoring when he was flagged offside, but stood and did nothing when Ballymena players were slowing the game down.
We need to get smart to this. We need to be getting in officials faces and making sure they act on it and stop giving teams a chance to kill games. Opposition players aren’t slow in letting the ref know if a Linfield player looks at them funny.
If Linfield could get an equaliser, they would surely go on and win the game. The problem was, getting that equaliser.
With each passing minute, Linfield’s ambitions were being downgraded to wanting an equaliser to be the springboard to winning the game, to just getting an equaliser to salvage something from the game.
That wasn’t helped when Robert Garrett got sent-off for a second yellow card in the final minutes.
Those final minutes saw five minutes of injury time. It could easily have been six.
There were plenty of stoppages in those five minutes, but only an extra five seconds were played. The game ended as Linfield were about to take an attacking throw.
The League table doesn’t make good reading as Linfield have now dropped to 5th after Cliftonville’s win over Ballinamallard. The ambition this weekend was to get closer to the top, not fall further behind.
It’s hard to explain. Linfield had enough chances to win. It sounds simple, but we need to take our chances and concentrate throughout the entire game.
There’s a November 2015 vibe about this current run. Games are being decided by small margins. This one was decided by two freakish top class goals.
The damming truth was, that when Ballymena went 2-1 up, we were hoping Linfield would get back into the game rather than expecting it.
Up next in the League is Coleraine and Glenavon. They were already must win, they are even more so now. It was a scrappy 1-0 win over Coleraine that got us out of a rut in the Winter of 2015 and kickstarted a run of form. We just need something to go our way.
With this win, Ballymena moved up to 7th, creating a damming statistic that 8th placed Dungannon are the highest ranked team that Linfield have beaten away from home in the League this season.
There’s a good starting point. How to fix it though?
It is in contrast to last season’s away form, where they last failed to win in November 2016, winning 16 successive games in all competitions. That statistic doesn’t include 2 games on neutral venues.
The big fear is, that this result might see a return of 451 in forthcoming matches.
Elsehwere, i’m in Manchester on the midweek of FA Cup 2nd Round Replays (I’m seeing United v Bournemouth on the Wednesday) and the draw has given Rochdale, Crewe and Wigan away games. Hoping for one of them to draw and play on the Tuesday night.
It is interesting to note that Crusaders Scottish Challenge Cup Semi-Final will be on 17th or 18th February. The NIFL Cup Final is scheduled for 17th February. There could be a major storm brewing if Crusaders reach the final of it.
Linfield could do the NIFL a massive favour by beating Crusaders on Wednesday night in the Quarter-Final.
They could give themselves a big one as well.