Cliftonville 3-2 Ballymena United
Jay Donnelly’s towering header settled a five-goal thriller as Cliftonville roared to all three points against Ballymena United at Solitude this afternoon.
Trailing to a controversial Ryan Mayse goal in the opening minutes, the Reds hit back through a Joe Gormley penalty before a superb solo strike from Chris Curran put the hosts ahead at the break.
Ballymena’s equaliser caused further ire for the hosts, who couldn’t believe the officials’ failure to spot the ball rolling out of play in the build-up to Conor Quigley nodding level from point-blank range – but Donnelly would have the final say with an exceptional back-post leap to convert Stephen Garrett’s cross six minutes from time.
Things got off to the worst possible start when Donnelly’s pass back towards his own goal was seized upon by Mayse who, though initially dispossessed by Garry Breen, took advantage of a slack backpass that took goalkeeper Richard Brush out of the game and was delighted when referee Jamie Robinson paid no heed to the blatant trip that stopped Jamie Harney from clearing the danger before the ball rolled over the line.
It wasn’t long before Cliftonville were level, however, when Ryan Curran exchanged passes with Levi Ives and was tripped by Quigley just inside the area, affording Gormley the opportunity to restore parity from the spot.
Harney headed over the top and Mayse was denied by Brush before Gormley and Ives each saw efforts deflected behind.
On 27 minutes, a smart run from Donnelly saw him skip away from a couple of defenders but, unable to fashion enough space to get his shot away, saw Jonny Addis produce the challenge which kept him at bay ahead of Ross Glendinning being called upon to make a fantastic fingertip save to touch a curling Gormley strike behind.
From the resulting corner, Gormley’s blast across the face of goal was almost turned in by Breen, who was unable to steer his reaction shot on target.
A Cliftonville goal looked imminent and it duly arrived six minutes before the interval when Conor McDonald’s touch in the middle of the park invited Chris Curran to advance and, after nodding possession beyond Jude Winchester, he surged between Kofi Balmer and Jim Ervin to confidently steer a low strike past the advancing keeper.
It was almost 3-1 early in the second-half when Ryan Curran saw a snapshot crash off the base of the post and, at the other end, Levi Ives did superbly to deflect a fierce Johnny McMurray volley behind for a corner.
Half-time substitute Conor McMenamin attempted his luck from distance before United equalised in questionable fashion; the linesman somehow not spotting that Leroy Millar had dragged the ball off the pitch in the build-up to Quigley nodding in from close range.
The Reds’ response was good, though, with both McDonald and Donnelly drawing saves from Glendinning ahead of McMenamin firing in another effort.
Eventually, though, Cliftonville’s pressure told when Garrett’s inviting delivery was met by Donnelly, who planted a beauty of a header in the far corner to wrap up the points.
Cliftonville: Brush, McGovern, Ives, Breen, Harney (McMenamin, 46 mins), C Curran, R Curran (Garrett, 76 mins), McDonald, Catney, Gormley, J Donnelly. Unused subs: Neeson, McConnell, Lavery, Maguire, A Donnelly.
Match Sponsor: Paul McKeown
Matchball Sponsor: Jude Rooney
Half Gate Draw Number: 88091