Crusaders score last gasp winner against Ballymena to book semi-final spot
Ballymena United 1 Crusaders 2
Defender Jarlath O’Rourke pinched a last gasp winner to earn Crusaders a spot in the semi-finals of the BetMcLean League Cup.
The former Dungannon Swifts man struck in the 119th minute to break the hearts of battling Ballymena United in a night of drama at the Warden Street Showgrounds.
It’s the third time in as many weeks the teams have clashed and, as both previous games finished level – United did win a Shield quarter-final penalty shoot-out – and this one followed a similar theme.
Jamie McGonigle shot the Crues into a first half with a thunderbolt, but United levelled early after the restart courtesy of an Andy McGrory penalty kick.
Both sides finished with only 10 men. Crues’ midfielder Rory Hale was dismissed for pawing the ball over his own crossbar that led to the United equaliser, while Adam Lecky, making his first appearance since August, saw red late on after clashing with Philip Lowry.
United have reached the last three finals, winning in 2017 against Carrick Rangers, but losing out to Dungannon Swifts the following season before being pipped by David Healy’s Linfield back in February
Lecky didn’t take long to make an impact. He sent a Kenny Kane free with a looping pass on 16 minutes, but Sean O’Neill was off his line quickly to save.
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Seconds later Leroy Millar’s flick presented Lecky with a sniff at goal, but alert O’Neill got down smartly to turn away at the base of the post.
And, Lecky threatened again on 18 minutes. This time O’Neill managed to get a strong hand to a wicked drive from Millar and when ball broke to the beanpole striker, he volleyed just over the angle of the post and crossbar.
But McGonigle stunned the home fans six minutes before the interval with his blistering effort.
There seemed to be little on for the former Coleraine man when he picked up a Jonny Addis clearance, but he let fly from 20-yards and the ball fizzed into the top corner despite a desperate attempt by Williamson to paw clear.
United attempted to come back off the ropes with Millar testing O’Neill, but again the shot stopper got down impressively to save.
United were level within four minutes of the restart after Hale’s moment of madness.
Stephen McCullough’s free kick was met by Jonny Addis and his booming header was hurtling into the top corner until the midfielder flicked over the top. Referee Steven Gregg immediately pulled out the red card.
McGrory confidently stepped up to convert from the spot.
It was United who were now asking the questions and Lecky forced O’Neill into action on 65 minutes with a down-ward header following a teasing cross from Jim Ervin.
Crusaders were dangerous on the counter and a fantastic solo dash from McGonigle, when he ghosted past both Kofi Balmer and Addis, resulted a weak effort that Williamson easily dealt with.
The game erupted for all the wrong reasons six minutes from time when Lecky clashed with Philip Lowry, which led to a mass brawl. When the dust settled, referee Gregg produced another red card for Lecky.
Following an lifeless extra 30 minutes – apart from a David Cushley special the Crues won it with practically the last kick when Ross Clarke’s cross was turned in by O’Rourke.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Williamson, Addis, Harpur (Carville 19), McCullough, Kane (Mayse 94), McGrory, Balmer, Ervin, Lecky, Millar (Burns 69), Kelly.
Unused subs: Glendinning, McGinty, Winchester, Lavery.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Burns, Coates, Lowry, McGonigle (Cushley 95), Hale, Caddell (Clarke 90), O’Rourke, Owens, Heatley, McElroy (Thompson 63).
Unused subs: Doherty, Beverland, Ruddy, Owens.
REFEREE: Steven Gregg.
Belfast Telegraph Digital