United No.1 at Christmas thanks to on song Millar
Ballymena Utd 2 Ards 0
It was fitting that an unsung hero was the man to ensure that Ballymena United celebrated Christmas in No.1 spot after a virtuoso performance on Saturday.
Midfielder Leroy Millar was virtually unplayable in the opening 45 minutes against Ards, scoring one and setting up the second goal for Jude Winchester and that was enough to seal victory over struggling Ards.
The Cullybackey man is sky blue through and through but had looked in danger of drifting away from the club until the arrival of David Jeffrey, who has given him a new lease of life.
His sixth goal of the season was typical of his new-found confidence, arriving at the right time to power home James Knowles' cross in the 12th minute.
He was at heart of the second in the 35th minute, battling to win the ball off two Ards players on halfway, he set off on a run that showed power, pace and panache, before slipping the ball to Jude Winchester who provided a classy finish.
Winchester should have added to his tally, having a second-half penalty saved by the exceptional Sam Johnston, who denied Knowles in the same way before the break, but it was Millar who was the star for David Jeffrey.
"Maybe some people will start to listen and that will include those who thought it was very easy to pick on the hometown boy," he said. "Leroy has been an exceptional player in the making for some time and all Bryan (McLoughlin) and I have given him is belief and obviously helped him, but his performance today was amazing.
"His first goal was a fantastic ball in by James Knowles but it was another gut-busting run from Leroy to get into the box and not only did he get there, he rose like a salmon out of water, had the vision of an eagle and buried it with a real hammerhead. It was a fantastic header.
"The second goal, there was strength, there was pace, there was tenacity and probably the best quality of the lot was simple desire. He did really well and alongside that Jude Winchester recognised and identified it, and joined in and scored a great second goal. Leroy MIllar, for me, was exceptional."
As has been Ballymena's form of later, 14 wins on the bounce and unbeaten in 17 games, it is the stuff of dreams for the United faithful, and Jeffrey is trying to keep cloud nine safe for Sky Blue fans.
"What we have got to do is manage expectations, let's not get carried away and I hate banging on about it, but Bryan (McLoughlin) and I have been around for a wee while and we know we are going really well at the minute but the players are buying in to what we are doing and they deserve all of the credit," he added.
"Everybody is working hard, no-one is getting carried away. The target this year is top six and Europe, we need to crack Europe and anything after that is a massive bonus.
"But for this week we are top of the league again and I'm a very, very happy man."
Ards fully played their part in the game, forging several good chances and then having a goal chalked off by referee Shane Andrews when goalkeeper Tom McDermott looked to spill the ball and it was bundled home by Kyle Cherry.
"It's a goal in my opinion and of course when you talk to referees they shoot you down," said boss Colin Nixon. "The keeper actually throws the ball onto his head, Kyle Cherry doesn't know anything about it. They are the margins that hurt you.
"At the end of the day the bottom line is you can't win a football match if you don't score a goal and that has been too often for us this season."
BALLYMENA: McDermott, Ervin, McCullough, Addis, Balmer, Winchester, Millar, Burns (McGinty, 75 mins), Friel (Mayse, 87 mins), Knowles, Lecky (McMurray, 70 mins). Unused subs: McCauley, Quigley, Whiteside, Shevlin.
Ards: Johnston, Kerr, McClean, Byers, McAleenan, Tommons, E McAllister (McKenna, 81 mins), Cherry, Nelson (Strain, 56 mins), McLellan (M Kelly, 80 mins), D. McAllister. Unused subs: Davidson, J. Kelly, Mitchell, McArthur.
Referee: Shane Andrews (Comber)
Man of the match: Leroy Millar
Match rating: 7/10