Ballymena United’s miserable league record at Windsor Park continued as they were beaten by Linfield.
David Cushley’s spectacular long-range strike had raised hopes of a first Ballymena win in the championship for more than a decade before title-chasing Linfield battled back to win through goals from Grant McCann and Ross Clarke.
Manager Glenn Ferguson handed a debut to midweek signing Paddy McNally in the centre of defence, while Alan Teggart and Cushley came back into the starting line-up, along with Gary McCutcheon, who had been cup-tied for the previous week’s League Cup final defeat by Cliftonville.
Straight from kick-off, David Cushley’s through ball almost caught Linfield’s Glen Belezika napping but as Ally Teggart nipped in in front of him, the defender recovered quickly to clear the danger.
At the other end, Andy Waterworth’s cross from the left was met with a poor clearance by Stephen McBride straight to Peter Thompson inside the box, but the left-back threw himself in front of the ball enough to rush the former Northern Ireland striker into firing his shot over the bar when well placed.
United almost punished some Linfield sloppiness on three minutes when Ross Glendinning’s casual attempt to chip the ball over the in-rushing Matthew Tipton from a back pass but the attempted cannoned off the striker’s back straight into the arms of the relieved Linfield keeper.
After a lull in play, United went ahead on 18 minutes. Matthew Tipton was brought down by Grant McCann 30 yards from goal and when Tony Kane touched the ball to his left, Cushley advanced a step before unleashing a fierce 25-yard strike beyond the despairing dive of Glendinning.
Linfield attempted to get back on level terms wit McCann playing a free kick into the feet of Andrew Waterworth but after the striker cleverly spun around, he could only fire over the bar.
Waterworth was again off target after latching onto a half-cleared McCann corner, while Sean ward’s slaloming run into the Ballymena penalty area ended with the defender curling a shot inches wide of Dwayne Nelson’s far post.
United almost grabbed a second goal in bizarre circumstances on 41 minutes when Allan Jenkins’ hanging cross from the left dropped onto the top of the crossbar and as Glendinning grabbed the loose ball, he appeared to take a step backwards, coming perilously close to carrying the ball over the goal-line but, despite Ballymena’s protests, the assistant referee closest to the incident remained unmoved.
It proved a pivotal moment as within two minutes, Linfield were level. A cross from the right was met by a clearing header by Jim Ervin but as the loose ball dropped just inside the area, the covering Cushley hesitated momentarily and recent signing McCann nipped in to blast home a shot from 14 yards.
United survived an early scare at the start of the second half when Alan Teggart’s weak clearance went straight to McCann who crossed for Waterworth to head home from close range but to Teggart’s relief, the assistant referee’s flag was raised.
Former Peterborough midfielder McCann was again involved when his 25-yard free kick landed on top of Nelson’s net.
Ballymena spurned a rare opening as Tipton’s through ball found Alan Teggart, who controlled the ball neatly before screwing a shot wide with his less favoured right foot, when in a good position.
Linfield went in front on 74 minutes when Ross Clarke somehow made a yard of space in a crowded penalty area and sneaked past Stephen McBride before firing high into the roof of Nelson’s net for what proved to be the winner.
Linfield: Glendinning, Belezika, Haughey, Ward, Quinn, Burns, McCann (sub Lowry 83), Mulgrew, Clarke, Waterworth, Thompson (sub Carvill 72). Subs (not used): Tuffey, Morrow, Clucas.
Ballymena United: Nelson, Ervin, McNally, Taylor, McBride, Cushley (sub McAllister 62), T Kane, Jenkins, Teggart (sub Gawley 69), McCutcheon, Tipton (sub Boyce 79). Subs (not used): McCaul, Surgenor.
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor).