Jay Donnelly was the hat-trick hero as Cliftonville soared to overcome Ards at Solitude this evening.
Operating wide on the left, the 22-year-old bagged his 20th goal of the season with a 14th minute strike and nodded home a second-half corner kick to put the Reds in control.
Switched to a more central role, Donnelly completed his treble in the closing stages with a fine dinked finish after being played through by Joe Gormley.
Though the final scoreline suggests an emphatic success, the truth is that Ards were not without chances of their own and could have been ahead inside two minutes when, under pressure from Cameron Stewart, Jaimie McGovern’s wayward backpass had Brian Neeson scampering to recover.
The keeper then saved from Guillaume Keke before Cliftonville’s first opportunity of the night came on 12 minutes when Levi Ives’ throw-in was teed up by Donnelly and Gormley fired in an attempt that drew a good stop from Sam Johnston.
It wouldn’t be long before the deadlock was broken, however, when Donnelly stuck out a toe to divert Ruari Harkin’s free-kick into the back of the net.
Johnston then saved at the second attempt to deny Conor McDonald and, after Jamie Harney had sent a header straight at the keeper, Donnelly was denied again when his low snapshot was expertly turned behind.
Cliftonville were grateful to Neeson for keeping Keke at bay on 65 minutes and, amid Ards claims that the keeper had handled outside the area, Neeson retained his composure to prevent Jonah Mitchell from capitalising on the loose ball.
On 69 minutes, the Reds’ stopper got down well to make an excellent stop from Jonathan Frazer ahead of the hosts pulling further in front when Donnelly rose to meet McDonald’s corner with a header that Johnston couldn’t keep out.
The keeper made another good save to stop Donnelly completing his hat-trick on 81 minutes but, after Keke had wasted a glorious opportunity at the other end, the Cliftonville frontman made sure of the matchball with a composed finish from an acute angle.
Cliftonville: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, Harney, Curran, Harkin, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, McDonald, R Donnelly. Subs: Dunne, Bagnall (for R Donnelly, 66 mins), Winchester, Lavery (for Curran, 72 mins), Grimes (for Harney, 77 mins).
Sean Graham Man of the Match: Jay Donnelly
Half Gate Draw Number: 82656