At this same weekend in 2016 and 2017, Linfield faced Ballinamallard and ground out a tense 2-1 win on each occasion.
Those two times, they were going for the title. This time around, it was 3rd place and possible automatic qualification for the UEFA Cup.
Linfield were aided in the build-up to this on the Tuesday night when Cliftonville lost 2-1 at home to Ballymena, meaning that Linfield had a four point lead over Cliftonville.
This match was supposed to be on the Saturday, but it was brought forward to the Friday night due to Northern Ireland playing South Korea in a friendly.
That has been covered previously on this blog and will be touched on again later.
I had to take some excess carry over Annual Leave and chose this day before this game was rescheduled. I was originally intending to go and see Paloma Faith at The Odyssey. I decided to give that as miss as the concert was all seater, which was a bit wank. She doesn’t do music that you can enjoy sitting down.
So that was the motivation for Linfield, at least be a more entertaining option than Paloma Faith.
There were two changes for Linfield. One was enforced, with Andrew Mitchell coming in for the injured Jamie Mulgrew, and Achille Campion coming in for Kurtis Byrne.
Linfield began putting pressure on the Ballinamallard goal. Achille Campion was played in but couldn’t control the ball, but did enough to set up Niall Quinn, whose shot was blocked by a defender.
Quinn was denied again as he looked to head a cross into an empty net, but a Ballinamallard defender got the ball before him and denied him.
Linfield couldn’t keep the pressure up and Ballinamallard came more into the game. Alex Moore was forced into a save from a long range shot by Stephen O’Flynn.
Moore had a few dodgy moments from goal kicks, going straight out of play, as if he was putting the ball out for a line out. I suppose that’s what happens when you go to a rugby school.
There was also some confusion in defence by not making himself available for backpasses.
There were no complaints about his shotstopping, Linfield were giving him enough opportunities to showcase his shotstopping.
He did manage to hit a Copper on the head with one of his clearances.
It was the only thing of note a Linfield player did in the first-half.
In the early minutes of the second-half, Linfield began to have more attacking cohesion. Niall Quinn went agonisingly wide. Andrew Waterworth put the ball in the back of the net from the rebound. Unfortunately, it was after the ball bounced back into play.
48 minutes, Linfield had finally turned up.
Naturally, the way this season had been going, Ballinamallard were going to score, which they did when a cross was headed in by Ryan Curran.
Linfield responded with some good play down the left which saw a low shot from Matthew Clarke be saved, as Stephen Lowry came off the bench to replace Andrew Mitchell.
The next big moment from a Linfield player came from Alex Moore, as Sean Noble ran through on goal only to see his shot saved by Moore.
Clarke was then replaced by Kurtis Byrne as Linfield went in search of an equaliser.
That came when Mark Stafford headed home from a free-kick to make it 1-1, his first goal against his former club. With twenty minutes to go, there was still time for Linfield to push on and get a winner.
The opportunity for that came soon afterwards when Linfield got a penalty, awarded for a handball by Stephen O’Flynn. It was soft, but we’ll happily take it.
Andrew Waterworth’s last two penalties had been chipped in, Panenka style. This was not really the time for such a thing. Thankfully, he didn’t, blasting it low into the back of the net to put Linfield 2-1 up.
Kurtis Byrne then had a low shot tipped around the post as they looked to make it 3-1 and secure the points, while Jimmy Callacher saw a header bounce over the bar, just as he did against Carrick Rangers a few weeks previously.
Sandwiched inbetween that, was a red card for Ballinamallard substitute Joshua McIlwaine for a late tackle on Niall Quinn just a few minutes after coming on.
Everything was falling into place for Linfield.
Or so we thought, as 91 minutes approached, a sloppy pass from Robert Garrett went to Ryan Curran, who played in Sean Noble, who made it 2-2.
I was at the other end, and it was clear Noble was going to score as soon as he got the ball. One pass was all it took from Ballinamallard, it was yet another bad goal to concede.
You don’t want to single players out, but that’s the third time this season Garrett has lost possession late in the game that has led to a goal.
Points lost to Cliftonville (September), Coleraine (October), Warrenpoint (December), Glentoran (December) and now Ballinamallard to last minute goals.
It can’t be bad luck, it can’t just be coincidence. There’s something wrong this season that Linfield can’t see games out, or push all the way to the end.
