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David Jeffrey salutes crowd and skipper Jim Ervin as Ballymena United end year on top

Ballymena Utd 3 Newry City 1


In the bag: Adam Lecky is mobbed after putting the seal on United’s success

In the bag: Adam Lecky is mobbed after putting the seal on United’s success

In the bag: Adam Lecky is mobbed after putting the seal on United’s success

David Jeffrey congratulated Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter on his BEM in the New Year Honours list on Saturday but if things keep going the way they are for the Ballymena United boss the fans will be calling for him to be knighted this time next year!

2018 came to close with a gong for Baxter but even he has to look up and admire the work that local football's most decorated manager has done this season to ensure that the Sky Blues go into 2019 with a two-point lead over Linfield.

And he paid two other ­tributes after his side's hard-fought win over Newry City on Saturday who, for a third time this season, felt aggrieved that they emerged pointless from the sides' tussles.

They more than held their own in the opening 45 minutes at Warden Street, Stephen Teggart forcing two smart saves from Ross Glendinning, a surprise name on the teamsheet after he made a rapid return from a shoulder injury.

It was a busy weekend on the goalkeeping front for United as not only did he return, Jeffrey pounced to bring highly-rated PSNI keeper Jordan Williamson to the club, and he, along with Tom McDermott, will give the club plenty of options in the coming months.

The leaders, on the back of an 18-match unbeaten run, huffed and puffed at times, Ryan Mayse twice hitting the post and Cathair Friel notching up a contender for miss of the season when he volleyed over from no distance.

But normal service was resumed after the break, Friel showing Poacher's instincts to sweep home after the superb Jude Winchester's initial effort was blocked.

However Newry hadn't read the script, levelling through Mark McCabe's close-range finish in the 64th minute but once Mayse got the goal he deserved three minutes later there only looked like being one winner.

That was increased when Newry lost skipper Declan Carville for a second needless yellow card and nine minutes from time Adam Lecky put some gloss on the scoreline with a flashing header at the near post.

So, job done for Jeffrey and co, and those tributes came for his own captain, Jim Ervin, and also the Sky Blue faithful.

"I've got to say thank-you to our supporters because if anyone was listening the biggest cheer of the day was when we were down to one-each and we needed that encouragement," Jeffrey said.

"And our support to a man, woman and child backed us and that was class.

"When you have that 12th man giving you the support and encouragement we got, then you can't complain.

"There were lots of good performances out there today, but the performance that absolutely stood out for me was our skipper, Jim Ervin.

"His reading of the game, his interceptions and his leadership on the pitch was absolutely phenomenal.

"He is a young man who was inspired and he is playing fabulously well and his consistency is remarkable as well."

For Newry boss Darren Mullen it was another bend on the learning curve of the harsh realities of life in the top level.

"You have to remember where we have come from.

"From wanting to survive in the Championship to being disappointed at not beating the league leaders in the Premiership," he said.

"The players have to take huge credit for the strides we have made.

"We're hurting at the minute because it's another defeat but we're down to the bare bones, we lost three of starting line-up with a bug before the game and we had two fit subs."

He also admitted that they were guilty of shooting themselves in the foot and that sometimes they need to be more street-wise at this level, although he was unhappy with his skipper's dismissal.

"I think it's easy with Carville. There are times and Deccy will be the first to admit he doesn't help himself but it's just a case of whether it be the fans or the opposition manager shouting his name and then it gets in the referee's head.

"And I think it's something as a group that we're not cute enough in certain situations, up against teams where opposition players are getting free-kicks easier, calling for them or going to ground easier, and we're perhaps sometimes too honest."

BALLYMENA: Glendinning, Ervin, McCullough, Addis, Balmer, Winchester, McGinty (Faulkner, 87 mins), Lecky (Nolan, 89 mins), Friel, McMurray, Mayse (Shevlin, 87 mins). Unused subs: McDermott, Quigley, Whiteside.

Newry: Maguire, Montgomery, Healy, Noonan (Mullen, 90 mins), Boyle, McCann, Rushe (Johnston, 87 mins), Carville, McCabe (Delaney, 72 mins), Teggart, Lavery. Unused subs: Hunter, Hughes.

Referee: Lee Tavinder (Dungannon)

Man of the match: Jude Winchester

Match rating: 7/10

Belfast Telegraph