Almost there, not quite job done. Linfield can still be caught on Goal Difference. Yep, i’m being that guy.
The first game of the split, Linfield’s trip to Ballymena in early April was being earmarked as a potential title decider when the sides were within touching distance of each other.
As the weeks leading up to this game ticked by, the situation suddenly changed with Ballymena’s home defeats to Glentehran and Warrenpoint Town. It was no longer an opportunity for Ballymena to pull level with Linfield, it was now about just keeping in touch with Linfield, and having a small glimmer of hope kept alive.
A draw wouldn’t have been the worst result for Linfield, but to set up like that would have been disastrous. Linfield simply had to go for the win.
If they got it, they would be twelve points clear with four games to go. You do the maths. Goal Difference? That was seventeen in Linfield’s favour, and a win for Linfield would make it at least nineteen in their favour. Yep, that’s boring Linfield who grind out 1-0 wins having a vastly superior Goal Difference to free flowing attacking Ballymena United.
A win for Linfield would as good as seal the title. That was the simplicity of the situation.
Unsurprisingly, Linfield’s starting eleven was unchanged from the win at Dungannon Swifts. Surprisingly though, there was no place on the substitutes bench for Kyle McClean or Michael O’Connor after they both missed the game against Dungannon due to International Duty.
The match kicked-off a couple of minutes late, which worked out handy for me due to being held up at Applegreen by people who are too stupid to order food and insist on paying for everything by Credit Card.
Those opening minutes saw decent build-up play from Linfield with Jordan Stewart getting a lot of joy out wide as both teams struggled on a bobbly pitch, as both sets of players tried to work out how to pass the ball with this uncontrollable variable.
It was Ballymena who had the first chance of the game when Adam Lecky fired over from the penalty spot when pressure from a Linfield. Despite the pressure he was under, he really should have scored. It was a let off for Linfield.
Shortly afterwards, Joel Cooper looked like he was going to put Linfield 1-0 up from close ranger but fired wide under pressure from a Ballymena defender.
Despite not creating anything further of note, Linfield were looking good as an attacking force, with good build-up play.
Midway through the first-half, Ballymena started to gain control of the game, with a flurry of corners, keeping Linfield in their defensive third.
The best opportunities those set pieces brought was an effort smashed against the bar with Jude Winchester’s follow-up being turned behind for a corner when he should have scored.
It looked like Ballymena were going to make the breakthrough when Andy McGrory’s free-kick looked to be going in, only to be denied by a top class one hand save from Gareth Deane.
Linfield were able to ride it out and ended the half with some pressure of their own, Ross Glendenning having to make a save to deny an own goal, while Joel Cooper’s attempted header saw a penalty appeal. I was screaming for it at the time, but TV pictures showed that it wasn’t.
0-0 at half-time, you began to wonder and hope if Ballymena would regret not scoring when they were on top. You had a feeling this was the best they could offer.
Even though Linfield weren’t quite the attacking force they hoped to be, that didn’t mean that Linfield were absent as an attacking force in the first-half.
The main talking point in the final minutes of the first-half was the lack of a yellow card for Andrew McGrory for taking down Jamie Mulgrew as he raced towards Ballymena’s defensive third. I know, I know.
Whatever David Healy said at half-time, it had the desired effect as Linfield went 1-0 up after just 46 seconds of the second-half.
Ballymena only touched the twice between Linfield kicking off the half and scoring, and they were both headed clearances.
Joel Cooper played a through ball to Andrew Waterworth who finished low first time. It was the only thing he could do, but when you get a clean strike, you don’t even have to look. I was at that end, and it was a goal before he even struck the ball.
The game had swung in Linfield’s favour, and they started to take control of the game.
Ballymena suddenly got back into the game, and Gareth Deane had to be forced to come out of his box and make himself big to deny Andy McGrory just as he looked set to level.
Deane might have been busy in the League Cup Final and the League match against Ballymena in February, but you could argue he was making saves he should be expected to make. Not in this game, he made two big saves at key points in the match.
Jimmy Callacher then went on a run which saw him have a shot from outside the box which was turned around for a corner while Andrew Waterworth had a low shot saved as Linfield looked to get the second goal that they needed, even though they were snuffing out Ballymena’s attacking threat.
Callacher then had a header over the bar from a free kick that was awarded for a wild challenge by Jonathan Addis, who was lucky to escape with only a yellow card.
David Healy then turned to his bench. There was nobody who really needed to be taken off, and there was nobody we were desperate to get on, but fresh legs to see the game out would always be welcomed.
Kirk Millar came on for Joel Cooper before Matthew Clarke came on for Jordan Stewart.
Clarke for Stewart wouldn’t be a sub I would make, but bringing Clarke on and pushing Niall Quinn forward has been done before, and it proved effective against Cliftonville in November and then again in December.
As the game approached injury time, Ballymena got a free-kick in the centre circle for a foul by Daniel Kearns which resulted in Jim Ervin embarrassing himself sprinting to get involved and get Kearns sent-off. It was a foul, free-kick, maybe a yellow card, and you just get on with the game.
It was a sign of desperation from Ballymena, a team who had run out of ideas and were trying anything to get something. It was Kearns last involvement in the game as he came off for Stephen Fallon.
Andrew Waterworth saw a spectacular effort go just over the bar but Linfield didn’t need to worry about not getting a second, as they were able to see the game out and win 1-0.
As Linfield players prepared to celebrate a vital win with their fans, Ryan Mayse seemed to take the result badly and had to restrained by Darren Murphy.
It wasn’t going to dampen the celebrations, even though they were a warm-up to the main event (Yes, i’m still being cautious), we even got a Jeffrey-esque fistpump from David Healy.
What it means is that Linfield need one more point from the last four games to secure the title. Three will do next Saturday to do it in style.
Earlier this week, it was announced that the Irish League is in danger of losing a UEFA Cup spot due to it’s co-efficient, so naturally, the League is insisting on giving a place in that competition to lottery winners rather than on merit.
Not that Linfield will have to worry about that, as this result secured European Football and qualification to the Scottish Challenge Cup.
Next season can wait, it’s all about next Saturday, Crusaders at home, the first of three successive home games. And people said that Ballymena were going to have an advantage of home games in the run-in when they have the same amount as Linfield.
Even though we have lost our last two games to Crusaders, they were two games we’ve thrown away. Don’t forget, we’ve beaten them three times in the League already this season.
We’re a better team than Crusaders, we’ve proven it over 34 games, let’s do this in style and get the celebrations started.