Ballymena United’s recent form has caused manager David Jeffrey sleepless nights and given him cause to consider his position.
But the experienced boss insists he was heartened by the Sky Blues’ performance in defeat to Crusaders at The Showgrounds yesterday and declares he will battle on.
Crues left back Jarlath O’Rourke nodded home the only goal of the game from a 13th minute Jordan Forsythe chip and the visitors wasted several great chances before Ballymena finally roused from their slumber.
A much improved second-half saw Conor Keeley nod off both the crossbar and the goalline on 73 minutes, prompting a determined rear guard action from the visitors, who held out to claim the win.
Coming after last weekend’s defeat to Carrick Rangers, the Braidmen remain in ninth position in the Danske Bank Premiership as Jeffrey endures a stern examination of his character.
“It’s the hardest time, the toughest time of my career in football”, reflected Jeffrey. “Last weekend I didn’t sleep a wink.
“I literally didn’t sleep a wink, it was a horrible weekend, it just kept coming back into my mind.
“It’s the pressures you put on yourself, the expectations you put on yourself and this is the toughest time ever.
“There will always be a time when something will come to an end. Bryan (McLoughlin) and I love being here, they are such good people.
“You either stand up and be counted or you get offside so it’s just a matter of putting the chest out and the shoulders back and battling on.
“I said this would be tough and it may even get worse before it gets better, but if we get performances like that and we get the support from the fans — as we had here — that will really help us.
“Today was pleasing in that the attitude and application of the players was first class. In my mind, there’s no doubt we should have got a point from the game.”
Opposite number Stephen Baxter was happy with his team’s performance but admitted frustration that they were not out of sight by half-time.
Johnny McMurray rifled off target, Forsythe side-footed wide, Josh Robinson should have scored with a close range header, likewise defensive partner Aidan Wilson with another header from another perfect Ben Kennedy delivery.
But by the end of the game, the Crues were defending desperately as Ballymena poured forward and made hard work of the victory.
“We had a couple of gilt-edged chances that we didn’t take and that always leaves the door open at 1-0”, mused Baxter.
“We saw it against Cliftonville, all it takes is one good ball into the box.
“When you take a 1-0 lead, you don’t sit back — a team forces you back.
“You’ve got to take your chances when you’re on top. If we had scored two or three goals, no-one could have complained, we were that much on top. I thought our first-half performance was superb.
“We were rampaging through in the first half an hour and Ballymena said ‘we surrender’, and brought every player back behind the ball, including the centre forward, to stop us coming through at will.
“I would do exactly the same, stop the bleeding.
“The annoyance from our point of view is not taking your chances when you are on top because a team will always come back at you.
“Ballymena threw the kitchen sink at us and we had to see it off.”
The two teams meet again on Wednesday night in the Bet McLean League Cup and Jeffrey admits the quick turnaround against the same opponents is not what he would have wished for.
“Back to Seaview on Wednesday night,” he said.
“Crusaders are a well marshalled team, Stephen has a good squad with good players and we both want to progress.
“Back to back games are not ideal but we will give it our best shot.”
BALLYMENA: Williamson 6, Redman 7, Wilson 6, McKeown 6 (Kane, 88 mins, 6), Winchester 5(Barr, 82 mins, 6), McElroy 6, Henderson 6, McGrory 7(Beattie, 88 mins, 6), Keeley 7, Millar 7, Smith 5 (Brammall, 68 mins, 6). Unused subs: Johnston, Chapman, Rodgers.
Crusaders: Tuffey 7, Burns 7, Wilson 7, Weir 5, Kennedy 7, Frazer 6 (Clarke, 58 mins, 6), Forsythe 6, O’Rourke 7, Heatley 6 (Caddell, 79 mins, 6), Robinson 7, McMurray 6 (Lecky, 58 mins, 6). Unused subs: O’Neill, Hegarty, Doyle, Owens.
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast) 7