Stafford eyeing Blue Christmas
Linfield 2 Ballymena Utd 1
Goal hero Mark Stafford admits Linfield had to show the ugly side of their game to rescue three points at Windsor Park on Saturday.
The Blues' Bank Danske Premiership title aspirations appeared to have hit the buffers when Tony Kane rammed home a penalty kick - his 13th goal of the season - just three minutes from time, cancelling out Jimmy Callacher's opener.
But, as Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey dared to anticipate a successful return to the club he served with distinction for a 17-year period, Stafford struck right at the death.
Substitute Aaron Burns whipped in a delightful cross from the left four minutes into injury time and the big defender launched himself to send a rocket header past a bewildered Alan Blayney.
It sparked scenes of raw emotion involving players, supporters and backroom staff in the Linfield dugout.
"There was an out-pour of emotions, on and off the pitch, it was a great feeling," said Stafford. "We were not very impressive performance-wise by any means and it wasn't pretty at times. We knew what exactly we were in for.
"It was a battle, sometimes you have to dig in and win ugly. I'm really proud of that bunch of boys and the fighting spirit they showed."
The big Irvinestown man insists it was a massive three points as the Blues managed to hang on to the tails of table-topping Crusaders.
Things looked so good when Callacher headed the Blues in front early in the second half, but a rather harsh penalty award by referee Lee Tavinder threatened to highjack the occasion. He deemed that Niall Quinn handled a shot from Leroy Millar, who was no more than two yards away.
Kane stepped up to slot home his 11th spot kick of the season.
Stafford added: "I actually said to Jim Ervin with about half an hour to go that there will be a decision in this game, a soft one, that will favour United.
"They duly got the penalty award. In my opinion, it was a soft decision. But decisions like that can be the difference sometimes between winning, drawing or losing.
"Once they equalised, we didn't panic. I just feel this team will also create chances.
"When Burnsie got the ball wide on the left, I took a gamble because I knew he could create something.
"And, when he put in a great ball, I just had to get my head on it."
It was an emotional return for Jeffrey, who was given a great ovation by the home supporters when he emerged.
"It was tremendous - a lovely warm reception that cooled as the game progressed," he quipped. "It didn't take them long start giving me pelters.
"Perhaps we should have seen the game out but, to be fair to Linfield, they kept going and going. Because of that, they deserved the victory.
"I suppose the biggest compliment we got was reflected in the Linfield celebrations at the finish. In all my 17 years at Windsor Park, I can never remember celebrations quite like that after a win over Ballymena United."
Linfield: Carroll Haughey, Stafford, Callacher, Quinn, Millar (Burns, 69 mins), Ward (Casement, 83 mins), Mulgrew, Lowry (Carson, 88 mins), Gaynor, Waterworth. Unused subs: Clarke, Fallon.
Ballymena: Blayney, T Kane, Ervin, Owens, McCracken, Millar, McCaffrey (Taggart, 75 mins), Jenkins, Faulkner, Friel, McMurray (Henderson, 78 mins). Unused subs: E Kane, Loughran, McCauley.
Referee: Lee Tavinder (Dungannon)