Braniff puts on late show as United hit Euro jackpot
Ballymena Utd 2-1 Glenavon
A late Kevin Braniff strike handed Ballymena United a £200,000 payday and Europa League football next season as they saw off Glenavon 2-1 at the Showgrounds.
Substitute Braniff's deflected effort 10 minutes from time sealed what in the end was a thrilling Europa League play-off tie that was tight for the whole 90 minutes and could have swung either way.
Compared to the glaring sunshine that bathed the Showgrounds for Monday night's semi-final, it was a dark and drizzly night in Ballymena, and it was the greasy conditions that allowed Johnny Flynn to get a sliding block in on James Gray to prevent him getting a shot in on goal in just the third minute.
Joel Cooper had brought his best form for the biggest game of Glenavon's season, getting the two best early chances, firing wide when sent through down the left and then forcing Ross Glendinning into a smart save.
At the other end, the Sky Blues were more tentative, and were struggling to do anything more than cross into the waiting arms of Jonathan Tuffey. Greg Moorhouse was the next to threaten for Glenavon, stooping low to head towards goal, but sent it wide, before Kyle Owens got on the end of a corner midway through the half for Ballymena's first notable chance.
The best chance of the half fell to Moorhouse just before the half-time interval, but the striker couldn't get a clean strike from a Gray rebound, and Glendinning was grateful to see the ball come straight back at him at the second attempt.
For all their pressing in the first half, the Lurgan Blues quickly found themselves a goal down after the restart.
A brilliant reverse pass from Joe McKinney put Johnny McMurray in space down the left, and his pinpoint pass found the feet of Cathair Friel, and the striker's deft touch found the net.
From nothing the Braidmen were now ahead, and the lead was nearly doubled as Friel again found space and his centred ball was flashed wide by McMurray, although Tony Kane was perhaps in a better position a few feet behind him.
That miss proved costly as Glenavon drew level in the 67th minute, James Singleton showing excellent desire to head an Andy Hall corner that seemed destined to be going out back into the centre where Rhys Marshall was waiting to turn it home.
With both sides on the board the game opened up a bit and both had excellent chances to claim the advantage: McKinney blazing over from close range from a McMurray cross for Ballymena, and Hall striking the post with a wicked long-range free kick for Glenavon.
But it was Braniff who would steal the win. He managed to hold up possession just outside the box to work some space. His shot took a rather fortuitous deflection and looped over Tuffey before crashing in off the bar.
What fightback Glenavon had in them was somewhat quelled by a worrying collision between Ciaran Martyn and McKinney, which left the latter having to be stretchered off with a few minutes to go.
However, there was enough time for Gray to have one last chance as the ball dropped to him in the box, but his rushed finish summed up Glenavon's night - the poke straight at Glendinning never troubled the keeper and handed Ballymena the jackpot they so badly desired.