To make it worse, Garrett was under no pressure when he had the ball.
There was still time for Linfield to win the game, but Ballinamallard held out. It got even worse when results from elsewhere came through.
Glenavon lost 3-2 to Dungannon Swifts while Cliftonville beat Ards 3-0.
Linfield are now three points behind 3rd place Glenavon and two points ahead of 5th place Cliftonville.
Even though Linfield closed the gap to 3rd, this was two points dropped. Linfield should be comfortably in 3rd the amount of points that Glenavon have dropped in the last two months.
As stated in the Glentoran write-up, it pains me to say that Cliftonville are going to finish 3rd. They have the momentum. Even when they managed to lose to Ballymena on the Tuesday before this, they still ended the week in a better position. It’s all coming up Milhouse for them.
Linfield are five goals better than Cliftonville and five worse than Glenavon in terms of goal difference.
If Linfield beat Glenavon over Easter, they will go level on points with them, and will only need to make up three goals over four games in order to finish 3rd.
If they beat them by three goals, they’ll jump into 3rd.
I don’t think the players realise the importance of getting 3rd, as it could possibly get us automatically into Europe (Irish Cup results dependent) meaning we get to skip the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.
That may not be what we wanted at the start of the season, but that’s where we are. Time to focus minds.
There was doubt in the week leading up to this game as to wether this game was going ahead.
On Sunday night, rumours circulated that the game would be postponed to enable Ballinamallard to play Ballymena instead if 6th was still to be decided, to allow Glentoran and Ballymena to play their 33rd game simultaneously, against each other.
This was backed up by Linfield having to put out a statement to clarify the situation on Monday.
The fact that NIFL even considered this option was ridiculous.
Ballymena United v Ballinamallard needing to be rearranged is a fallout from the saga of Ballymena United v Cliftonville in the NIFL Cup. I bet you thought this was long resolved.
Ballymena United v Ballinamallard United was due to be played on Saturday 10th February, but was postponed so that Ballymena could play Cliftonville instead.
The new date for Ballymena v Ballinamallard was Tuesday 13th March, but it was postponed again to accommodate Ballymena’s postponed Irish Cup tie against Larne.
I spotted it at the time, that Ballymena will have to play their 33rd game after the scheduled date. Did nobody at NIFL spot it?
Glentoran and Ballymena United have been scrapping it out for 6th place all season. Did nobody at NIFL not spot that it might need to be decided by their meeting on Matchday 33?
Even more ridiculous, was the expectation that Ballymena would have to get arrangements in place for a home game at three days notice, as well as Ballinamallard players having to change their arrangements from a home match to an away match on a working day.
And lastly, there are the fans of Glentoran, Ballymena United and Ballinamallard United. It’s always the fans who are lastly.
It got even more ridiculous. The proposed date suggested for a potential rearrangement of Ballinamallard United v Linfield was Monday 26th March.
Surely, if it had to be rearranged, they could have used Saturday 31st March as both sides will have a free Saturday due to being out of the Irish Cup.
And on that note, I know the Irish Cup Semi-Finals are on the same weekend as last year, but surely someone would have noticed it was Easter Saturday?
Why could they not be played on Saturday 7th April? It would still leave a four week turnaround between the Semi-Final and Final.
In 2015, the Irish Cup Semi-Finals were moved out of their traditional weekend as it fell on Easter, so it could have been done.
Why are clubs not involved in the Irish Cup not given the opportunity to play their Easter Tuesday games on the Saturday instead?
Warrenpoint are playing Dungannon in a rearranged game, so it could have been done.
Linfield’s post split fixture list is complete, and will be (All in April, Home games in CAPITALS)
07 BALLYMENA UNITED
Now that Ballymena finished 6th, they would be going in on a decent run of form, and could do us a favour by getting something against Cliftonville, who will then face Crusaders or Coleraine on April 7th.
We still need to get results to help ourselves.
Ironically, Linfield closed the gap on Glenavon in 3rd. You would have taken that at the start of the night. It was the manner of this result though. We didn’t have many chances, but we took them, only to present Ballinamallard on when they didn’t look like getting back into the game.
How many times this season have we said “We didn’t look like drawing/losing ….” but we did?
There’s ten days until the next match, and this result is going to stink the place out until then.