After a long trek, Linfield finally made it to the top of the Irish League table. The key is to stay there. It’s always nice to wake up on Christmas Day top of the table, but the best day to wake up on top of the table is the day after the last game of the season.
Originally scheduled for Matchday 3 in September, the postponement of this and the Glentoran match in the midweek before had meant that Linfield had been playing catch-up all season. Now, they were finally getting a chance to be fully caught up in terms of fixtures.
It’s one thing playing games, it’s another thing to win them, as Ballymena United arrived at Windsor Park on a run of four wins from five, and had beaten Linfield in the League Cup the previous month.
There were some welcome returnees for Linfield, not in the starting eleven but on the bench, with Jamie Mulgrew, Cameron Palmer and Sam Roscoe all returning after injury to give the bench a more experienced look than it has had in recent games.
It was Linfield who had the first chance with a low shot from Matthew Clarke forcing the first save of the game.
Christy Manzinga, of course, was next involved, having a low shot go just wide. For a brief second, it looked like was going in.
The early pressure continued, as Linfield looked for an early goal in a fixture that they have dominated in recent years, winning twelve home League games in a row against Ballymena, but often having to work for them, with eight of those wins coming by a one goal margin.
Ballymena were having their own adventures into Linfield’s half, a shot going well wide the best they could offer, but a reminder to Linfield that there were two teams in this game, and they had to watch not to fall behind.
Especially as we were treated to the now customary timewasting at goal kicks, demanding to use the ball that has just went out of play rather than the one they have been given.
Martin Donnelly was next to be frustrated, having a low shot parried but no Linfield players were able to follow up.
It looked like Linfield were going to make the breakthrough when Trai Hume was played through but was denied and frustrated by a last minute tackle at the expense of a corner.
Christy Manzinga was able to create space for himself and cut inside only to see his shot blocked for a corner.
In the final seconds of one minute of injury time (I know, just one minute) Manzinga got in behind Ballymena’s defence, similarly to his recent goal against Warrenpoint Town, but this time Ballymena’s keeper was able to get out and make himself big and make a save.
There was still enough time for Linfield, but they couldn’t make the most of it as the half-time whistle blew as soon as it was cleared.
0-0, but plenty to suggest that goals were there for Linfield. They just needed to be clinical in front of goal.
There was goalscoring chances in the early minutes of the second-half, but they were coming for Ballymena.
One effort was cleared off the line by Trai Hume while another effort hit the post. This match was threatening to become another Warrenpoint. Linfield
couldn’t afford that.
Despite that, Linfield had their own attacking moments, with both sides feeling they should have been in the lead as the hour approached.
The ball was going everywhere but in the net for Linfield. Everytime the ball went into the box or was blocked or saved, it just wasn’t falling to a Linfield player.
They could have helped themselves though. A lot of their build-up was let down by passing or running with the ball too much, or by the final pass being too short. At some point, everybody in the South Stand was screaming SHOOT!!! either internally or externally.
In terms of attacking options, there wasn’t a lot of experience on the bench, so David Healy turned to Jamie Mulgrew and Cameron Palmer for Kyle McClean and Martin Donnelly, reverting to a 4-3-3 formation.
Ahmed Salam had a shot saved as Linfield continued to endure a frustrating evening.
Eventually, on 76 minutes, Linfield got the breakthrough when Trai Hume played in Chrity Manzinga.
There was a brief moment in time when it became obvious he was going to get a clear shot, but there was still work to do.
Thankfully, he did that work, knocking the ball over the keeper to give Linfield the lead.
The joy would be mixed for Linfield fans as Manzinga instantly gestured for treatment, continuing his goal celebration, fistpumping the air while lying on the ground.
It would be his last involvement in the game, being substituted for Andrew Clarke.
All that Linfield fans want for Christmas is for Manzinga to be fit against Glentoran on the 27th.
Although, Linfield managed ok without him against Glentoran in September. You’d still rather have him out there.
That wouldn’t be a guarantee of three points for Linfield. A second goal would definitely have done that though.
It didn’t come, and naturally, Ballymena United had more of the ball in the final stages as they searched for an equaliser.
They even had a free-kick from the same position Warrenpoint scored their equaliser (different end though) ten days earlier. Thankfully, this one went straight into the wall.
The closest that Ballymena came to a goal was a free header from a cross that was easily saved by Chris Johns even if the dive did look spectacular.
There was one more scare for Linfield, as Ballymena tried to work an opening, resulting in a shot from the edge of the box being fired over.
Linfield were able to see the game out and get a 1-0 win that saw them go top of the League at the halfway stage.
Up next, the smaller matter of Glentoran at home on December 27th.
This result meant that Linfield have beaten every team in the League this season, so there is nothing to fear.
Time to really take control of the table, just as we did at this time of year in 2018-2019.
Although, the Christmas/New Year fixture list is a lot more spread out this year due to the way the calendar falls.
I’m still unsure if i’ll be at the Steel and Sons Cup Final but good luck to Linfield Swifts.
And of course, Merry Christmas to you all, even Glentoran supporters, though I hope you have a rotten 27th.
If you remember just one thing, try not to be thick as shit when going about your daily business and let’s drive Covid figures down. Saturday afternoons in the Living Room listening to Radio Ulster are not the same.
Linfield are in the running for three trophies in 2022. If they win nothing, one, two or three, let’s make sure we’ll be able to witness it in person.