At this time of year, it’s all about results. If the result at Carrick glossed over the performance, there was no faulting this performance with ten men at a ground where they had lost on their last two visits.
The starting eleven was much changed, although I assume it was due to injury with no place for Kirk Millar, Conor Pepper or Jake Hastie in the matchday squad.
That meant a return to the starting eleven for Niall Quinn, but still 3-5-2 as Linfield have gone from no left-backs to no right-backs.
Mike Newberry was back on the bench which was welcome, even if he wasn’t fit to start.
There was also a return for Chris Johns in nets.
Not much happened in the opening minutes of the game as both teams were working their way into the game.
Ballymena offered a bicycle kick from Leroy Millar while Linfield’s response was an effort from Christy Manzinga which just wide of the post.
Hitting the ball just wide of the post wasn’t recommended at this venue with no stands or Ballboys behind the goal, meaning that Sean O’Neill would be popping off to Fairhill Shopping Centre to retrieve the ball.
Of course, not a word from the Referee.
Christy Manzinga was getting involved in personal battles with Ballymena players, who were targeting him.
It looked like Linfield might take the lead when Chris Shields got on the end of a header, but the ball went over.
Stephen Fallon went close when he got on the end of a cross but his effort went over.
Eventually, the opener came, and it was in bizarre fashion.
A free-kick from Kyle McClean evaded everybody, and ended up being put into the back of the net by a Ballymena defender. It was a most welcome gift.
If you can’t be good, be lucky.
Now that they had the lead, Linfield were looking to kill the game off.
It looked like that was going to come when Christy Manzinga was played in but his low shot was saved by Sean O’Neill.
That would prove to be Manzinga’s last involvement in the game, as he would be sent-off for tangling with and raising an arm at a Ballymena defender. No action was taken against the Ballymena player having him in a headlock.
Despite the provocation, he needs to do better and not engage in personal battles and be wound up by opposition players. Just stick the ball in the back of the net. That’ll shut them up.
As this was his second straight red card of the season, I presume that will be at least a four match ban, meaning he will miss the first Post-Split game, potentially against Cliftonville or Glentoran.
Of more immediate concern, was that Linfield were now up against it in a tricky game, having just got themselves in front.
The one consolation was, that it was close to half-time, meaning there wasn’t long for Linfield to see out and have a chance to regroup.
That wasn’t how the game went, as the final minutes of the half saw Linfield camped in Ballymena’s half, with a succession of corners that caused worry for Ballymena.
Because of the circumstances, and the importance of winning this game with the title race so tight and the two teams below playing each other, Linfield needed a big second-half. Certainly far better than the second-half at Carrick a few days earlier.
An improvement was what we got from Linfield, making the most of the ball when they had it, working themselves further and further up the pitch, and working the opportunities for themselves.
There was very few wasted passes.
If you walked into the ground at half-time, and somebody said to you “It’s 1-0 to Linfield and there’s been a red card”, you would have assumed it was for Ballymena. They couldn’t get the ball no matter how much they ran to get it.
Linfield were also making the most of their set pieces. There was a notable improvement. Though they didn’t score from one in the second-half, they were all beating their man, causing Ballymena problems and keeping the move alive.
Most importantly, Ballymena weren’t getting a sniff at the other end, reduced to speculative long range shots.
Despite that, Linfield still needed a second goal, just to be safe.
Although, they didn’t need to score, just not concede.
As well as controlling the ball when it was in play, they were controlling the ball when it was out of play, dictating the pace of the game.
By this point, the Referee decided he was going to address the matter of timewasting, having ignored it by Ballymena players in the first-half when the score was 0-0.
All we ask for is some consistency. That is all.
With just over ten minutes to go, Linfield got an opportunity to put the game beyond doubt.
Jamie Mulgrew worked space for himself out wide. His cross was blocked by a Ballymena defender. There were screams for penalty for a handball, not for me, but the ball fell for Mulgrew who charged at goal before being brought down.
Absolutely no doubt about this one, a clear penalty.
The responsibility fell to Chris Shields, who has a perfect record from penalties, which is always a worry. You fear he will miss one eventually.
This was one that could not be afforded to be missed. My pessimism was misplaced. He made no mistake to make it 2-0.
You could sense the atmosphere changing, the tension had gone, Linfield fans were now singing and rejoicing, belting out “We are top of the League” without fear of contradiction at full-time.
The job wasn’t totally done. It had only been a few weeks since Ballymena came from a similar deficit at a similar stage of the game to get a point against Cliftonville.
As Linfield continued to restrict Ballymena’s sights on goal, there was never any danger of that happening.
The performance with ten men was even more impressive due to the lack of subs. In truth, making a change would have been making a change for the sake of making a change.
Eventually, there were a few substitutions, as Linfield looked to rest a few legs due to the next game being three days away.
Special mention for Stephen Fallon, who appeared to be everywhere. Not even joking, I swear he played a fifty yard pass to himself.
Linfield were able to see the game out with no drama. This is not the time of year for drama, it’s the time of year for results, not drama.
Talking of results, elsewhere, Cliftonville beat Glentoran 1-0.
A draw would have been perfect, but as long as Linfield won, they could have taken a positive from a winner.
That positive being that they’ve extended their lead at the top from goal difference to a whopping one point, with Glentoran a further two behind.
There wasn’t much time to revel or celebrate this result, as Crusaders would be heading to Windsor Park in just three days time.
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