Johns' heroics denied us derby delight: Jeffrey
Ballymena Utd 3 Coleraine 3
Ballymena United manager David Jeffrey paid tribute to his own players and the man who almost brought an end to his side's long unbeaten run.
Coleraine goalkeeper Chris Johns pulled off magnificent saves as the 10-man Bannsiders held on gallantly for a share of the spoils after racing into a 3-1 lead.
But goals from Andrew Burns and Johnny McMurray, in the 90th minute, brought United level and means they stay at the top of the table, although Linfield have cut their lead to two points.
"I think Chris Johns was remarkable, he was obviously the busier of the two goalkeepers and the saves he made from Cathair Friel and Ryan Mayse were nothing short of exceptional," said Jeffrey.
"For ourselves, if we're being clinical in our analysis, we're disappointed in the goals that we've conceded, particularly from set-pieces which we have been so very strong with this year.
"The players gave themselves something of a mountain to climb at 3-1 down and to come back in such an incredible fashion is nothing short of remarkable.
"I have talked about resilience, resolve and determination and desire and that was there in abundance and from a pure footballing point of view, I am an unapologetic supporter of Irish League football, I champion it unashamedly and I thought that was an absolutely cracking game to watch."
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The visitors got off to a great start at Warden Street when their skipper Stephen Lowry pounced to open the scoring with just nine minutes on the clock.
United paid the penalty for failing to clear their lines properly from Aaron Canning's launched ball into the area and when it fell to Lowry at the edge of the area his bouncing shot through a clutch of bodies evaded the grasp of Tom McDermott.
The Sky Blues were level within four minutes, Johns pulling off a reflex save to keep out Johnny Addis's close-range header and when Adam Lecky went for the rebound he was pulled down by Adam Mullan.
United, who missed two penalties in Saturday's win over Ards, turned to Friel to take responsibility and the top scorer duly obliged by sliding home his 11th goal of the season.
The Bannsiders were looking the more likely to add to their tally and a second goal arrived in the 27th minute, another cross ball causing all sorts of problems in the home defence and after Canning hooked it goalwards there was ace poacher James McLaughin to sweep it home.
They almost added a third four minutes before the interval when Darren McCauley cut in from the left and let rip with his right foot but his shot went agonisingly wide of the target.
McLaughlin, booked in the first-half for a late lunge on Addis, was shown a red card four minutes into the second period for a late tackle on Jim Ervin.
But it was the 10-men who scored next, in the 65th minute, when Ian Parkhill, given too much time and space, curled a left foot effort into the far corner.
United halved the deficit within two minutes, a scramble in the box from a Steven McCullough corner and Burns knocked it home.
Jeffrey introduced McMurray and Mayse to boost his attacking options and both were denied by Johns as they searched desperately for an equaliser.
With seven minutes to go Jude Winchester fired in a teasing cross but Friel's header was well saved again by Johns.
Their heroic defence was eventually broken at the death. Addis' long throw was only headed out as far as McMurray and he lashed home a volley to bring a pulsating derby to an end and left Coleraine boss Rodney McAree with mixed emotions.
"I thought we did very well for large parts of the game but to find yourself 3-1 up and not win the game is disappointing," he said. "Ballymena went very direct and everything was going in the box and they are physically very strong.
"There are huge positives to take, we have come to the league leaders and come away disappointed we haven't won the game."