For Linfield, it was one in the bag and two to play for. Ballymena United also had two to play for, but they had two gone.
Those two that were gone (County Antrim Shield and League Cup) came courtesy of defeats to Linfield. A third defeat to Linfield wouldn’t have seen a third trophy slip from Ballymena’s grasp, but it would put them up against it in the race for the Gibson Cup.
Linfield kicked off six points clear of Ballymena United but with a game more played. Even though points in the bag trump games in hand, when evaluating a League table, you should always assume that a team will win their game in hand. Effectively, Linfield had a three point lead.
A win here would make it a nine point lead, but with a game more played, making it effectively six points. But, as said earlier, points in the bag trumps games in hand, especially as it isn’t for another month. A whole month where Ballymena would be trying to keep up with Linfield and have no margin for error.
Pre-match, I didn’t expect anything dramatic in terms of Linfield’s team selection. If there was to be a change from the League Cup Final, I thought it would have been Joel Cooper (if fit, it turned out he wasn’t) for Matthew Clarke.
Matthew Clarke would find himself on the bench for this game, but it would be Ryan McGivern who replaced him for his debut, his only previous appearance coming in a Friendly on the day he signed, against the PSNI in July, his time at Windsor Park being blighted by injury.
There were also starts for Daniel Kearns and Marek Cervenka at the expense of Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart.
McGivern was involved in the opening minutes, having to hook clear a goalbound effort from Andy McGrory, after he got in behind Linfield’s defence and flicked it past Gareth Deane, the effort didn’t have enough power to go in, making it easy for McGivern to clear.
Despite Ballymena having a lot of the ball, Linfield had two opportunities to score, both involving Andrew Waterworth.
In the opening minutes, he hit an instinctive shot which just went wide, before a half chance was blocked by a Ballymena defender and then bounced off another defender and then over for a corner. The second incident came around the same stage of the game that he scored last week.
Waterworth was then involved in another incident where Linfield almost scored by accident, when Jamie Mulgrew ran towards goal after getting to a ball first that he was the underdog to get, his shot at goal hit Andrew Waterworth and changed direction, but Ross Glendenning was able to get across to the ball, with the deflection off Waterworth taking the sting out of the shot.
By this point, Tony Kane was booked for a foul on Jamie Mulgrew, but it wasn’t tactical fouls that Ballymena were using to deny Linfield, it was the winning of cheap free-kicks, engineering soft free-kicks any time a Linfield player went near them.
In the final moments of the first-half, Ballymena had a glorious opportunity to score when Scott Whiteside headed over unmarked from a few yards out. He really should have scored.
Despite Ballymena having a lot of the ball, and a lot of attacking situations, Gareth Deane didn’t have a save to make.
Linfield wouldn’t get away with another 45 minutes like that though, they had to step it up.
And that is what they did, attacking at Ballymena, who couldn’t get the ball off them. They had to make the most of it.
Josh Robinson ran forward with the ball, similar to what he did for the winning goal last weekend. With Ballymena getting ready to defend his pass, space began to open up for Linfield, with Chris Casement free in a crossing position on the right hand sand.
Robinson ignored him and hit a shot at goal. Before you could scream “What are you doing?” at him ignoring a team mate in space, the ball crashed off the bar.
From the resulting play, Ballymena could only concede a corner, which Robinson headed home, instantly forgetting about his near miss.
Even though the first two games this season between the sides saw the team who conceded first recover to win, you had the feeling that this would only be a one goal game, and Linfield had got it.
But they wanted more, and they needed more to be absolutely certain.
They almost got that much needed second goal when Andrew Waterworth flicked goalwards, but Jim Ervin, lucky to be available for selection for this game after his tackle on Jamie Mulgrew last week, took the sting out of it, meaning that Ross Glendenning was able to make an easy save.
With only one goal in it, Ballymena always felt like they could get something out of it.
With minutes remaining, Shane McGinty headed against the crossbar. You felt that was Ballymena’s best chance gone.
There was still time for some late drama, as Ballymena claimed for a penalty for a handball by Jimmy Callacher. Players and fans shouted for it in unison. It’s one of those that you will appeal for if you’re the attacking team, but they were never going to get it.
It was blasted at him from a few yards away, his hands weren’t in an unnatural position and he wasn’t looking at the ball. They were never going to get it. It was an ambitious appeal based on desperation.
Linfield won 1-0, with a win will be looked back on as pivotal if they go on to win the League. For the first time since October, there is daylight between Linfield and Ballymena United.
Ballymena’s game in hand makes the nine point lead deceptive. Even if it is cut to six, that is still a healthy lead and a good foundation for Linfield to see the job out. If we don’t, a lot of serious questions questions will have to be asked.
As well as a healthy points lead, we have a goal difference advantage of eighteen over Ballymena, though that could be overtaken in nineteen games (ten for Ballymena and nine for Linfield).
There’s no time to reflect on this result, with both Linfield and Ballymena back in League action on Tuesday night, in rearranged games that were postponed last weekend due to their involvement in the League Cup Final.
It’s a bit disappointing that Newry game isn’t put back to the Saturday, as both teams are out of the Irish Cup.
But you can flip it around, and we can use the enforced break to rest legs ahead of the final run-in.
Ballymena will face Cliftonville. I would expect Ballymena to win that, even though Cliftonville have won both their games and kept clean sheets under their new manager. In truth, they were two games they should be winning, but hopefully the new manager bounce will continue for a few more days.
On Friday night, Crusaders and Glenavon drew 1-1 in the live TV game, a bit of a surprising choice as you would have thought this game would have been chosen for live TV from this weekend’s fixture list.
That result means Crusaders are eleven points behind Linfield with a game more played. In truth, they’ve been an irrelevance in the title race for a long time. It was only the fact that they got games played while others had games postponed and got points on board which made them seem closer to the top of the League than they really were.
At this time of year, you start looking at fixtures coming up, and the form of teams playing you or your rivals. Glenavon are on a run of form after a Winter slump, while Institute have won two in a row, while Dungannon were on a decent run of form until defeat at Institute.
No points will be given out free to Linfield, but we’re on a decent run of form ourselves – eight wins in a row now.
And that’s all we can do, keep winning. If we do that, nobody can deny us the title.
A familiar face returned to Irish League football, with Warren Feeney being appointed manager of Ards.
The last time he managed a team in the Irish League, he sat on top of it, but he began his return at the bottom, but ended the day second bottom.
If you’re a fan of subplots, he won’t be making an impact on the title race, as Ards have already faced Linfield and Ballymena three times this season.
It will be him hoping for a favour from Linfield rather than Linfield getting a favour from him, which hopefully Linfield will deliver against Newry. They’ll be looking to help themselves. If anyone else benefits, so be it.
As a side note, the Irn Bru Cup Final will be held in Inverness, meaning a 10 mile trip for one team, and a 300 mile trip for the other. I’m not an active follower of Scottish football, but i’m starting to sense they make it up as they go along.
Surely somewhere in the Central Belt would have been an option?
Despite that, i’m looking forward to Linfield more than likely being back in the competition next season.
The weekend of that game, Linfield are away to Dungannon in a game that will be live on BBC Two on the Friday night, the second of two Friday night games in March.
That scheduling gives Linfield a chance to get more points on the board and really put the pressure on a Ballymena side who will have no margin for error.
That’s all we have to do, keep winning.