Bates in from the cold to ride to Blues' rescue
Linfield 2 - Ballymena Utd 1
Guy Bates admitted had only one thing on his mind when he was given the nod in this Tennent's Irish Cup thriller at Windsor Park - to bag the winner.
The 30-year-old striker has been frozen out of late by the emergence of new kid on the block Paul Smyth, but when David Healy introduced Bates for the 30 minutes of extra time, he didn't disappoint.
A dreaded penalty shoot-out appeared to be the likely outcome for two teams that gave their all in a typical hard-fought cup tie. That was until Bates dived to meet a delicious cross from Kirk Millar with only five minutes remaining which was greeted by a massive roar that reverberated around the impressive new international arena.
It was a goal fit to grace any occasion - and how Batsey enjoyed it.
"It was good to get a little bit of action at last," he said. "Young Smyth has come into the side and he has been excellent.
"The team is on a good roll, so I knew I had to work even harder to get back in. I needed to be 100% ready to take my chance when it did come."
In fact, Bates was only on the pitch a matter of seconds when a Millar cross landed at his feet, but he could only manage to shoot against Alan Blayney from point blank range.
Andy Waterworth bagged his 21st goal of the season to shoot the Blues into the lead after the interval, but United replied through a Gary Thompson header in what was their first genuine effort at goal.
Nathan Hanley thought he had won it for the visitors near the finish, but his shot was somehow hoofed off the line by the outstretched boot of Jimmy Callacher.
The advantage tilted in favour of United when Paul Smyth was dismissed by referee Arnold Hunter after picking up a second yellow card. But with the odds stacked against them, the Blues rallied with Bates producing the coup de grace as the clock ticked down.
In the dying seconds, United were also reduced to 10 men when Johnny Taylor was dismissed for apparently kicking out at Blues new boy Ross Gaynor.
On his goal, Bates remarked: "What a ball from Kirk. He has been superb over the past three or four weeks. When he's on that form, he is almost unplayable."
It was another gutsy showing that suggested Healy has now really turned things around since moving into the manager's chair.
"We always believe in ourselves," added Bates. "After the poor month of November, which was well documented, we always believed we could regroup. With the quality we have all over the pitch, we know we'll create chances.
"We had a new manager just into the job. Obviously, he wanted to get his own ideas across ... they way he wanted us to play. It takes time to adjust.
"But we are now in a good run of form. We'll certainly not get too far ahead of ourselves.."
The Blues now have home advantage over Armagh City on February 6, but Bates will be taking nothing for granted.
"You always want a home draw, so that's good," he went on. "But to me there are no favourable ties, regardless of what team you draw ... it's the magic of the cup."
United manager Glenn Ferguson insisted his team failed to take advantage of having the extra man
"We had a number of chances to win it, but failed to take them," he said. "When Linfield went down to 10 men, we thought the job was done and we switched off for their winner. For some reason, we couldn't take advantage of the extra man."
LINFIELD: Ross Glendinning, Hegarty (Reece Glendinning, 68 mins), Haughey, Callacher, Waterworth (Bates, 91 mins), Millar, Ward (Gaynor, 80 mins), Clarke, Mulgrew, Quinn, Smyth. Unused subs: Deane, Kee.
Ballymena: Blayney, Kane, McBride (Hanley, 62 mins), Taylor, Thompson, Taggart (Shevlin, 70 mins), Jenkins, Cushley, Faulkner (Nixon, 106 mins), Kane, Ervin. Unused subs: McNally, Henderson.
Man of the match: Kirk Millar
Match rating: 8/10
Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge)