Ards 2 Cliftonville 3: After two days of scrutiny and speculation, Tommy Breslin and Cliftonville were no doubt pleased to get back to doing, what they do best – winning football matches.
The Reds, with Conor Devlin between the sticks, beat basement side Ards 3-2 at Clandeboye Park with a battling performance that underlined their title credentials.
Joe Gormley hit a brace, with Liam Boyce grabbing the other as the champions as edged past Ards, who fought valiantly throughout the entertaining match.
With the eyes of the Irish League on Devlin, the former Manchester United trainee received a warm reception from the travelling Cliftonville support.
However, Devlin didn't have the best of starts. He could do nothing but watch as Ross Arthurs give Ards the lead in the third minute with a sensational long-range, dipping effort.
Midfielder William Faulkner slipped the ball into the feet of Arthurs, who held of the Cliftonville defence before turning and firing the ball high into the net from around 25 yards.
Ards' dream lead only lasted for four minutes. Full-back Kyle McDowell played a risky throw back to Alan Blayney, who hesitated before kicking the ball up against the advancing Joe Gormley.
The ball ricocheted off Gormley and into the path of Liam Boyce, who knocked the ball into the unguarded net. Northern Ireland fans will remember Blayney making a similar error against Morocco at Windsor Park.
As the half progressed, Cliftonville started to show their class, playing sparkling, incisive football that had the Ards defence chasing their tails. The pressure finally told in the 31st minute when Donnelly delivered an inch perfect cross from the left flank, which an unmarked Gormley headed beyond Blayney.
Ards boss Niall Currie will no doubt be alarmed by the amount of space he was afforded.
The third goal arrived in the 59th minute when Ryan Catney cut the Ards defence open with a perfectly weighted through ball.
Gormley ran onto the pass, skipped by Blayney, and rolled the ball into the open net.
Gormley was denied his hat-trick in the 65th minute when he was slipped in by Boyce, but the striker's effort was deflected away from goal by Blayney.
Ards set up a grandstand finish in the 69th minute when James Knowles scored against his old club. The champions failed to deal with a long throw by David Gibson, the ball was nudged on by Stephen McCullough, and Knowles drilled it home.
Ards pushed for an equaliser, but Currie's men were unable to fashion a third goal. Their chances suffered a fatal blow in the 88th minute when Sean Cleary received a second yellow card from referee Ross Dunlop after he tripped Jaimie McGovern.
Ultimately, Ards' efforts weren't enough.
ARDS: Blayney, Gibson, Hunter, Cully, McDowell, Faulkner (Gordon, 84 mins), Cleary, Knowles, McMillen, McCullough (Bingham, 84 mins), Arthurs (Mitchell, 70 mins).
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McMullan, Smyth, McGovern, Seydak, Donnelly, Catney, Johnston, Curran (Murray, 84 mins); Boyce, Gormley.
Referee: Ross Dunlop (Carrickfergus)
* ARDS' home game at Clandeboye Park with Dungannon Swifts this Saturday, January 18, will kick-off at 5.30pm.