Ballymena shaping up for Euro play-offs as Reds slump
Ballymena United 4 Cliftonville 1
Ballymena United dealt a shattering blow to Cliftonville's fading hopes of automatic European qualification with a crushing victory at the Showgrounds.
The Reds wilted in the face of a four-goal second half blast as their miserable travelling form - they haven't won away from Solitude since before Christmas - continued.
Cliftonville came within inches of taking the lead on 27 minutes when Kym Nelson's low cross from the left was met by Ballymena full-back Adam McCracken who sliced his full-blooded clearance off his own post before the ball was eventually cleared.
United responded with a fine move down the left which saw Cathair Friel's cross neatly controlled by Fra McCaffrey but the midfielder's half-volley sailed narrowly over the bar.
The visitors had a goal chalked off on 42 minutes when Chris Curran's shot bounced awkwardly in front of Ross Glendinning, who could only palm it straight back out, but Stephen Garrett was adjudged to have been offside as he slotted home.
Both teams had chances inside the opening minute of the second period as Levi Ives' shot was saved at the near post by Glendinning while straight away at the other end Conor McCloskey's low cross was half cleared by Jaimie McGovern but Johnny McMurray blazed his first-time effort over.
Allan Jenkins forced Cliftonville keeper Peter Burke to brilliantly tip over his 25-yard drive, while McMurray fizzed an effort inches wide of the near post as Ballymena began to grow in confidence.
And they turned that promise into tangible reward on 55 minutes when Conor McCloskey swung in a free kick from the right flank and Kyle Owens powered home a header that Burke got a hand to but couldn't keep out.
McCloskey was also involved in United's second five minutes later when his strong run and perfectly-timed pass sent McMurray clear to blast a shot past Burke.
But the Reds responded two minutes later when Stephen Garrett latched onto a crossfield ball before beating Glendinning with a neat lobbed finish.
That goal seemed to revitalise Cliftonville, and when Nelson's free kick was spilled by Glendinning, Jay Donnelly's follow-up effort clipped the bar on its way over.
Tomas Cosgrove forced a near post save from Glendinning, while substitute Ross Laverry had a goal ruled out for offside as the Reds pressed desperately for an equaliser.
But Ballymena wrapped up victory with six minutes left when McMurray beat the offside trap and unselfishly squared for strike partner Friel - back after suspension - to score his 20th goal of the season.
McMurray provided the icing on the cake with two minutes left when he raced clear and neatly lofted the ball over the stranded Burke to make it a convincing 4-1 success.
The win means Ballymena are likely to finish in fifth place, which would earn them a home tie in the end-of-season European play-offs.
Ballymena United: Glendinning, Ervin, Owens, Flynn, McCracken (Millar 76), Loughran, Jenkins, McCloskey, McCaffrey, Friel, McMurray (Henderson 90). Subs (not used): Allen, Lowry, Kerr.
Cliftonville: Burke, Finnegan (Haire 62), McGovern, Bonner (Reynolds 85), Ives, Cosgrove, Nelson, Curran, M Donnelly, Garrett, J Donnelly (Lavery 77). Subs (not used): Dunne, Winchester.
Referee: Ian McNabb (Glengormley)