Cliftonville overcame a stern challenge from Ballymena United to pull clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership with victory at Solitude.
Martin Donnelly’s 41st minute goal ensured the Reds capitalised on their first-half ascendancy and, though the visitors were on top for long spells after the interval, Liam Boyce’s header set Tommy Breslin’s men on their way to victory long before Gary Thompson pulled one back with a corking last-gas strike.
Despite entering the contest on the back of a 5-1 victory over Coleraine, home boss Breslin nevertheless demanded an improvement from his side and, minus the services of towering defender Marc Smyth, restored Barry Holland to his line-up, with Barry Johnston also coming into the team in place of Joe Gormley.
Stephen Garrett — on target in each of his previous two outings — was selected alongside Liam Boyce in a forward line that was attempting to become the first to breach Ballymena’s resolute defence this season.
The Braidmen were also out to preserve an unbeaten run which had been intact since their last meeting with Cliftonville and boss Glenn Ferguson once again put his faith in flying frontman Jamie Davidson who, in addition to Gary Thompson and David Cushley, provided an exciting dynamic to United’s attacking threat.
Ballymena fashioned the first real opportunity when Thompson threaded Alan Teggart through on goal but his effort was repelled by Conor Devlin, with an off-balance Cushley unable to make the most of the rebound from a difficult angle.
At the other end, Ryan Caney sent a low drive just wide of the mark and Eamonn Seydak saw a header spin off target before Catney was once again denied.
Cliftonville took the lead four minutes before the break when Boyce’s backheel outsmarted the visiting defence and Donnelly found the bottom corner with the aid of a deflection which left keeper Dwayne Nelson fishing the ball out of his net for the first time in the Premiership this season.
Boyce flashed a header across the face of goal after the restart, but it was Ballymena who enjoyed the better of the play for long stretches and they almost equalised in controversial fashion when, despite his assistant signalling for a free-kick to Cliftonville, referee Hugh Carvill over-ruled to award the visitors a corner and, amid the resulting confusion, Taylor saw his powerful header expertly touched away by the in-form Devlin.
Just three minutes later, the ball was in the net at the other end when Boyce nodded beyond Nelson after Garrett had whipped in a telling cross following some superb work by young Tomas Cosgrove down the flank.
That seemed to knock the stuffing out of Ballymena and, had they been able to reduce the deficit earlier, they may well have gone on to preserve their unbeaten record but, as it turned out, Thompson’s rocket was the last kick of the game and not enough to deny the Reds their outright position at the top of the table.
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Johnston, Holland, McMullan, Garrett, Donnelly, Seydak, Catney, Cosgrove, Boyce. Subs: R Scannell (for McMullan, 90 mins), O’Carroll (for Garrett, 78 mins), Templeton (for Boyce, 88 mins), Gormley, Lynch.
BALLYMENA: Nelson, Kane, Stewart, Thompson, Jenkins, Cushley, Teggart, Munster, Ruddy, Taylor, J Davidson. Subs: Black, Taggart (for Stewart, 70 mins), Surgenor (for Davidson, 83 mins), Rodgers, Lowry (for Teggart, 65 mins).
Referee: Hugh Carvill (Belfast).