CLIFTONVILLE pulled clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership with victory over Ballymena United at Solitude last night.
Ahead through Martin Donnelly’s deflected drive on the stroke of half-time, the Reds weathered some serious second-half pressure before doubling their advantage through Liam Boyce and despite Gary Thompson pulling one back with the final kick of the night, the Reds held on to make it three wins on the bounce.
United entered the contest defending a 17-game unbeaten streak which stretched back to their last meeting with Cliftonville earlier in the year and the hosts were indebted to Conor Devlin for a 14th minute save which prevented Alan Teggart from opening the scoring.
Ryan Catney went close with a low drive across the face of goal and Eamonn Seydak headed wide before Catney once again tested his luck but, after latching onto possession after Stephen Garrett had taken a tumble inside the area, he saw his strike blocked by defender Johnny Taylor.
The deadlock was broken just before the interval thanks to a moment of magic from Liam Boyce, whose cheeky backheel caught not just the Ballymena defence but virtually the entire crowd unaware and Donnelly was on hand to stroke into the bottom corner and in so doing became the first player to breach the Sky Blues’ hitherto watertight defence in the Premiership this term.
Boyce headed wide early in the second period but it was Ballymena who enjoyed the better of the play with skipper Allan Jenkins unfortunate to see a 20-yard attempt deflected over the bar by George McMullan.
The closest United came to drawing level came on 67 minutes when, amid confusion when referee Hugh Carvill over-ruled his assistant to award a corner, Taylor planted a powerful header goalward, bringing an expert save out of Devlin.
That save proved crucial because, just three minutes later, the ball was in the net at the other end after Tomas Cosgrove and Garrett had combined to set Boyce up for an inch-perfect header.
Ballymena - who entered the contest joint top of the table alongside Cliftonville - pulled one back when Thompson thundered into the top corner deep into injury-time but it proved too little, too late to preserve their unbeaten record.
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Johnston, Holland, McMullan, Garrett, Donnelly, Seydak, Catney, Cosgrove, Boyce. Subs: R Scannell (for McMullan, 90 mins), O’Carroll (for Garrett, 78 mins), Templeton (for Boyce, 88 mins), Gormley, Lynch.
BALLYMENA: Nelson, Kane, Stewart, Thompson, Jenkins, Cushley, Teggart, Munster, Ruddy, Taylor, J Davidson. Subs: Black, Taggart (for Stewart, 70 mins), Surgenor (for Davidson, 83 mins), Rodgers, Lowry (for Teggart, 65 mins).
REFEREE: Hugh Carvill (Belfast)