PREMIERSHIP: Game to forget but Linfield pick up points over Ballymena United

Linfield's Mark Stafford. Pic by INPHO.
Linfield's Mark Stafford. Pic by INPHO.

It’s been a poor season by Linfield’s high standards - but David Healy’s boys could still end the campaign by claiming a money-spinning ticket to European football.

They hardened that claim by grinding out a vital three-point return against a battling Ballymena United side at Windsor Park on Saturday.

It means, with only three games remaining of an intriguing Danske Bank Premiership title race, the Blues are now in pole position to nail down a third-place finish.

Should Coleraine triumph in the May 5 Irish Cup final against Cliftonville, the team that eventually finishes third in the table will be guaranteed European football.

If that all fails, then it’s down to the rigors of the end-of-season Europa League qualifiers.

At least the Blues kept up their end of the bargain with that third-place permutation in mind, with a hard-fought success over David Jeffrey’s troops.

“Third place may well be good enough to earn European qualification, but it will all be clear in three weeks’ time,” said Linfield boss Healy. “We have three massive games coming up.

“Our aim is to finish third, but if we have to go through the play-off system to qualify, so be it.

“There are a lot of permutations in terms of finishing third, what we must do is take care of our own business.

“But our aim is to finish third.

“We have three massive games coming up.

“We got to Crusaders and are then at home to Coleraine.

“So, we can make it interesting.

“It’s now all about results for every team in the top six from now on.”

It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it proved a totally forgettable 90 minutes of football.

For example, the biggest cheer of the first half was reserved for referee Arnold Hunter, who was left embarrassed on his backside after tripping over his own feet!

Yes, it was that sort of afternoon – one of misplaced passes, mistimed tackles and precious little goalmouth action.

Big defender Mark Stafford at last gave the home fans something to cheer midway through the second half when he charged forward to break the deadlock.

Kirk Millar sent in a delicious delivery from a corner-kick and Stafford climbed high above everyone else to bullet home from six yards – his seventh goal of the campaign.

Dubliner Kurtis Byrne sealed the deal a short time later. He may have thought it wasn’t going to be his day when his vicious 20-yard drive was brilliantly flicked against the post but the outstretched glove of Ross Glendinning.

But the 27-year-old was not to be denied. He was first to react when Andy Waterworth sprinted down the right before whipping in a low cross and the outcome was inevitable.

It was his fourth goal in a blue shirt since arriving from St Patrick’s Athletic in January.

If anything, the goals sparked Ballymena to life but Roy Carroll, back from injury, displayed great reflexes by beating away a Conor McCloskey drive before getting down smartly to repel a well-struck free-kick from Tony Kane.

Yes, it wasn’t pretty, but at least the Blues got the job done, with Europe still a possibility.

They now move on to Seaview for what will be a nerve-tingling afternoon at Seaview next Saturday.

LINFIELD: Carroll, Stafford, Haughey, Robinson, Clarke, Millar, Lowry, Mitchell, Quinn (Fallon, 39), Waterworth (Rooney, 87), Byrne (Campion, 81).

subs (not used): Crowe, Callacher.

BALLYMENA UNITED: Glendinning, Ervin, Balmer, Quigley, Millar, Faulkner, Kane, Burns (Flynn, 82), McAlorum (McKinney, 73), McCloskey (Nolan, 71).

subs (not used): McDermott, Owens.

REFEREE: Arnold Hunter.