Ballymena United 1 Linfield 4
Linfield took advantage of Ballymena’s lack of confidence and failings at the back to ease to victory at the Showgrounds and increase their lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership to six points.
A horror defensive mix-up on the stroke of half-time allowed the Blues to come from behind and lead at the break and second half goals from skipper Jamie Callacher and leading scorer Andy Waterworth gave the defending champions their biggest away win since October.
Ballymena boss David Jeffrey, after last Saturday’s defeat by Carrick Rangers – their sixth in succession – made no fewer than six changes with goalkeeper Ross Glendinning, Scot Whiteside, Joe McCready, Andy McGrory and Leroy Millar the only survivors.
For 20 minutes, the refreshed team matched their visitors and deserved took the lead through Joe McCready. The Blues certainly had enough warning of the big striker’s prowess. In the 13th minute, he found space to get in a shot which was charged down and a minute later he showed an impressive burst of speed down the right to outstrip Niall Quinn. His cross wasn’t dealt with by the defence and Tony Kane’s shot was blocked by Jamie Callacher.
Five minutes later, Ballymena’s goal drought in the league – which had lasted 290 minutes - was ended. A throw-in from Kofi Balmer to McCready who played a first-time 1-2 with Andrew Burns and the striker ran unchallenged into the box and with the outside of his right foot found the corner past Rohan Ferguson’s right hand.
It was the seventh successive away game in which Linfield had conceded but this time it fired the champions into a fightback. They were behind for only five minutes.
It was a poor goal defensively however with Kirk Millar’s left wing corner met at the back post by an unmarked Mark Haughey who headed in the equaliser.
Lesson unlearnt, it nearly happened again on the half-hour, when a corner on the right was met at the back post by Callacher but this time the header was straight at Ross Glendinning.
In the last seconds of injury time, Balmer allowed Joel Cooper to run along the byline and when Glendinning and his defence failed to deal with the loose ball, Jordan Stewart gratefully stepped in to tap home.
It is more than three years since this fixture produced more than three goals and for much of the second half, Linfield must have thought that they had done enough to win this one.
Their raids on Glendinning’s goal became more infrequent and it was United who threatened to score again. Substitute Stephen McCullough went closest with a header and then a 25 yards free-kick, both of which flew just wide of the right hand upright.
The missed chances were to prove decisive as the Blues scored from their first corner of the second half, in the 74th minute. Waterworth headed the ball on at the near post and although it seemed to be going into the net, Callacher was at the back post to make sure.
With the win points safely in the bag, Linfield could enjoy the closing stages and 10 minutes from time, Cooper’s jinking run took him past two defenders before firing a shot against the crossbar; it bounced out for Andy Waterworth to make no mistake from the rebound, his fifth goal in his third match since his return to the starting line-up.
Ballymena: Ross Glendinning; Burns, Whiteside, Balmer; McGrory, Kelly, Kane, Millar (McCullough, h/t), Lavery; Lecky, McCready. Unused subs: Williamson, Addis, Knowles, Winchester, Reece Glendinning
Linfield: Ferguson: Casement, Haughey, Callacher, Quinn; Millar, Fallon, McClean (Hery 81 mins), Cooper; Stewart (Clarke 76 mins); Waterworth (Currie 86 mins). Unused subs: Moore, Stafford, Kearns, Boyle.
Man of the match: Jamie Callacher
Match Rating: 7/10
Referee: Tony Clarke (Newtownabbey)