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Healy concedes Linfield are in strong position after opening 11-point lead but claims title race not done yet


Shayne Lavery is mobbed by Linfield team-mates after scoring the winner against Ballymena United

Shayne Lavery is mobbed by Linfield team-mates after scoring the winner against Ballymena United

Shayne Lavery is mobbed by Linfield team-mates after scoring the winner against Ballymena United

Shayne Lavery last night grabbed a priceless winner as Linfield galloped 11 points clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table.

David Jeffrey's Ballymena United arrived at Windsor Park determined to throw a spanner into David Healy's blue juggernaut and also keep alive their hopes of claiming a top-six place - but they achieved neither.

When Mark Haughey headed the champions into an early lead, the floodgates were expected to open - but although the Blues bossed possession, Shay McCartan levelled midway through the half.

It was left to Lavery to seal the deal after the break with his 21st goal of the season.

With only six games remaining, Healy is on course to parade the Gibson Cup for the fourth time in his five years in charge but, typically, he was in no mood to discuss the prospect.

"The players have put themselves into a great position, but that's all it is," said the former Northern Ireland striker.

"The players deserve enormous credit because you really couldn't foresee a season like this. At the start of October, no one could have predicted the amount of games and the challenges we would have faced.

"They should be proud of themselves. This was a hard-fought win, but we expected that against Ballymena.

"We got so much joy for the first 25 minutes but didn't capitalise on the amount of chances we had and the inevitable happened. It was frustrating, but we regrouped and Shayne got a big goal for us to win it. He may have missed a couple earlier on, but when another opportunity came along he didn't let us down."

The Blues forged ahead on 16 minutes with Haughey (below) gobbling up his first goal of the season. Kirk Millar whipped in a trademark delivery from the left and the defender's powerful header ballooned the net.

The Blues almost struck again when Jordan Stewart sent Lavery racing into the box, only for Dylan Graham to rescue his team.

United were level before the half-hour. Ross Larkin, under pressure from Ryan Waide, was fortunate he didn't concede a penalty, handling on the edge of the box. It hardly mattered as McCartan smashed the free-kick into the top corner.

United could have been in front four minutes before the interval with McCartan producing a brilliant 40-yard dash before picking out Waide. Although his shot was blocked, the ball looped to Paul McElroy but Chris Johns pushed his header wide.

But Lavery had better luck on 65 minutes. Millar displayed great work on the right, turning past Ross Redman before clipping in a great cross that was powered home by the striker.

United almost sneaked an equaliser with practically the last kick only for Johns to produce a wonder save to deny Jonny Addis.

United boss Jeffrey said: "We are disappointed, but Kirk Millar produced two wonderful crosses for their goals. They were two quality goals. I thought we played tremendously well."

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