Why spend Valentine’s Day with the one you love when you can spend it with the eleven that you love? We’ve had our ups and downs lately, but things are going well. Although, we’d rather have been putting our feet up and getting ready for the League Cup Final.
That trophy may be gone, but the League was still up for grabs. With three rivals all inactive in the League this weekend, Linfield knew they could put a lot of pressure on them with a win here.
Linfield’s starting eleven showed one change from their last game, with Jordan Stewart coming in for the injured Shayne Lavery, as Linfield reverted to 4-2-3-1.
The game got off to a slow start, for both teams, a lot of the game being played in midfield as both defences were on top.
Linfield’s first chance was a header from Andrew Waterworth that couldn’t be diverted goalwards.
Ballymena’s first chance was a shot from Joe McCready that forced Rohan Ferguson into a save. A reminder to Linfield that for all their possession, the object of the game is to put the ball into the back of the net.
They certainly got a reminder of that when Joe McCready created space for himself on the edge of the box to shoot. It looked set up perfectly for a left foot curler, but he went for the right foot, and got the outcome he wanted, putting Ballymena 1-0 up.
I was sat at the other end and had a perfect view of it as he set himself up. It was in from the moment he hit it.
Worryingly, this was the sixth time in seven games that Linfield had conceded in the League, five in a row and seven in eight in all competitions. This is something that will need to be addressed in the run-in if Linfield have any ambitions of winning the League.
Remarkably, despite this run, Linfield have the second best clean sheet record in the League, only one behind Coleraine.
Although, it should be pointed out, that the last time Linfield kept a clean sheet, people were moaning that day, because it came in a 0-0 draw against Dungannon Swifts.
Having already ruined my birthday by not being in the League Cup Final and playing on this date, Linfield were now ruining it again by losing.
The response, was instant. Well, not as instant as the response to going 1-0 down against Dungannon earlier in the month. We had to wait five minutes for it.
Ballymena’s goal kickstarted Linfield into life, adding more intensity and urgency into their attacking. That was rewarded when Mark Haughey headed home from a header by Kirk Millar. Just like with McCready’s goal, it was in from the moment he sent it goalwards.
Earlier in the day, Millar had passed his Driving Test, and was now hoping that this would kickstart a three point turn, with the points now going to Linfield rather than Ballymena.
On his previous appearance at Ballymena, Haughey was sent-off, so this was a welcome change in fortune.
Credit to the Referee as well, for playing advantage in the attack that led to the corner after a foul on Jordan Stewart, before going back to book the Ballymena player who committed the foul.
Jordan Stewart then escaped the attention of a couple of Ballymena players in the penalty area, before hitting a left foot shot that was tipped over by Ross Glendenning.
Adam Lecky was then lucky to only to shown a yellow card for a high foot when going for the ball.
As it looked like the sides were going to go in at half-time level, Linfield took the lead with just fifteen seconds of injury time remaining when Joel Cooper ran into the box and saw his shot saved, then bounced off a defender perfectly for Jordan Stewart to finish from a few yards put.
The mood in both Dressing Rooms had now changed. For Linfield, it was no longer about winning the game, it was about finishing the game off.
Half-time leads at Ballymena have been precarious for Linfield in recent years. 2017 and 2018 had seen them go in 1-0 up but find themselves 2-1 down early in the second-half, so nothing would be taken for granted.
Linfield needed a third just to be sure, and looked the most likely to score.
A free-kick from Stephen McCullough which went just wide was a reminder to Linfield that they needed it.
Eventually it came, when a Ballymena player headed a corner towards his own goal. From where I was sat, it looked like it was going in, but TV replays suggested it might have been hitting the post.
Jimmy Callacher wasn’t waiting to see, nipping in to make it 3-1.
You sensed that if Linfield could make it 3-1, that would be the points in the bag.
Even though they drew 3-3 after being 3-1 up in 2010, and had a tense 3-2 win after being 2-0 and 3-1 up in 2014, Ballymena didn’t look like they had a two goal comeback in them.
Something that has been a bit of an issue for me in recent games has been the lack of substitutions. None at Warrenpoint and only one against Dungannon.
Though there was nobody who deserved to be taken off, we have a squad and we should be using it, especially to bring on fresh faces in attacking areas.
The third goal did bring a sub for Linfield, not one I would have made, as Matthew Clarke came on for Jordan Stewart where there were like for like options who could have come on for Stewart.
Within a few minutes, it was 4-1 as a run from Joel Cooper was frustrated by a save from Glendenning, then the crossbar, before Andrew Waterworth finished from close range, his fifth in three matches.
The 4-1 lead allowed a few more substitutions for Linfield, as Bastien Hery came on for Kyle McClean, who had needed treatment earlier in the half.
Rory Currie came on for Andrew Waterworth, his brief involvement saw him create an opportunity for Joel Cooper.
Points are vital, but so are goals. Linfield have the best goal difference in the League, but are only two better than Crusaders, so were thankfully for a Niall Quinn clearance from a Ballymena header on the line, even if it wasn’t important in the context of the match.
As the final whistle blew and scores were announced over the PA System, with a fancy new ringtone that sounds like you’re in a Supermercado, Linfield fans were celebrating even more good news from East Belfast, that Glentoran had drawn 0-0 with Carrick Rangers.
A shock to an extent, but not as much. Carrick have been one of the best teams Linfield have faced this season, their naivety being their undoing. After the game against Linfield in November, I felt they would get a big result against a Top 5 team this season, now they’ve got two. Hopefully, not a third when Linfield visit Taylor’s Avenue on 7th March.
That result puts Linfield six points clear of Glentoran. Glentoran still have the title race in their hands as they face Linfield twice (but have to make up twelve goals over nine games), but they have no margin for error. As long as Linfield keep winning, Glentoran have to keep winning just to stay alive in the title race.
The six point lead at the top is deceptive as Coleraine hand a game in hand, which could cut the lead to four points. Good, but not comfortable.
Friday night’s results meant that the identity of the Top 6 has been confirmed, although i’m still expecting Glenavon to somehow have a late surge to 3rd.
That means Linfield will know their final five opponents but not the order, is this will be determined by League positions after Matchday 33.
I have a suspicion dates might be confirmed in advance of that at the request of PSNI/Health and Safety due to some matches that may require ticketing.
One last note about this game, but with the League Cup Final kicking off at 7.30pm, there’s no reason why the Friday night games couldn’t have been played on Saturday afternoon as there’d be no clash, even if the games had earlier starts of 1pm or 2pm.
That said, Friday worked out well for me as I had something to go to on the Saturday afternoon (You’ll see that in the next blog) and the weather on Saturday afternoon may have resulted in a postponement.
Up next, is a home match against Crusaders. This is a big game, an opportunity to not quite kill off Crusaders, but leave them well behind this.
Far too many times this season, Linfield haven’t been ruthless when given the chance to pull away from teams. Not only will a win see Linfield pull further clear of Crusaders, it will put pressure on Cliftonville, Coleraine and Glentoran as they prepare for their Saturday games.
Although, those three play Bottom 6 teams, they should win, it might not be so simple if Linfield have added some pressure on them.
With two defeats in a row, including the League Cup Final, Crusaders are there for the taking. Attack them, don’t play to their tactics, and keep your heads.