Jamie Mulgrew to the rescue for Linfield
Ballymena United 1 Linfield 2: It was fitting that on an afternoon when Linfield's title challenge looking to be sinking into rocky waters, a sub was sent for to save the day.
Jamie Mulgrew was summoned from dry dock at the start of the second period against a Ballymena United side who had holed the Blues with a goal right on the stroke of half-time.
Within 20 minutes, order had been restored; Mulgrew slipping seamlessly into his usual midfield berth alongside inspirational captain Michael Gault and hammering in a torpedo of a shot that left the hosts' on-loan goalkeeper Johann Lacroix grasping at thin air.
A major turning point was the sending off of United midfielder Tony Kane three minutes after the restart following a tangle with Niall Quinn that earned his second yellow card of the day and, when Philip Lowry headed home an equaliser, the script was being penned for Mulgrew to save the day.
He did so when Gault's free-kick on goal bounced off the wall and Mulgrew watched it roll into his path, took careful aim and unleashed his thunderbolt of a winner.
Supersub is not, however, what he wants to be and the Blues looked a different team when he came on – increased industry coupled with guile proving to be an invaluable commodity – but, for Mulgrew, it was all about the three points.
"It's all about trying to make a difference when things aren't going too well and it's my responsibility to come on and try and help the boys out to change a result that looked like we were going to get beaten," he explained.
"Obviously I'm pleased that I've scored and, more importantly, we've got the three points. I saw the ball coming and had time to set myself to try and get a good strike on it and thankfully that happened.
"It went through quite a few bodies and into the net and obviously I was over the moon to get that.
"To be honest with you I don't know why Gaulty was taking it! Usually he's never near them but obviously he wanted to take responsibility, but luckily enough it came back to me and I was able to get a good strike on it and get the goal."
How crucial the goal will be will become apparent only at the end of the campaign but Mulgrew's attitude of not feeling sorry for himself and wanting to wrestle the Gibson Cup off Cliftonville has an ominous familiarity to it.
"It's the way this league has been going all season. On Saturday, and against Warrenpoint as well, we've shown our desire and our determination to become champions again," he warned.
"That's our main aim and our main goal. Last year was a massive disappointment and maybe we didn't have that hunger and desire last year and I think we've shown we are hungry for it and more than capable of putting up a good challenge and hopefully stay in front.
"This was one of those games you have to win to win the league.
"Maybe it wasn't the prettiest football, we had to dig in and work hard and we had that in abundance.
"The boss just said he wanted me to come on and make runs, commit people and just try and make a difference really.
"Thankfully that made a difference and that's all you do as a substitute.
"There's been a couple of games I haven't started, for whatever reason I don't know, but this is the club I want to be at and enjoy being at, so I just have to knuckle down and try to do my best.
"It stretches our lead but we won't be getting carried away. Cliftonville and Crusaders are more than capable of clawing back and putting on a great run of games so we won't be getting carried away with ourselves."
It's a result that will eat away at United boss Glenn Ferguson – his side's excellent unbeaten run undone by a largely self-inflicted wound with Kane's dismissal because, when it was 11 against 11, they were more than a match for the table-toppers.
"We showed for a good 55 minutes how we would have done," he argued.
"We were in front, managing everything they threw at us. It's difficult enough playing against Linfield with 11 v 11 but when you go down to 10 v 11, and they get two quick-fire goals, it's tough to compete with them.
"We've just got to dust ourselves down.
"We play in the cup on Tuesday night and hopefully get another crack at them in the next round."
BALLYMENA: Lacroix, Ervin, Munster (McCullagh, 72 mins), Stewart, Taylor, Thompson (Surgenor, 84 mins), Kane, Jenkins, Cushley, Boyce, Teggart (Ruddy, 72 mins). Unused subs: McLellan, Davidson.
LINFIELD: Tuffey, BJ Burns, Quinn, Haughey, Ward, Gault, A Burns (Tipton, 71 mins), Lowry, Waterworth, Carvill (Mulgrew, 46 mins), Sproule. Unused subs: McVey, M Clarke, R Clarke.
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)