Linfield and Ballymena reserves met tonight in the second set of reserve fixtures on a cold night at Strangford Playing fields, South Belfast.
The blues had a few injury problems during the warm up, with midfielder Courtney Thompson getting injured. Linfield manager JP took a bold step in dealing with this unforeseen issue by changing the shape of the team which meant Grace Louise Palmer, the first choice goalkeeper on the night, slotted into left back, into a defence including Mairead McCann at right back, a first team regular last season. Substitute goalkeeper Caiomhe Callaghan was given the gloves for her first league start of the season.
The game started brightly, with Ballymena playing some good football, but being unable to get in behind a determined Linfield defence. The first real pressure came in the 8th minute, when a ball was played into the box, and Linfield were unable to clear their lines cleanly. The ball ricocheted around the penalty area before being cleared off the line by McCann, who was very composed and managed to clear the ball down field and away to the relative safety of the opposition half.
Linfield managed to get their first opportunity of the match in the 12th minute, when good play from number 11 Rebecca Dickson allowed her to cut inside, but she couldn't keep her shot down and it sailed over the bar from 20 yards.
Ballymena kept playing their passing game, and it nearly paid off on 23 min when midfielder Michelle McDonald the bar direct from an in swinging corner. Only she will know weather she meant it or not, but it was another scare that Linfield managed to survive.
Ballymena then looked certain to score in the 33rd minute, when a mis-hit shot from Ballymena forward Lauren Hill nearly fell to the feet of her strike partner Laura McCurdy who would have been left with a tap in into an empty net if it wasn't for a fantastic last ditch sliding tackle from centre back Amy McAllister who got a toe onto the ball to take it away from the striker.
The last real action of the half was another cross that was played into the box, which was smartly parried away by keeper Caiomhe Callaghan to keep the score 0-0 at half time. Linfield would have been much the happier of the two teams to not have conceded. They had defended very well, but really hadn’t created too many chances to threaten Courtney Downey in the Ballymena goal.
The second half saw a change of shape from Linfield, who sought to use McCann's pace more effectively on the attack by pushing her up to right midfield. However both teams began in a cagey fashion, with neither team really willing to commit players forward for fear of conceding a goal on the counter attack.
It was just over 20 minutes into the half when Ballymena managed to play the ball through to the onrushing McDonald, who drilled in a low shot to the near post, which was well dealt with by Caiomhe Callaghan. Two minutes later, in the 68th minute, Ballymena found themselves with the exact same opportunity, when forward Laura McCurdy was played through on the right of the goal, and she also drilled a low shot to the near post. Again this was well dealt with by the keeper, who managed to palm it away.
For the next 15 min Ballymena kept applying real pressure and would almost certainly have scored at least one goal if it wasn’t for the absolutely outstanding Linfield defence. Special praise must go to number 6 Amy McAllister who made two more last ditch goal saving tackles and at least one vital header to clear the ball from an onrushing Ballymena attacker.
All this resolute defending almost came undone in the 74th minute when Ballymena won yet another corner and number 13 Hannah Henderson met it with a thumping header which the Linfield defence could only watch crash off the bar and away to safety.
Linfield had a chance to nick a goal themselves in the 80th min, when they won a free kick 25 yards out and striker Mellissa Orr hit a goalbound shot, which some of the players were so sure was sailing into the top corner, they had turned around to celebrate, when Ballymena keeper Downey produced a magnificent save to tip it over the bar.
Ballymena had one more chance of note, in the 85th minute when they themselves won a free kick which yet again left the crossbar shaking. The final chance of note in the match came from a Linfield header from a free kick has keeper Downey scrambling to save it.
Ballymena did have the ball in the net in the 92 minute, but the referee had rightly ruled that it had gone out of play for a goal kick before it was pulled back across goal.
The game ended 0-0, thanks to a determined defensive display from both teams. There were times when Linfields goal lead a charmed life, and Ballymena will be wondering how they didn’t manage to score, but credit to Linfields back four. It was a defensive masterclass from McAlister who was without doubt the player of the match, and credit also to keeper come defender Palmer, who looked like a natural playing in both full back positions during the game.
Linfield will definitely be the happier of the two teams, with manager JP stating that it was definitely one point gained for his team. He said “I am very proud of my players tonight. We had a patched up squad, and only 12 players available. I am very happy with all performances, especially from Amy, who was rock solid in defence.”
Ballymenas next fixture is at home to Carnmoney where they will hoping to play as well as they did tonight, and if they do, goals will undoubtedly come. Linfield host Glentoran in their next fixture, with both matches being played on Thursday 8th May, with 19:30 and 19:00 kick off’s respectively.
Report and Photo by Ben Hanna