How Kevin Braniff epitomised Ballymena's League Cup semi-final winning display, explains Jeffrey
Ballymena United 3-1 Cliftonville
The fact that Ballymena United will face Dungannon Swifts in Saturday's BetMcLean League Cup final is a show-stopping statement in itself, but that it was achieved by the hard work and industry of one of the game's artist's is another.
David Jeffrey singled out Kevin Braniff's influence in guiding the Sky Blues through to another final after the much-delayed semi-final clash finally beat the weather but in truth he could have picked any of the home players.
Across the park, they won their battles with Cliftonville and when the superb Leroy Millar, making his return from long-term injury, tapped home the rebound for Tony Kane's shot on the hour mark, they were in the driving seat.
Kane's glancing header from Conor McCloskey's long throw 13 minutes later looked to have wrapped things up but Cliftonville finally emerged from the slumbers when Jude Winchester's scrambled late goal set up a manic last few minutes that ended with a touch of class.
With keeper Brian Neeson upfield for a corner in a last throw of the dice, when play broke down the ball found Cathair Friel a good 10 yards inside his own half on the near touchline. He steadied himself and, despite the gale and lashing rain, pinged the ball beautifully. All Neeson could do was run forlornly after it as it hit the net.
It was a fairytale finish in another chapter in Jeffrey's ever-growing catalogue of memorable moments, and now another one awaits in Saturday's showpiece at Windsor Park.
But it was Braniff he first wanted to praise.
"Obviously Kevin Braniff has been known all his days as a front player. He's a great footballer and the last couple of weeks have been frustrating for him but in big games people talk about big game players and Kevin Braniff is one of those," he said. "It wasn't his passing, it was his work-rate and effort that epitomised everything that was good about us today, every single player contributed really, really well."
Turning his attention to the final he knows that, while it may have been the decider that no-one predicted, predicting a winner will be just as tricky.
"It's a game each of us can win. On the balance of play, the stronger sides with the better squads will succeed. On our day we can beat those teams, but we're maybe not able to do that consistently," he added.
"The top five look pretty much nailed on and there's Dungannon, ourselves and Glentoran battling, so it's two evenly matched teams.
"I think it's absolutely brilliant for local football, it's phenomenal. We're particularly pleased that we've got there again and the team-talk is already written.
"Rodney (McAree) is going to be saying to his players there is no way we've beaten Crusaders and we're not going to turn up. I've said exactly the same, we're not going to beat Cliftonville and not turn up. There's no need for any kidology, mind games or anything else, it's going to be on the day."
And talking of mind games, Barry Gray was scathing at the chalk and cheese nature of his Cliftonville side, brilliant last week dumping Crusaders out of the Irish Cup, but abject seven days later.
"When you are up and down like that, you look to see if you have the quality in your side and squad if you have enough to do it consistently. We can't fault the quality we have, we're either nine-out-of-10 or three-out-of-10, we get very little in around the middle unfortunately," he said.
"You see even in the last 10 minutes when there is nothing at stake, nothing to lose, then the proper Cliftonville comes to the fore again. That can't be physical and I suppose that's the difficulty that I have.
"I can change the physical aspect of it and I can steer it in the right direction and be responsible for it but between the two ears, that's very difficult and well, well above my pay grade to try and deal with those sorts of issues.
"To be honest with you, I'd rather we'd been crap for the whole game. The fact that we issued 10 minutes of play at the end frustrates the life clean out of me. It's nearly like a mental choice that you haven't done it.
"I don't care what the preparation is for a cup semi-final and a final a week later but if you can't be motivated for that, then there's something seriously wrong.
"Yes, there was the call off on Tuesday night but seven days ago we beat Crusaders for the first time in three-and-a-half years to secure our place in the next round of the Irish Cup, with really good performance levels in that, and you can't blame what happened on Tuesday."
BALLYMENA: Glendinning, Ervin, McCullough, Owens, Balmer, Kane, Burns (McCloskey, 67 mins), Millar, Friel, Braniff, McMurray. Unused subs: Flynn, Faulkner, Shevlin, McCaffrey.
Cliftonville: Neeson, Cosgrove, Ives, McGovern, Harney, McDonald (Winchester, 77 mins), Curran, Bagnall, Gormley, Garrett (R Donnelly, 65 mins), J Donnelly. Unused subs: Dunne, Lavery, Grimes.
Referee: Keith Kennedy (Lisburn)
Man of the match: Leroy Millar
Match rating: 7/10