Belfast Telegraph

Ballymena rip up form book to lift top-six bid

Cliftonville 1-2 Ballymena Utd

By Conor McLaughlin

Ballymena United are still in the mix for a top-half spot after getting the better of Cliftonville at Solitude last night.

Goals from Johnny McMurray and Johnny Flynn earned three points against the in-form Reds, whose only consolation was a smartly-taken injury-time effort from a prostrate Jamie Harney.

The Sky Blues now trail Glentoran by four points in the race for the top six and, if they get the better of the east Belfast side on Friday, will travel to Ballinamallard United on Monday knowing that victory would be enough to complete the job.

Both sides entered this contest on the back of contrasting form.

While Cliftonville had enjoyed a good 10 days that yielded victories over Crusaders, Linfield and Carrick Rangers, the Sky Blues had endured a morale-sapping run of three defeats in the same period as their run of six losses from seven outings left their top-six hopes hanging in the balance.

Avoiding defeat in north Belfast was crucial to their chances of overhauling Glentoran and returning to the top half before the two-way split, which takes effect after United's rearranged date with the Mallards next week.

The rescheduling of fixtures is nothing new for Ballymena, with ties against Cliftonville coming in for particular scrutiny in that regard. Last night's battle had originally been pencilled in for January 2 but lasted just 45 minutes before Storm Eleanor forced a dramatic abandonment.

The game was subsequently slotted in for February 6 but had to make way for a League Cup semi-final showdown between the same teams - which itself fell foul of the weather on three separate occasions before eventually taking place at the start of last month.

Since overcoming the Reds in that Showgrounds joust, United's form has nosedived, with boss David Jeffrey this week issuing a warning to his players over their futures at the club - and Ross Glendinning in particular looked to have taken heed, thwarting the Donnelly brothers early on.

After reaching out to repel an attempt from Rory, seconds later he was at full stretch to turn a drive from Jay onto the bar.

Ballymena edged in front seven minutes before the interval when Fra McCaffrey's pass allowed McMurray to spring the offside trap, although the striker appeared to enjoy a touch of good fortune as the ball inadvertently struck him and rolled into the net as he was attempting to set his feet up for a shot.

Cliftonville started the second half well and, after Jay Donnelly had drawn a save, Rory saw a bullet header crash off the woodwork from Shane Grimes' corner.

Substitute Matthew Shevlin should have made it 2-0, but sent his shot straight at Brian Neeson just minutes before Rory Donnelly touched a Joe Gormley blast over.

Flynn had no such troubles, however, when he pounced to make sure of the points. Tony Kane's delivery from a short corner fell favourably for the central defender and he stuck out a leg to turn the ball in.

A nasty-looking ankle injury sustained by Garry Breen held proceedings up and, with Cliftonville forced to see things out with 10 men, there looked little hope of a late comeback.

Harney's unconventional finish in the first of six added minutes made for a nervy finale, but the visitors nevertheless held on.

• Former Glentoran player Dino Maamria has been appointed as the new manager of the League Two side Stevenage.

Belfast Telegraph

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