Linfield fans aren’t really that used to seeing their team in the League Cup Final. I wouldn’t be surprised if some went to Newry on Friday night for a League game and were wondering where everybody else was, their last win coming in their last Final back in 2008.
Ballymena fans are a lot more familiar with the League Cup Final, with this being their third successive appearance, reach four of the past five overall.
Of those previous three finals, they had won one (2017) and lost two (2015, 2018) with the two defeats being at Windsor Park, an omen that Linfield would hope would continue.
Curiously, David Jeffrey was manager and Jim Ervin was playing the last time both Linfield and Ballymena United won this competition.
Even more curiously, the two were in the Linfield camp when the two sides met exactly eleven years to the day, Saturday 16th February 2008, a 4-0 win for Linfield.
It would have been greedy to ask for a repeat, just 1-0 would have done.
Having changed formation last week, Linfield reverted back to 4231, which meant a change in personnel. There was a shock in the starting eleven, as the absence of Joel Cooper from the matchday squad, presumably due to injury, meant a starting place for Matthew Clarke, with Niall Quinn pushed into centre midfield.
It was Ballymena who had the first meaningful attempt on goal in the game, when a James Knowles shot was deflected onto the post.
Linfield responded with a Kirk Millar cross causing panic in Ballymena’s defence, where a header just about denied Niall Quinn a certain goal.
Linfield were in the mood for an early goal and got it when Josh Robinson ventured forward only to see his attempted pass to Andrew Waterworth be blocked, before Niall Quinn made it second time lucky, for Waterworth to finish low into the corner.
A frustrating thing about Waterworth is that he sometimes doesn’t shoot until there is an absolute certain clear shot at goal. He made enough room for himself to fire home. I was in The Kop in the first-half, and it was in from the moment it left his foot.
Linfield couldn’t quite kick on from this and get a second, though Niall Quinn and Andrew Waterworth had shots saved by Ross Glendenning, they were saves you would expect him to make.
Ballymena almost immediately responded to Linfield’s goal when Josh Robinson lost possession trying to shepherd the ball out for a goal kick, the ball going across the goalmouth, though thankfully, there wasn’t a Ballymena player following up.
The big flashpoint of the half came in the final minutes of the half when Jim Ervin was booked for a reckless tackle on Jamie Mulgrew. It should have been a red. The referee was sure of his decision, brandishing a yellow card immediately.
Due to this, the match threatened to boil over. It was lucky that half-time was approaching.
The half-time whistle came with Linfield 1-0 up. Slightly better but not dominant, Linfield offered more of an attacking threat going forward, and were good value for their 1-0 lead.
If they could make it 2-0 early in the second-half, there would be no way back for Ballymena.
However, it was Ballymena who were the more likely to score in the early moments of the second-half.
That pressure on the Linfield goal resulted in a glorious opportunity for Cathair Friel, who managed for fire over when faced with an open net from three yards out.
I was at the other end, the corner of The Kop and Railway Stand by this point, and it looked bad. Seeing it again on TV replays backed that up. It defied science. It could easily stand up to anything on a Danny Baker Own Goals And Gaffes video.
It was the sort of miss that would make you want to hide in a darkened room, which is certainly a better option that staying up all night throwing tantrums on Twitter.
Even though they were struggling to get out of their own half, Linfield were able to create opportunities, with Kyle McClean having a shot blocked by a Ballymena defender, denying a certain goal.
Having missed from three yards out, Cathair Friel tried to use his head, nipping in ahead of Chris Casement, only to see his header turned around for a corner by Gareth Deane.
Ballymena had all the momentum by this point. There was a danger that if they did score, Linfield would be playing for extra-time and hope to get themselves together for those thirty minutes.
Ballymena needed to score for that situation, but Linfield held firm.
Linfield’s first, and as it turned out, only substitution of the game, saw Michael O’Connor come on for Jordan Stewart, an extra body up front giving them more of their attacking threat, as they looked to extend their lead rather than hold on to it.
A Niall Quinn cross saw a hooked clearance deny Kirk Millar a certain goal as Linfield looked to make it 2-0, while a Josh Robinson header from a corner went agonisingly wide.
With each passing minute, Ballymena’s belief drained. With every block by a defender or save by Deane, they knew they weren’t going to score.
Gareth Deane’s match ended with a yellow card in injury time for “Timewasting”.
And yet, apart from Sean O’Neill a few weeks ago, when have you ever seen an opposition goalkeeper booked for timewasting?
A bit of consistency isn’t too much to ask.
As Linfield held out for the 1-0 win, Deane was celebrating a first clean sheet since it was confirmed that Roy Carroll’s season was over, which will be a good confidence boost.
Not that he needed it, as he was happy to lambast his defence when he felt they were making him exposed.
Despite Ballymema’s possession and attempts on goal, a lot of the saves that Deane was making were saves you would expect him to make.
The award for Man Of The Match was announced over the tannoy as Jimmy McLean of Linfield, whoever he is.
That announcement was later corrected as Jimmy Callacher. Part of his prize is a trip to London. If you’re reading Jimmy, feel free to take me.
This match was the first of two successive meetings at Windsor Park between the sides. If the Irish Cup tie against Crusaders had worked out better, it would have been the first of three meetings between the sides at Windsor Park in fourteen days.
Next week’s game is in the League. This result will have no bearing on that game. It represents a great opportunity to really get a stranglehold on the League title, to go nine points clear (albeit with a game more played) and put the pressure on Ballymena to keep up with us.
There will be no time to dwell on the result, with midweek games following that. Ballymena face Cliftonville. Hopefully, they’ll still be enjoying a new manager bounce. They kept a clean sheet in Paddy McLaughlin’s first game in charge, that practically makes him a miracle worker.
Linfield are away to Newry that night. There’s no reason why that can’t be moved to Saturday 2nd March as both teams are out of the Irish Cup. Cliftonville face Glenavon that day, a match that would only have been confirmed last Tuesday, so there’s no reason why the match can’t be moved. Hopefully, the Weather Gods intervene.
If there was a complaint about the marketing of this game, it would be that no tickets were available on the day. Also, that a lot of the communications regarding tickets referred people to Ticketmaster, but didn’t list where Ticketmaster outlets were based. It’s the little things.
Later that night, Edinburgh City went out of the Irn Bru Cup. I was at their First Round game and was hoping they’d go all the way.
Hopefully, Linfield will be back in the competition next season. Without being rude, but if Connah’s Quay can reach the Final, why not Linfield?
This week, it was announced, somewhat prematurely it would seem, that there will be and Irish Champions League clash in November between the Irish League and League Of Ireland Champions. Hopefully, Linfield will be involved. I’ll comment later regarding this idea once Linfield’s destiny for this season is confirmed.
And finally, work started this week on Harland and Wolff Welders new ground, due for completion in January 2020. I’ve had a wee look at it already and hope to get some photos as it progresses and then visit it when it is completed.
So, one trophy in the bag, two more to go for.
Onto the next game.