Linfield defeated Ballymena United 2-0 at Windsor Park in a Clearer Water Irish Cup sixth round tie this afternoon to set up a long trip to Londonderry to take on Institute in the Quarter-Final at The Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium on Saturday 2 March.
Having endured a rare home defeat at the hands of Dungannon Swifts last weekend, the Blues bounced straight back today. David Healy didn’t make any dramatic changes to the starting line-up – indeed there was just the one change, with Chris McKee starting in place of Darragh McBrien, who dropped to the bench. Ben Hall served a one-match suspension last week, but he missed out through injury today, as did Michael Newberry, Rhys Annett, Jordan Stewart and Robbie McDaid.
Despite currently leading a tight title race and looking forward to a League Cup Final next month, the Irish Cup is a competition the Blues are targeting success in. After all, they do have great history in the competition and are the record holders, having won the cup 44 times. Having lost to Larne at the sixth round stage in the previous two seasons, David Healy would love to bring the trophy back to Windsor Park for the first time since 2021. The Blues’ boss has won it twice as Linfield manager.
Ballymena United, on the other hand, were also very much up for it. The Sky Blues have participated in three of the last four Irish Cup Finals, which is no mean feat. They won an Irish Cup sixth round tie against Linfield at Windsor Park exactly ten years ago when managed by Linfield legend Glenn Ferguson, but the omen counted for nothing today for their new boss, Jim Ervin, who was also a Linfield stalwart.
Ervin’s men matched Linfield up in terms of shape and made a bright start. They went close to taking the lead inside the opening two minutes. It came from a move down the right as Calvin McCurry got a cross in from a right and it landed at the feet of he very impressive St. Mirren loanee Fraser Taylor who was thwarted by ‘Man of the Match’ Ethan McGee who blocked twice – one of which was a goal-saving challenge on Johnny McMurray’s follow-up effort. A short time later, Kym Nelson turned and volleyed into the side netting after Linfield were slow to push out from a United free-kick into the box.
Linfield momentarily thought they’d made an early breakthrough when Kirk Millar’s free-kick delivery was dispatched past the ‘keeper by a well-taken Matthew Fitzpatrick header, however the goal was chalked off for a pull on a Ballymena United defender.
The breakthrough did then arrive on 14 minutes following a swift, well-worked goal from left to right. Matthew Fitzpatrick found Kirk Millar running into space on the right side of the box, and the winger volleyed across goal before Chris McKee instinctively popped up at the back post area to tap in the opener for his thirteenth goal of the season, which ties him with Joel Cooper as Linfield’s top goalscorer for the season.
David Healy was then forced into a substitution midway through the first half, with captain Jamie Mulgrew struggling with a niggly injury. This brought about a return to action for Chris Shields for the first time since he got injured against Larne at Inver Park on December 5. It wasn’t in the plan for Shields so play for so long on his first match back, however he managed it okay and put in a strong performance.
The Blues then threatened to double their lead twice in quick succession after half-an-hour. Firstly, Joel Cooper cut in from the right and struck a sweet strike which was crucially blocked by Kym Nelson in front of goal, sending it around the post for a corner. Soon after, Kirk Millar’s cross took a wicked deflection and looped over the head of the ‘keeper who was in panic mode, but to his relief the ball flashed across the face of goal.
Linfield missed a big opportunity five minutes before the break as Chris McKee picked out strike partner Matthew Fitzpatrick inside the box, though he dragged a low shot wide of the post from a position he’d probably back himself to score from.
HT: Linfield 1-0 Ballymena United
The Sky Blues were almost level within 17 seconds of the restart. A hopeful long ball saw Euan East’s header back to Chris Johns just come up short, with Calvin McCurry getting there before the onrushing ‘keeper who made a good block. The ball then fell kindly for United striker McMurray who, with the ‘keeper well off his line, was unable to hit the target as he fired over from 25 yards.
Despite that early scare, Linfield’s second half performance was better than their performance in the first. They had opportunities early in the second half that they could have made more of. Matthew Clarke crossed to the front post where Matthew Fitzpatrick headed wide from a good position. A couple of dangerous counter-attacking opportunities followed, but the final ball or decision making was lacking.
The Blues doubled their lead on 65 minutes and it took the edginess out of the game. It came from the penalty spot as Chris McKee was nudged in the back by Steven McCullough after the forward raced onto Kirk Millar’s lofted through ball. The referee, Evan Boyce showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot. With regular penalty taker Chris Shields back on the pitch, he stepped up to convert, tucking the ball right into the bottom left corner for his seventh goal of the season, which will please David Healy after his side missed two penalties in Shields’ absence.
David Healy then made a double substitution on 67 minutes at 2-0, adding freshness to the team with the introductions of Stephen Fallon – who continues his built-up comeback from a lengthy injury – and Darragh McBrien, in place of Matthew Fitzpatrick and Joel Cooper.
With the Blues in control in the last 20 minutes they had further opportunities to extend their lead. Kyle McClean fired over from a pre-rehearsed free-kick pull-back from Kirk Millar, whilst Chris McKee was unlucky on 82 minutes as he evaded the onrushing ‘keeper to get a shot past the ‘keeper, only to see it blocked on the line by United defender Jamie Robinson, who’s on loan from Cliftonville.
Darragh McBrien was very unlucky in the latter stages of the game not to net his fourth goal of the season as he cut in from the left and curled a shot agonisingly wide of the far post with the ‘keeper beaten.
The Blues’ focus will solely be on League fixtures now for the remainder of the month, with a trip to Lurgan to face Glenavon at Mourneview Park next up, next Saturday afternoon.
FT: Linfield 2-0 Ballymena United