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Balmer gets 10-man Ballymena United off to flying start against Coleraine

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Get in: Kofi Balmer takes the plaudits after netting for Ballymena United at the Ballycastle Road Showgrounds

Get in: Kofi Balmer takes the plaudits after netting for Ballymena United at the Ballycastle Road Showgrounds

�INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Get in: Kofi Balmer takes the plaudits after netting for Ballymena United at the Ballycastle Road Showgrounds

Ten-man Ballymena United grabbed an opening-day scalp as Kofi Balmer's first-half header earned the Sky Blues their first league win in 2020.

Before a ball was kicked in anger, there was controversy as the Northern Ireland Executive announced that supporters were not permitted to attend elite sports under the new Covid-19 regulations.

The announcement was shared little over an hour before the start of the new campaign with fans already in the ground on the Ballycastle Road.

However, Bannsiders chairman Colin McKendry decided that fans should be allowed into the venue on health and safety grounds.

First Minister Arlene Foster then added to the confusion, tweeting that fans should indeed be allowed in.

Those supporters were almost celebrating after three minutes as Ben Doherty's free-kick sailed over the crossbar. At the other end, Coleraine almost gifted the visitors the lead as Stephen O'Donnell went agonisingly close to heading into his own net.

United boss David Jeffrey handed a debut to Northern Ireland international Shay McCartan and he showed his promise early doors as he slipped past the challenges of two defenders and fired straight at Gareth Deane.

However, the Sky Blues made the breakthrough on 27 minutes when defender Balmer was left unmarked inside the box and he headed home.

Eight minutes later, United almost profited from another corner-kick but Ciaran Kelly was unable to direct a header on target.

The hosts struggled to find any rhythm in their play and Ballymena will feel they should have added a second on 42 minutes but Deane was alert to stop Leroy Millar from inside the area.

However, there would be drama before the half-time whistle as a seventh player would be sent-off in the derby in the last nine matches.

As Coleraine looked to go on the counter-attack with Stewart Nixon, the ex-Carrick Rangers ace was brought down by Joshua Kelly and after initially looking to be yellow-carded by Andrew Davey, the whistler reversed the decision and displayed a red.

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Joshua Kelly is given his marching orders

Joshua Kelly is given his marching orders

�INPHO/Jonathan Porter

Joshua Kelly is given his marching orders

The Bannsiders only made their extra man count after the hour mark as James McLaughlin tested Ross Glendinning from distance, before the same player blazed over the crossbar after neat build-up play by Nixon.

On 65 minutes, Oran Kearney's men thought they had grabbed an equaliser but McLaughlin could only strike against the post, and the rebound fell at the feet of Josh Carson but his effort was cleared off the line by Trai Hume.

It was becoming one-way traffic for the League Cup holders and they spurned yet another glorious chance to level when a ball into the box fell to Stephen Lowry but the midfielder couldn't convert from six yards.

However, after soaking up all that pressure, the Braidmen carved out a fantastic opportunity when Ryan Waide was found inside the area but he hit wide.

As the clock ticked closer to 90 minutes, Ballymena ensured a major scalp when substitute Jonny Addis made a timely block to deny Ian Parkhill.

COLERAINE: Deane, Kane, Doherty, Lowry, McLaughlin, Carson, McConaghie, Tweed, O'Donnell (Allen 69), Glackin, Nixon (Parkhill 84)

Subs Not Used: Gallagher (GK), Douglas, Wilson, Tosh, McLean.

BALLYMENA UNITED: Glendinning, Redman, McCullough, McElroy, McCartan (Harpur 74), Strain, Balmer (Addis 78), Hume, Millar, C. Kelly, J. Kelly. Subs Not Used: Williamson (GK), A. Kane, McKeown, Winchester, K. Kane.

Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor)

Man of the Match: Ciaran Kelly

Match rating: 7/10

Belfast Telegraph