It was supposed to be the second meeting in four days between Ballymena United and Linfield, but the weather on Tuesday meant that it wasn’t. There was never a danger of this match being postponed, but Linfield ended up wishing that it was.
Linfield were the last team to beat Ballymena, in late September. It is doubtful that even the most optimistic Ballymena fan would have predicted the return fixture being a top of the table clash, with Linfield kicking off one point ahead of their hosts.
It was slightly surprising that this game wasn’t regraded as a County Antrim Shield Semi-Final in order to get it wrapped up as soon as possible and stop it dragging on. I’ll be covering fixture scheduling, a favourite topic of mine, later on.
Having played Midweek-Saturday for the last few weeks, I don’t think Ballymena were too unhappy with the postponement, to give them a break going into this game, and Ballymena were sharper in the opening minute when a header fell to Adam Lecky, who fired over from close range when he should have scored.
It was poor defending from Linfield. Firstly, in not winning the header even though it wasn’t going to be an attempt at goal, and then nobody tracking Lecky.
If Linfield weren’t sharp at one end, they were sharp at the other, when Stephen Fallon got to the ball on the byline before crossing for Andrew Waterworth to finish from close range to put Linfield 1-0 up.
The question now, was would Ballymena capitulate. They didn’t, going in search of an equaliser and having a goal disallowed for offside, while Linfield also had a goal disallowed for offside.
The theme of the first-half for Linfield was sloppy passes. Far too many were going astray, giving the ball away, stopping promising attacks. and conceding soft possession. On most occasions, it came when they were under no pressure. It was really basic stuff.
On one occasion where Linfield lost the ball when put under pressure, it set up a Ballymena shot which was turned around for a corner by Roy Carroll.
Stephen Fallon was involved in Linfield’s two main attacks of note in the later moments of the half, stabbing the ball goalwards from a corner, and then narrowly being unable to get his head on a Jimmy Callacher flick on.
As the team’s left the pitch at half-time, Linfield fans will have had a smile on their faces with this scoreline, and with scorelines elsewhere, with Glenavon and Crusaders drawing their respective matches.
Linfield went in search of a second goal they needed at the start of the second-half, and almost got it when a goalmouth scramble saw the ball blocked on the line. In the aftermath of that, there was a kerfuffle which saw Josh Robinson booked.
I have been critical of Robinson this season for getting involved and getting yellow cards where he doesn’t need to be involved, but he did nothing wrong in this incident. He went for a ball that was there to be won. It seems that the reaction of the Ballymena players got him booked. I can’t help but wonder if he has now made himself a marked man amongst referees.
Ballymena got an equaliser when a free-kick was headed home by Johnny Addis, with Roy Carroll coming out and not getting the ball.
It’s easy to ask questions of Carroll, but there were two Ballymena players fighting to win the header unchallenged. If they score a free header and Carroll stays on the line, we’d all be asking just as many questions.
We had enough bodies to defend it, yet there were two Ballymena players unmarked in the box.
Soon after, Ballymena went 2-1 up with a strike from Leroy Millar. It was a repeat of the meeting at Ballymena in November 2017 where an early Linfield goal was cancelled out by a quick Ballymena double in the first fifteen minutes of the second-half.
They had two further chances on the breakaway with Linfield in search of an equaliser, Roy Carroll keeping Linfield in the game twice with superb saves.
Linfield never really looked like making them pay for it, apart from when a header from a corner which went just wide.
Jordan Stewart, surprisingly left on the bench for Robert Garrett, came on for Joel Cooper. That was then followed by a belated Linfield debut for Lorcan Forde, coming on for Kirk Millar.
Despite all the pressure on Ballymena’s goal, the ball just never bounced in Linfield’s favour, as Ballymena held out for the win, and it got better for them when they heard the scores from elsewhere, with Glenavon and Crusaders both drawing.
That makes it worse for Linfield, they could have pulled away from the team’s below them. Even a draw wouldn’t have been a bad result when you combined with the other results.
Crusaders had two players sent-off. I would not be surprised if they appealed them purely to delay the suspensions ahead of the visit to Windsor Park next Saturday. They seemed to be quite affronted that a referee from Latvia should come over hear and not tolerate their thuggery.
It’s a setback, but not a disaster. Two points is retrievable, and there are plenty of games left in which to do it. The gap can’t get any bigger.
Ballymena have a generous run of games coming up, and we’ll need to win to keep up with them.
Up next is a trip to Portadown in the League Cup, potentially, the second of five away games in seventeen days. A fixture pile up which isn’t our fault, but we’ll have to get on with it.
Two Cup Finals and pulling clear of Crusaders and Glenavon is the prize on offer. That should be enough to get through this run of games.
And the draw for the Irish Cup is this Thursday. A crap lower league team away please.
Laptop battery issues mean that this blog is going out later and the draw for Euro 2020 has been made, and it’s a nightmare for Northern Ireland. We are really paying the price for out Nations League performance. It gets worse when you see Austria’s group.
We shouldn’t finish lower than 3rd, which should be good enough for a Play-Off, but may not be. We’ll also be keeping an eye out on Austria and Bosnia’s group. Meanwhile, one of Georgia, Belarus, Macedonia and Kosovo will be guaranteed a place in the finals regardless of where they finish in their qualifying groups.
The spin we had which was repeated by some Northern Ireland fans is that it gives us a better chance to qualify.
Remind me, how does the UEFA Nations League give Northern Ireland a better opportunity to qualify?
That will start in late March 2019. Hopefully by then, Linfield will be back on top of table.