Ballymena United 2 Cliftonville 2
To describe it as a dramatic finish hardly does justice to Ballymena United’s amazing comeback that earned them an unlikely point from what, in the end, was a thrilling 2-2 draw with Cliftonville.
Leading 2-0 with little more than two minutes to go, thanks to a goal in each half from Jamie McDonagh – the frontman adding two more superb strikes to an ever-growing and impressive hightlights reel – the Reds brought on Jamie Harney and Aaron Donnelly with the idea of seeing out the game and keeping the pressure on Linfield and Glentoran at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership.
Five minutes later, however, they had let two points slip from their grasp after a late double whammy from the Sky Blues.
Leroy Millar’s 88th minute strike looked like being merely a consolation effort, but the real drama was still to come.
With the game in injury time referee Lee Tavinder awarded a penalty when the ball hit Chris Gallagher’s arm after Conor Keeley hooked the ball over his head and Paul McElroy scored from the spot to complete a remarkable fightback.
Up until then Ballymena had hardly mustered an effort to trouble Cliftonville goalkeeper Luke McNicholas, with the Reds exerting early pressure after they had got a grip with the conditions and the tricky surface.
McDonagh was at the heart of it all.He had already threatened twice when the ball was headed out by Mickey Place and when it dropped to McDonagh 25 yards out he caught the shot perfectly to send it over everyone in the box before it dropped into unguarded right hand side of the goal.
It looked as if the Reds would do enough to grind out a 1-0 win. That was until nine minutes from the end when McDonagh produced another moment of magic — even before he finished from 25 yards.
After picking up the ball as Paul O’Neill pushed it through, McDonagh stayed on his feet as the challenges came in on both sides and produced a superb shot with the outside of his right foot that flew past Gallagher.
But anyone who thought that was the Sky Blues down and out was very much mistaken.
Jonte Smith picked up the ball after a lucky ricochet and slipped in Millar, who shot through McNicholas’ legs to set up a grand finale.
When Ross Redman’s corner was headed back into the centre of the box after McNicholas’ punch. Keeley’s attempt to send the ball goalwards was blocked by Chris Gallagher’s arm.
McElroy smashed his penalty straight down the middle of the goal to give his team a point that just minutes before had seemed such a long way away.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Gallagher, McGrory, Keeley, Redman, McCullough (McElroy 89), Graham, Place (Bramall 84), Barr (Henderson 84), Millar, Kane (Smith 84), Parkhouse (Nelson 74 mins). Unused subs: Rodgers, Waide.
CLIFTONVILLE: McNicholas, McDermott, Addis, Turner, Ives, McDonagh, Doherty (C Curran 82), Lowe (Donnelly 87), C Gallagher, R Curran (Harney 87), Gormley, (O’Neill 74). Unused subs: McKenna, Coates, Kearns.
B Referee: Lee Tavinder (Cookstown).
Man of the match: Jamie McDonagh
Match rating: 8/10.