Cliftonville players proved togetherness with 'excellent' reaction to Irish Cup heartache: Gray
Cliftonville 4-0 Ballymena Utd
Barry Gray toasted Cliftonville's spirit after second-half doubles from Jay Donnelly and Joe Gormley blasted his side past 10-man Ballymena United at Solitude last night.
The hosts had been on top from the off but the dismissal of Kevin Braniff just past the half-hour mark handed them a numerical advantage that they made count.
It took until 67 minutes for the opening goal to come but that Donnelly strike opened the floodgates as the Reds hit back from Irish Cup final disappointment to tee up a winner-takes-all European shoot-out with Glentoran on Saturday.
"I'm so proud of the players for what they've just done," said Gray.
"The physical and mental exertions of the weekend, when every player emptied the tank, were huge and to follow that up with a performance like this is excellent, absolutely brilliant.
"I learned an awful lot about us on Saturday - not in football terms, but in terms of the togetherness in that changing room. We lost the game but everyone was together, it was collective pain and they were determined to get back on it and win this match.
"We now have to recharge the batteries and go at it all over again to get ourselves over the line against Glentoran. I'm delighted we have home advantage for the game and I believe our fans can have a massive influence, but you can't dismiss Glentoran one bit. They've just gone to Windsor and stuck four past Linfield when nobody gave them a chance - so they're going to be up for it just as much as we will be."
Though injury and suspension hampered his options somewhat, Ballymena boss David Jeffrey was still able to name the considerable attacking threat of Conor McCloskey, Willie Faulkner, Matthew Shevlin and Joe McKinney on the bench, where they were joined by Crusaders-bound Kyle Owens.
Gray, meanwhile, had planned to stick with the same side that started Saturday's defeat to Coleraine but an injury to Garry Breen in the warm-up saw Shane Grimes elevated from a substitute's role.
After Jay Donnelly had threatened for the hosts and Cathair Friel went close for United, a contest that was always on a knife-edge threatened to boil over when an altercation between Braniff and Liam Bagnall required intervention from the officials, who decided that a yellow card apiece was sufficient.
That would prove costly for Braniff because, just 10 minutes later, referee Raymond Crangle took his name again; a high challenge on Conor McDonald earning a dismissal.
It wasn't until after the break that the Reds made their numerical advantage count, although they must have been wondering if the breakthrough goal would ever come after seeing Gormley drag an attempt wide, Jamie Harney twice come within inches of heading in and Rory Donnelly denied by a wonderful Ross Glendinning save before being crowded out when he thought he was about to tap into an empty net just minutes later.
Eventually, however, it was down to younger brother Jay to do the job, taking control in a busy penalty area before slamming powerfully past Glendinning.
Lingering home nerves were eased nine minutes from the end when Donnelly doubled his personal tally with a cool finish after substitute Stephen Garrett had carried the ball virtually the full length of the field.
A similar contribution from Garrett ended with Gormley making it 3-0 and the Reds' top scorer rounded things off with two minutes to go when he curled a beauty of a strike into the top corner.
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, Ives, Harney, Curran, Bagnall, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, Grimes, McDonald, R Donnelly. Subs: McGovern, Garrett (McDonald, 56 mins), Dunne, Lavery (R Donnelly, 86 mins), A Donnelly.
Scorers: J Donnelly (2), Gormley (2)
BALLYMENA: Glendinning, Kane, McAlorum, Friel, Braniff, Burns, Balmer, Ervin, Millar, McCaffrey, Quigley. Subs: Owens (Burns, 65 mins), McCloskey, Faulkner, Shevlin (Quigley, 78 mins), McKinney (McCaffrey, 68 mins).
Man of the match: Joe Gormley
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)