When Linfield fell ten points behind Crusaders at the top of the table at the start of the month, the idea that they could be two points behind them two and a half weeks later seemed far fetched, but that is how Linfield could be kicking off next Saturday.
This season has swung from one extreme to the other for Linfield, and today was no different. What looked like being a routine afternoon’s work suddenly became nervous as 5pm approached.
The team news was a mixed bag for Linfield. Niall Quinn was missing, but Bastien Hery was back from injury and Shayne Lavery back after international duty, and there was a place on the bench for Jordan Stewart after injury.
Quinn’s injury meant that Ryan McGivern came in, with Linfield going three at the back just as they did in the League meeting in February.
Though Linfield won that day, the formation didn’t really work.
There was a dramatic shock early on, but it was Linfield’s fans who got caught out, rather than their players.
In the last few years, Linfield usually attack The Kop in the first-half, but today, they were attacking the Railway Stand.
Those of us who like to sit where the team is attacking had to make a quick dash to the other end of the South Stand.
I was one of those, and missed the opening minute, and arrived just in time to see Shayne Lavery hassling a defender and dispossessing him in order to create an opportunity. It was as if he’d never been away.
Linfield had a lot of early pressure, but the closest they came to scoring was a Kirk Millar effort that went wide.
Ballymena rode out that pressure but the best that they could offer was a Leroy Millar shot that hit the top of the crossbar. I was at the other end and it looked closer than it actually was.
After a lull, Linfield got back on top, and took the lead when Joel Cooper created space for himself on the right and fired home with his left foot. That meant he had scored both times he had faced Ballymena at Windsor Park, having scored the winner at Windsor Park last September.
A lot of Linfield’s attacking play was coming from the right hand side, with Cooper and Hery having a lot of joy specifically. Every time they got the ball, there would usually be a Ballymena defender (or defenders, in a lot of cases) bamboozled as to how he got away from them.
As half-time approached, Kirk Millar found himself free on the right hand side. He only had one person to find, Joel Cooper, but he found him, a chest touch from Cooper giving him enough space to fire home and make it 2-0.
Not much happened in the second-half. The only moment of note in the early stages was a Joel Cooper shot that was blocked as he chased his hat-trick.
Cooper didn’t get the full 90 minutes to get a hat-trick as he limped off after a series of robust challenges. At 2-0 up, there was no need to take risks, especially with midweek games over the next two weeks.
The good news, was a return to action from the bench after two months out for Jordan Stewart. He looked like he was going to put Linfield 3-0 up when a clearance landed perfectly for him, only for a Ballymena defender to get in the road and block the shot.
Before that, Andrew Burns hit the side netting after a free-kick was punched away. However, a crowd of Linfield players blocking his sight at goal, it was the only place he could put it.
Linfield responded with Matthew Clarke bursting through Ballymena’s defence, only to shoot over. Clarke was having an enjoyable afternoon playing a lot more forward than he usually does.
Linfield needed a third goal just to be sure, despite Ballymena not offering much of an attacking threat.
For the final minutes, Andrew Waterworth and Charlie Allen came on from the bench.
As injury time approached, the game took a sudden swing when Jimmy Callacher diverted a cross goalwards, his momentum forcing the ball through Rohan Ferguson.
It was a goal that came out of nowhere. Looking at the footage, if Callacher doesn’t go for it, a Ballymena player scores anyway.
Even though Ballymena had a lot of the ball in injury time, they never looked like getting an undeserved equaliser, as Linfield held out for the win.
There would be an injury time goal in Belfast that affected the top of the table, thankfully not at Windsor Park.
Coleraine’s 2-0 win over Crusaders put them top of the table on goal difference.
On Radio Ulster, Liam Beckett said a Coleraine win would have been a perfect result for Linfield.
To be honest, a draw would have been perfect, but a win for either side could have had a spin put on it by Linfield fans, as long as their side did the business, which they did.
The table is now starting to take shape, as the second round of fixtures have kicked off.
The bottom three are who you expect them to be, while Glenavon are stuck in a no man’s land due to their games in hand. If they lose them, they’ll officially be in a relegation fight.
Ballymena United, Larne and Dungannon Swifts are battling it out for 6th. I know I wrote Ballymena United out of the title race after defeat at Windsor Park in September last year and looked very stupid a few months later, I think it is safe to do so this time around.
Despite only getting one point from four games against teams above them, somehow, Glentoran are only six points off the top. I would expect that gap to increase by the time we get to Matchday 22.
Despite only one point from three games against the Top 4, Cliftonville are only one point off the top. Like with Glentoran, I would expect that gap to increase by the time we get to Matchday 22.
Crusaders are there for the taking and have hit a brick wall. That makes the defeat to them even worse. Out of them and Coleraine, Linfield should be more than concerned about Coleraine,
On Tuesday night, Linfield are at home to Warrenpoint in the first of their three rearranged games from late Summer.
If Linfield can win that (they should, even though Warrenpoint have drawn two of their last three visits), they will be only two points off the top with two games in hand.
It will be a huge psychological blow to strike, as for the first time since the opening weeks, Linfield will be in touching distance of the top, and Crusaders, Coleraine and Cliftonville will start having to worry about us.
That would set things up nicely for next Saturday’s trip to Coleraine. Six points over the next week would send out a message to the rest of the League, especially with the next two League matches coming against two of the bottom three.
With one game in hand set to be played, another will have to be rearranged due to the Unite The Union Cup.
That means the home match against Dungannon will have to be postponed.
To be honest, the matches against Dundalk feel like an unnecessary distraction.
I’ve not sure if there is a TV deal for it, but I thought such a fixture would have been played in May, at the end of the Irish League season, which would be more attractive for broadcasters.
Unfortunately for me, i’ll miss the game at Windsor Park on the Friday night as i’ll be flying back from Manchester. Hope it finishes 0-0, with Linfield winning at Oriel Park obviously.
I’ve never been to Oriel Park, but i’ll wait on the arrangements before I decide if I go.
Talking of United matches, the game against Burnley i’m going to has been confirmed for Wednesday night at 8.15pm. It means I won’t have a day trip with a free Wednesday as I did earlier this year.
Thankfully, it wasn’t moved to Thursday night like Wolves v Liverpool, as I would have missed out altogether. I’ll keep an eye out for a game in Greater Manchester on the Tuesday.
The next Football Trip for me is Coleraine away next Saturday, i’ll be getting the train. How very exciting.
Linfield will be hoping to reach their destination at the top of the table. They’ll need other results to go their way to get their on Saturday, but hopefully, they’ll be on track.