David Jeffrey salutes Joel Cooper 'brilliance' as Linfield's wing menace beats Ballymena
Linfield 2 Ballymena United 1
Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey was a judge at a Strictly Come Dancing contest on Saturday night, but he admitted it was the quick feet of Joel Cooper that caught his eye at Windsor Park.
The 23-year-old bagged two glorious goals to keep the Linfield title juggernaut bang on track - the victory inching David Healy's side to within five points of Danske Bank Premiership leaders Coleraine, but crucially, the current champions have played three games less.
United did give the home fans an uneasy final couple of minutes by reducing the deficit as the game drifted into injury time.
Defender Jimmy Callacher deflected an Andy McGrory cross into his own net, but by that stage it was as good as over.
The damage had been done in a frenetic first half when both sets of fans were treated to a Cooper masterclass - he really was unplayable at times.
He lit up the international arena 10 minutes before the break with a stunning individual goal, waltzing past three opponents before hammering home from distance.
His second was made by Jamie Mulgrew, Mark Stafford and the impressive Kirk Millar, whose cross was met by Cooper and, after a sweet first touch, he found the same corner with his right foot this time.
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Jeffrey, who dashed off to a Ballymena hotel to take part in that charity dancing evening in aid of Braveheartsni, admitted there was just no stopping Cooper.
"Sometimes you just have to put your hands up and admit we were beaten by two pieces of brilliance," said Jeffrey.
"The analysis was straight forward and simple, we were beaten by two great goals from Cooper.
"I was proud of my players. When I looked at the stats, we had as many chances as Linfield. I thought we played well in the first half and even better in the second half.
"You can't say that Linfield didn't deserve to win because when you have that brilliance, that's the difference between the teams."
Cooper, who was given a more central role by Blues boss David Healy, admitted he doesn't remember much about his stunning opener.
"To be honest, I'll have to watch it on television," he smiled. "It was down to instinct. I was looking to pass it (the ball), but there was nothing on. My first thought was keep possession.
"I managed to square off the defender and kept going before getting a sight of goal. I was happy with the second goal because the gaffer keeps telling me to get into the box more.
"Kirk's delivery is brilliant. He puts the ball into good areas, he can put it across the face, or he can play it long. Kirk said to me at half-time that he seen I wasn't getting to the front post, so he was able to cut it back.
"He's been doing that for a long time. I don't expect anything else from Kirk."
Cooper's delicious double brings his goal tally to six so far, but he's certainly not content with that.
"It's something I'm working on," he adds. "I know I need to get in and around the box a bit more.
"Andy (Waterworth) has been doing it for years, so it's something I'm trying to add to my game. It's taken me a while get started, so I've been doing a little bit extra on the training pitch.
"The gaffer gave Bas (Bastien Hery) and I a different little role, playing more centrally, and I think Ballymena struggled to pick us up, especially in the first half.
"I like getting into little areas and playing little one-twos - it gives me a better chance of making things happen."
LINFIELD: Ferguson, Stafford, Callacher, Cooper (Stewart 68), Millar, Lavery (Waterworth 78), Clarke, Fallon, Hery (Allen 87), Mulgrew, McGivern. Unused subs: Deane, Larkin, Shevlin, Hume.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Glendinning, Addis, Whiteside (Burns 46), Harpur, McCullough, Kane (Friel 46), McGrory, Winchester, Ervin , Millar, Kelly. Unused subs: Williamson, Mayse, McGinty, Carville, Lavery.
Referee: Jamie Robinson.
Match rating: 7/10.
Man of the match: Joel Cooper.
• The County Antrim FA say "future proposals will be considered" after Linfield broke County Antrim Shield rules in their defeat by Cliftonville.
Linfield would have faced expulsion after bringing on a fourth sub in extra-time against the Reds on Tuesday, but were knocked out on penalties.
David Healy brought on Trai Hume having made three changes before extra-time.
The Association said: "The competition rules are reviewed each season and any future proposals will be considered where appropriate by the Co Antrim FA Senior Shield Committee."