Linfield 2
Ballymena United 0
League (NIFL Premiership)


Linfield 

2 - 0

Ballymena United


League (NIFL Premiership)
Saturday, February 24th, 2024
Windsor Park
Attendance: 2,095
3:00 PM Kick-off


Goalscorers
Kyle McClean (54)
Matthew Fitzpatrick (78)
None.

Team Managers
David Healy Jim Ervin

Starting Eleven
1. Chris Johns
2. Daniel Finlayson
3. Euan East
8. Kyle McClean
15. Ben Hall
16. Matthew Clarke
22. Jamie Mulgrew
27. Ethan McGee
29. Matthew Fitzpatrick
36. Rhys Annett
53. Joshua Archer
Sean O'Neill .1
Daithi McCallion .39
Jamie Robinson .31
Steven McCullough .11
Sean Brown .29
Donal Rocks .4
Dylan Boyle .28
Kym Nelson .2
Fraser Taylor .16
Calvin McCurry .36
Noah Stewart .33

Bench
51. Marc Walsh
4. Michael Newberry
7. Kirk Millar
9. Joel Cooper
12. Darragh McBrien
17. Christopher McKee
34. Dane McCullough
Sam Johnston .26
Ben Mallon .34
Andrew McGrory .17
Brendan Barr .35
Michael Place .30
James Hood .41
Lewis Tennant .21

Substitutions
Christopher McKee for Rhys Annett (66)
Kirk Millar for Jamie Mulgrew (83)
Dane McCullough for Matthew Clarke (90)
Michael Place for Calvin McCurry (76)
Brendan Barr for Donal Rocks (85)
James Hood for Fraser Taylor (85)

Cautions
None. None.

Red Cards
None. None.

Match Officials

Steven Gregg (Referee)
Gavin Hegarty & Octavian George Neascu (Assistants)
Ross Dunlop (Fourth Official)



Match Report


Two second half goals were enough to condemn Ballymena United to another defeat at The National Football Stadium at Windsor Park as they fell to a 2-0 defeat to Linfield on Saturday afternoon.

Ahead of a second trip to Windsor this month following the Irish Cup exit three weeks ago, Jim Ervin made just the one change from the side that were unfortunate to lose out to Larne a week ago, as Sean Brown returned to the starting line up ahead of Mikey Place.

In that cup defeat a few weeks ago, United more than held their own for the majority of the tie, and this time it was the same story for the first half, with little separating the sides. A bright start from the men in black resulted in the game's first chance ten minutes in, as Donal Rocks and Calvin McCurry combined down the right before the latter teed up Brown, but his effort flew over the crossbar. Despite a fairly low key start from the Blues, Rhys Annett probably should've had the hosts ahead not long after Brown's shot when a dragged shot from Jamie Mulgrew fell to the forward at close range, but he could only divert over.

As little continued to split the sides sat second and second bottom in the table, how close the teams were was evident as both Linfield and Ballymena rattled the woodwork within a few minutes of each other. First up, it was the visitors denied when a fantastic burst forward by Kym Nelson ended with the centre half miss-hitting a shot, but when it was wonderfully kept alive by Rocks who refused to give up on the ball, it fell to Noah Stewart who smashed a shot off the post from close range. Having just saw their opponents go agonisingly close to taking a lead that wouldn't have been against the run of play, Linfield did the same themselves. A cross from Daniel Finlayson landed at the feet of Annett, but he couldn't control and the ball ricocheted to Joshua Archer inside the six-yard box, but as he looked set to slide the ball home, he instead strangely opted for power and saw his effort smash back off the bar.

The final ten minutes of the half saw Linfield gain a real sense of control for the first time all half, but that was after Ballymena had gone close again after a terrific team move. The Braidmen worked their way up the pitch with a succession of passes, and the move ended with Stewart laying the ball off for Steven McCullough, who saw a drilled effort from outside the box tipped round the post by Chris Johns. Within that period of hosts pressure, they only really mustered a couple of half chances, as first Archer hammered a ball across goal that was turned wide at the near post by Matthew Clarke, before Matthew Fitzpatrick teed himself up for an overhead kick that went over the bar, as the curtain came down on a promising half from United, who were defensively sound and threatened going the other way.

Unfortunately for the Sky Blues, the second half failed to live up to the levels of the first as the half went on. Linfield started brightly, though not particularly dangerously, but after Archer fizzed a shot wide, the Blues opened the scoring ten minutes into the half as poor marking continued to plague United in their box. The home side had to be patient in their play but eventually they worked the ball out to Ethan McGee down the right, and his curling cross found Kyle McClean in acres of space in the box, but still with work to do he guided a tidy, looping header into the far corner.

The opening goal seemed to suck the confidence out of Ballymena, who in the final forty odd minutes of the game, could barely get the ball to stay forward, let alone create an opening for a leveller. That said, David Healy's men weren't peppering Sean O'Neill's goal much themselves, but were able to gain a level of control on proceedings that was absent at times in the opening period. It took a good twenty minutes after McClean's opener for another decent chance, and it fell to Euan East after a cross from the right was hung up at the back post for Clarke to nod back across goal, but East's stab goalwards went just wide.

Despite just the one goal in it, Ballymena's real lack of creativity, often caused by a disjointedness between when to play and when to look long, meant the Blues were perhaps comfortable with a solo goal lead, but with twelve minutes to go that gap was widened when Linfield bagged a second. It wasn't great from United in the middle of the park as they lost possession and a lack of runners meant they failed to ever get back in position, allowing Finlayson to float a ball over the top for Matthew Fitzpatrick, who honed in on goal before delivering a composed finish past O'Neill.

With the game now up, it was a quiet final ten minutes with Fitzpatrick firing wide the only real effort, and as Ballymena still struggled to find any creative spark, the highlight of their closing stages was the introduction of sixteen-year-old James Hood from the bench, to make his senior debut.

Things fizzled out as Linfield eased home to close the gap at the top, but for Ballymena it was a really promising first half display that was met by a lacklustre second, at albeit a tough away day, as they continue to look over their shoulder.

Match report written by Philip McPeake (www.ballymenaunitedfc.com)



Squad Statistics (as at February 24th, 2024)


2023-2024 All Time
Age
Sean O'Neill (GK)35 32 - 95 -
Daithi McCallion18 3 - 3 -
Steven McCullough29 3312429
Jamie Robinson21 7 - 7 -
Sean Brown18 7 - 7 -
Donal Rocks23 24 - 24 -
Kym Nelson28 28 - 835
Dylan Boyle22 25 - 25 -
Fraser Taylor21 332332
Noah Stewart19 247247
Calvin McCurry22 5 - 5 -
Michael Place (sub)25 312918
Brendan Barr (sub)22 3 - 40 -
James Hood (sub) - 1 - 1 -



League Table (as at February 24th, 2024)


Pld W D L Pts
1. Larne 30 22 7 1 73
2. Linfield 31 23 3 5 72
3. Cliftonville 31 21 4 6 67
4. Glentoran 29 14 7 8 49
5. Crusaders 30 14 6 10 48
6. Coleraine 30 11 5 14 38
7. Carrick 30 10 5 15 35
8. Loughgall 30 9 6 15 33
9. Dungannon 30 8 7 15 31
10. Glenavon 29 9 3 17 30
11. BALLYMENA 30 5 4 21 19
12. Newry 30 3 5 22 14