TNS 1 Cliftonville 1: Cliftonville boss Tommy Breslin jokingly threatened to discipline Barry Johnston for straying out of position last night — despite the midfield anchorman bagging a vital away goal as the Reds claimed a more than deserved 1-1 draw against The New Saints.
Alex Darlington had poked the hosts ahead midway through the first half only for Johnston to level with an inch-perfect chip just before the break — much to his manager's shock!
“I don't know where Barry pulled that one from at all to tell you the truth,” said Breslin.
“In fact, he's supposed to be defensive midfielder so he shouldn't have been that far up the park at all. I'll need to have words with him about that.
“Overall, though, I felt it was a good game and both sides competed well. Our target was simply to keep the tie alive ahead of the return game at Solitude next week and we've done that, so we're very pleased.
“TNS did well on what is a very big pitch but I can't fault my players at all, they worked their socks off.”
Captain Chris Scannell missed out on honeymoon, though he is expected to be available for next Thursday's second leg in Belfast, while defender Liam Fleming will similarly be pushing for a place in the panel after returning from holiday.
It was the hosts who had the better of the early play, though, and it came as no surprise when Darlington toe-poked the ball past Cliftonville's debutant goalkeeper Ryan Brown on 26 minutes.
That seemed to jolt the visitors into action and they were unlucky not to level when Stephen Garrett was the victim of a wonderfully timed challenge from former Wales international Steve Evans and then, just as Rory Donnelly was set to pounce on the loose ball, he tangled legs with referee Clayton Pisani and both took an unfortunate tumble.
Cliftonville's frustration turned to joy just before the interval, however, when Garrett's cut back from the flank was picked up by Johnston and, from 22 yards, he caught goalkeeper Paul Harrison off his line with a wonderful chip into the far corner.
The second period was something of a non-event with TNS creating the bulk of the chances.
Brown saved from Chris Sharp before Darlington and then substitute Greg Draper squandered good headed opportunities.
The Reds might pushed for a late winner but the teams will start at 1-1 when battle resumes in Belfast next Thursday night.
TNS: Harrison, Spender, Marriott, Baker, Evans, Ruscoe, Sharp, Williams, Jones, Darlington, Edwards. Subs: Ramsay, Johnson, Hogan (for Ruscoe, 61 mins), Seargeant, Rawlinson, Partridge (for Williams, 70 mins), Draper (for Sharp, 73 mins).
CLIFTONVILLE: Brown, Caldwell, McMullan, Garrett, M Donnelly, Smyth, Seydak, McVeigh, Catney, R Donnelly, Johnston. Subs: Duffin, R Scannell (for Seydak, 57 mins), Templeton, Gormley (for R Donnelly, 52 mins), Clarke, Lynch (for McMullan, 75 mins), Bradley.
Referee: Clayton Pisani (Malta).