Belfast Telegraph

Sky Blues seal top two spot to book Euro trip

Ballymena Utd 4-3 Glenavon

Overjoyed: Shane McGinty leads the celebrations for David Jeffrey's Ballymena United
Overjoyed: Shane McGinty leads the celebrations for David Jeffrey's Ballymena United
Squaring up: Johny McMurray and James Singleton clash
Adam McKendry

By Adam McKendry

The last time Ballymena United finished in the top two of the Irish League was in 1980 when David Jeffrey was just 18.

Last night at the Ballymena Showgrounds, the veteran Irish League manager led the celebrations as the Braidmen secured second place in the Danske Bank Premiership and a European place for next season - banking at least £200,000 - with a dramatic 4-3 win over Glenavon at the Showgrounds.

Needing just a point to ensure they would finish runners-up, the Sky Blues went one better by taking all three points thanks to replacement Shane McGinty's winner three minutes from time.

"Can't even begin to," said Jeffrey when asked to describe his feelings.

"It hasn't even come close to sinking in.

"All we said at the start of the season was we wanted to be top-six again and we wanted a crack at Europe, and we wanted to see if we could get qualification. To be able to come through and do it automatically is phenomenal.

"It was unbelievable football on a difficult night, the quality of the football was fantastic, the manner of the victory was just typical Ballymena!"

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Knowing a Glenavon win would take the race for second down to the final day, the hosts got off to the perfect start, forging ahead after just eight minutes when Caolan Marron misplayed his pass back to goalkeeper Johnny Tuffey, allowing Johnny McMurray to steal in behind and square for Andy McGrory to tap home.

Having been rocked early, Glenavon found a foothold with a series of corners, and on the final one they found a 19th minute equaliser, Conor McCloskey's inch-perfect delivery met by the head of Seamus Sharkey.

The stalemate lasted two minutes. On Ballymena's first attack since being pegged back, McGrory reacted quickest to a flick through and collided with Tuffey as the goalkeeper palmed the ball, and McMurray gleefully latched onto the rebound to fire home and restore the hosts' lead.

James Singleton had a chance to send the sides in level at the interval when Andrew Mitchell slipped the ball through to him, however Ross Glendinning was out like a flash to block the shot.

After the restart, McMurray was inches away from diverting in Steven McCullough's ball across the face of goal, but the Sky Blues didn't have to wait long for their third to arrive and it was the forward trio who linked up again perfectly, McGrory's pass left by McMurray for Adam Lecky to run onto and he made no mistake with the low finish for the 56th minute strike.

But Glenavon weren't to make it easy as they responded immediately, McCloskey swinging in another corner, a melee in the box saw Glendinning end up on the floor and Ballymena's strong protests fell on deaf ears as Singleton smashed home a volley.

Singleton then thought he had drawn his side level when he placed a header into the top corner from a free-kick, only for the linesman's flag to deny him, while Tuffey tipped McMurray's curling effort onto the crossbar.

In a final fling, Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton summoned himself from the bench and he made an immediate impact, flicking a long ball into the path of Mitchell who drove home the low effort for a dramatic equaliser.

With time ebbing away and needing a late winner the Lurgan Blues piled everyone forward, but when they failed to clear from a corner into their own box, McGinty raced onto the loose ball and rifled it in to send the Showgrounds into raptures.

Eoin Wearen shot against the crossbar late and Kofi Balmer and McCloskey nearly came to blows after a heavy challenge, but that didn't do anything to dampen the raucous celebrations at the full-time whistle.

As the Showgrounds PA announcer happily declared at the end, Ballymena are off on a European adventure next season.

Belfast Telegraph

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