Belfast Telegraph

Jeffrey thrilled to see Braidmen respond and boost Euro quest

Ballymena United 2 Cliftonville 1

On high: Cathair Friel hails his opener for Ballymena United
On high: Cathair Friel hails his opener for Ballymena United

By Stephen Alexander

Ballymena United strengthened their grip on second position with a win over Cliftonville.

Although David Jeffrey's side failed to close the gap on leaders Linfield, the Braidmen stretched their advantage over third-placed Crusaders to five points in the race for European qualification.

For the hosts it was a welcome win after back-to-back defeats to Linfield, including the League Cup final loss.

Jeffrey said: "The response from the players was immense. We spoke about it before the game and how they would manage the emotion and expectation.

"First half we did very well and dare I say should have been two or three up.

"We thankfully went 2-0 up but I knew it wasn't over and they got back into it. Having worked so hard on defending set-pieces all season, it was a matter of nerve and mental strength. The players had to hold their nerve.

"The overriding emotions tonight are admiration and appreciation of the players who went out and battled for our club, our supporters and our town."

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Reds keeper Richard Brush was twice called upon to deal with teasing Steven McCullough crosses from the left early on.

It took a moment of brilliance from the visiting keeper to prevent the Sky Blues from taking the lead on 15 minutes as McCullough's free-kick was flicked towards goal by Leroy Millar.

Brush looked to have been caught in no man's land but he showed superb athleticism to arch backwards and tip the ball onto the underside of the bar before it was hacked clear.

However, the reprieve proved short-lived as the home side went in front after 20 minutes.

A Kane free-kick was half cleared to McCullough near the left-hand side of the penalty area. He flicked the ball into the path of Cathair Friel, who steered an angled shot past Brush for his 18th goal of the season.

Ballymena were a constant threat going forward and, from a neat Jude Winchester flick, Andy McGrory flashed a shot across the goal, inches past the far post.

Cliftonville had the ball in the net with their first meaningful opening on 39 minutes but Conor McMenamin's close-range effort - after his initial effort had been kept out by Ross Glendinning - was ruled out by the flag of the referee's assistant.

On 58 minutes, Chris Curran surged forward 60 yards on a counter-attack before slipping a pass to Joe Gormley but the prolific frontman was denied by an inch-perfect tackle by United skipper Jim Ervin.

Ballymena searched for a decisive third goal and a McCullough cross was headed down by Adam Lecky, but Winchester's volley was superbly turned around the post by Brush, who was also equal to a strike from Ervin.

McMenamin fizzed a shot inches wide through a crowded Ballymena goalmouth but the visitors couldn't get an equaliser.

BALLYMENA UNITED: Glendinning, McGrory, Addis, Whiteside, Ervin, McCullough, Kane, Winchester, Millar, Friel, Lecky. Subs not used: Williamson, Quigley, McGinty, Faulkner, Shevlin, Balmer, McMurray.

CLIFTONVILLE: Brush, Bagnall, Breen, Gorman, McMenamin, C Curran, Grace, Harkin (Garrett, 78 mins), McConnell (R Donnelly, 57 mins), R Curran, Gormley. Subs not used: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, Catney, A Donnelly.

Referee: Tony Clarke (Newtownabbey)

Man of the Match: Jim Ervin (Ballymena)

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