Gray hails red hot Donnelly after hat-trick display in Cliftonville victory
Cliftonville 3 Ards 0
Barry Gray sang Jay Donnelly's praises as the Cliftonville striker plundered a hat-trick to see off Ards at Solitude last night.
Though the final scoreline was harsh on the visitors, the Reds were good value for the points as they begin their countdown to next weekend's Tennent's Irish Cup semi-final with Loughgall.
"He's been doing that for us all season," said Gray of his 22-goal hitman.
"I would say 90 per cent of his performances have been in wide areas and he has always done a job for us out there.
"He continually chips in with goals and go get 22 from a third striker is a fantastic return."
The visitors almost took a comical lead after just two minutes when miscommunication in the Cliftonville backline saw Jaimie McGovern steer a backpass beyond Brian Neeson but, with Cameron Stewart lurking, the goalkeeper recovered to clear the danger.
The deadlock was broken on 14 minutes, however, when Ruairi Harkin's free-kick delivery was touched into the net by the alert Jay Donnelly.
Conor McDonald almost made it 2-0 shortly afterwards only for Sam Johnston to gather at the second attempt ahead of Neeson saving from Ards substitute Jonathan Frazer.
Just before the half-hour, an unmarked Jamie Harney sent a header straight at Johnston and, early in the second-half, the visitors threatened a leveller only for Ross Clarke to blaze over the top.
Johnston made an exceptional save to deny Donnelly before, from a Jonah Mitchell cross, Frazer thought he'd equalised only for Neeson to produce a superb reaction stop.
Ards felt they should have had a free-kick - and that Neeson should have been sent off - when the Cliftonville keeper appeared to handle outside the area on 65 minutes but referee Raymond Hetherington waved play on.
The Reds doubled their lead on 73 minutes when Donnelly rose highest from Conor McDonald's corner and planted a firm header past goalkeeper Johnston.
As the end of the game approached, Donnelly completed his hat-trick with a smart finish from Gormley's sumptuous throughball.
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, Harney (Grimes, 77 mins), Curran (Lavery, 72 mins), Harkin, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, McDonald, R Donnelly (Bagnall, 66 mins).
Subs not used: Dunne, Winchester.
ARDS: Johnston, Glendinning, Ruddy, Taylor, Byers, J Kelly, Cherry, Mitchell, Keke, Stewart (Frazer, 19 mins), Clarke (McLellan, 66 mins).
Subs not used: L Kelly, Tommons, Davidson, Frazer.
Referee: Raymond Hetherington
Man of the match: Jay Donnelly
Match rating: 7/10.