Comment: Four big reasons for Ballymena glee and one cause for Cliftonville concern
Ballymena United picked up a much-needed first win of the season on Saturday, grinding down Cliftonville to earn a 1-0 victory.
In truth, it wasn't the greatest game any neutral will watch this season - rather it was a lot closer to the other end of the excitement spectrum.
But perhaps that's exactly what Ballymena needed. Here's my take on why that win, more than most, points to progress at the Showgrounds.
1. Maybe they can defend after all
It was only Ballymena's third Premiership clean sheet of 2017. That's 22 matches and just three clean sheets. It came against one of the strongest attacks in the division, on paper at least. Joe Gormley partnered Rory Donnelly up top for the first time in the joining of two of Cliftonville's most potent goal-scoring threats from recent years. And with the likes of Stephen Garrett, Chris Curran and Jay Donnelly backing them up, the team-sheet should have been enough to strike fear into an opposition back line.
But a defence that has for the last two seasons been the worst in the whole league held them all out admirably. And there are a few men the Sky Blues fans can thank for that.
2. David Jeffrey
Before we talk about the players themselves, let's take a minute to recognise that this was a victory master-minded by arguably the Danske Bank Premiership's best boss. David Jeffrey shifted regular full-back Jim Ervin into the centre of a back three, along with Johnny Flynn and Kyle Owens. Wing-backs Stephen McCullough and Andrew Burns are perfectly suited to the role and the midfield three of Tony Kane, Gary Thompson and Conor McCloskey add a busyness to challenge any opposition.
Ballymena have become infamous for their defensive frailties - perhaps something needed to shift in the whole system if it was ever going to be solved. And this 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2) formation was one that created a more sure-footed defence than the Ballymena Showgrounds has been used to watching.
Finally, it is Jeffrey's will to win that is doubtless infiltrating this side. Cliftonville did pile on some late pressure and when they forced a couple of injury-time corners, the boss bellowed "Give nothing away. NOTHING!" They didn't.
3. Jim Ervin and his defensive trio
Central to it all was the captain, leader (legend?) that is Jim Ervin. At 32, Ervin has a wealth of experience and knowledge of the local game. Placed perfectly to pull the strings of his fellow defenders, this was a position he thrived in. Flynn and Owens, at 27 and 25 respectively, no doubt benefitted from the added experience alongside them. Neither are bad players - in fact both look assured individually - backing up the point that United's defensive problems are with set-up rather than personnel. Up against Gormley and Donnelly, none of the three were ever flustered and in fact both Ervin and Flynn scampered back to put in storming tackles to deny Gormley. They all have the attributes to succeed, and the early signs are this formation will help them do so.
4. Joe McKinney
What a performance from the 23 year-old attacker. Every time I watch Joe, he impresses. His quick feet took on and beat countless Cliftonville players throughout the game and even brought two penalty claims - neither of which were given but both of which looked initially questionable. McKinney was subbed to rapturous applause in the second half, an ovation he thoroughly deserved. Quite why players like McKinney and McGonigle at Coleraine don't get the plaudits that similar players at Belfast clubs gain, I'm not really sure.
5. All that being said, that was not the real Reds
It is worth reigning all of this praise in with the note that Ballymena were up against a Reds side who are performing far, far below what we have come to expect from these individual players.
A strike-force of Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly, on paper, is as scary as it gets for an Irish League defence. But if the duo linked up once or twice during this game, that was the height of it. The flowing football we've become accustomed to seeing Cliftonville play was not evident. On the bright side, with the amount of quality players to call upon, things can only get better.
Belfast Telegraph Digital