Rory Donnelly struck a brace as Cliftonville commenced their post-split schedule with a comfortable Danske Bank Premiership victory over Ballymena United this evening.
Ahead at The Showgrounds when Joe Gormley coolly found the bottom corner in the opening minutes, the Reds were handed a numerical advantage when home striker Cathair Friel talked himself into a sending off – and the visitors didn’t take long to capitalise, with Donnelly converting a Levi Ives cross.
Though the pace of the game dropped considerably after the interval, Cliftonville were rarely troubled and put the seal on things in the closing minutes when, after being gifted possession by Gormley, Donnelly made it 3-0 with a low drive that was too hot for goalkeeper Ross Glendinning to handle.
Just a fortnight after an almost inexplicable loss to the same opponents, the Reds learned the value of taking early chances to ensure there would be no repeat and were ahead after just three minutes when, after Kofi Balmer had misread a Jamie Harney ball forward, Gormley pounced to stroke home.
The same player went close again on six minutes and Jay Donnelly had an effort deflected wide before Jamie Harney nodded Ives’ corner over the top.
Gormley then looped an ambitious half-volley just off target but, despite their dominance, Cliftonville were grateful to goalkeeper Brian Neeson for two quickfire saves that retained their lead; first standing up to deny Matthew Shevlin in a one-on-one situation and then a smart dive to his left to keep a Kyle Owens header out.
On 34 minutes, United’s Friel was fortunate to escape a yellow card for a blatant dive in the middle of the park and though referee Ian McNabb – who had signalled for the striker to get to his feet – allowed play to continue, he very quickly flashed a red in his direction when Friel’s protests went too far.
Just five minutes later, it was 2-0. Ives set off on a run down the left and delivered a well-timed ball that Donnelly seized upon to touch past the keeper’s despairing dive.
The second period provided nowhere near as many incidents of note, although Gormley was unfortunate not to convert a Chris Curran cross following Ruairi Harkin’s searching crossfield pass.
Jude Winchester tried his luck from distance with an effort that whistled over the top before the scoring was complete when Gormley, having appeared to run out of room on the edge of the box, touched the ball in Donnelly’s direction and his first-time attempt found the net.
Cliftonville: Neeson, Ives, Harney, Harkin, Garrett, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, Grimes, McDonald, R Donnelly. Subs: Mooney, McGovern (for Harkin, 73 mins), Curran (for Garrett, 60 mins), Winchester (for McDonald, 57 mins), Lavery.