Conor Keeley performance ‘immense’ for Ballymena after personal tragedy

Manager David Jeffrey hailed Ballymena United defender Conor Keeley, who turned in a five-star performance against Linfield at Windsor Park in a week of personal tragedy.

By Alex Mills
Sunday, 16th January 2022, 7:49 pm

Manager David Jeffrey hailed Ballymena United defender Conor Keeley, who turned in a five-star performance against Linfield at Windsor Park in a week of personal tragedy.

Although the Sky Blues lost narrowly for the second time in a month at the international venue, they produced a display of guts, hunger and passion to push David Healy’s Danske Bank Premiership champions right to the wire.

Christy Manzinga’s super strike on 15 minutes settled this tight, tedious affair.

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Linfield's Christy Manzinga (left) and Ballymena United's Conor Keeley competing at Windsor Park on Saturday. Pic by Pacemaker.

The big French striker volleyed home a beauty from the edge of the box, leaving goalkeeper Sam Johnston totally stranded - it was his 18th of the season in his 50th appearances in a blue shirt.

And although they soaked up a lot of pressure over the 90 minutes, United could well have stolen an equaliser in the last minute. Keeley’s drive looked destined for the net only for a magical block from Blues defender Niall Quinn.

“Conor was absolutely immense,” said Jeffrey. “It has been a very difficult week for him because he lost his grandfather in tragic circumstances earlier in the week.

“His grandfather was up at Ballymena several times to see Conor play.

“In the absence of Leroy Millar, I had no hesitation in giving the captain’s armband to Conor – he was a colossus for us.”

Jeffrey reckoned his boys were worthy of a point, adding: “We didn’t do enough to win the game, but we certainly did enough to take a point.

“First half Linfield were excellent, they showed no hangover from their County Antrim Shield final defeat,” he added. “I told our players they would show us full respect but they’d come at us like a steam train and they did that.

“I thought they were very impressive in the first half.

“We had to dig deep but we came in at half-time just a goal down and that was a positive and we were much better in the second half.

“How Niall Quinn got Conor Keeley’s blockbuster off the line I’ll never know.

“You’re never happy when you get nothing from a game but when you lose Ross Redman and Leroy (Millar) to Covid, it was a blow.

“But the players stood up to the mark and I’m extremely proud.”

Although the Blues were the dominant team, Blues boss Healy insists his boys must adapt a more ruthless streak in front of goal to kill teams off.

“We could have thrown that game away,” he said. “We were good value for our lead but some of the players had to empty the tank in the second half.

“We asked them to go to the well after losing in midweek and it’s never easy after losing a final.

“I thought we were the best team and they only really had one chance at the end - Niall Quinn was immense.

“I kept getting asked why I play him out of position, but I think he could play anywhere, he never lets me down.

“His block today optimised everything about him since I’ve been here.

“It was a massive moment in the game and great credit to Niall for that but it shouldn’t have gotten to that.

“The three points were all that mattered but it would be nice to get a second but Ballymena stuck in the game.

“Matty Clarke has been a standout this year and ‘Quinny’ struggled with injuries a few times this season, but he has filled in a few positions for us.

“When he’s fit, more often than not he’s played; left-side of midfield, left wing-back, right-back, central midfield. I rate him so highly.

“I still think Christy could do more with the talent he has...I’m a demanding person but he put a hell of a shift in.

“We wanted to expose the space and we got a lot of joy from that in the first half with the ball in behind.”

LINFIELD: Johns, Roscoe, Callacher, Manzinga (A.Clarke, 78), M.Clarke, McClean, Fallon, Mulgrew, Donnelly (McKee, 72), Quinn, Salam (Millar, 72).

Subs (not used): Walsh, Newberry, Devine, Archer.

BALLYMENA UNITED: Johnston, Wilson (Nelson, 42), McElroy (Bramall, 87), Waide (Kane, 87), McCullough, Rodgers (Place, 75), Barr (Henderson, 87), McGrory, Parkhouse, Keeley, Graham.

Subs (not used): McDowell, Loughran.

REFEREE: Shane Andrews.

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