Goals from Johnny McMurray and Johnny Flynn kept Ballymena United’s top-six aspirations alive at Solitude.
The Braidmen got the better of Cliftonville to give themselves a fighting chance of overhauling Glentoran in the race for the final spot in the Danske Bank Premiership’s upper echelons and, if they can claim three points against the Glens on Friday night, they would travel to Ballinamallard on Monday knowing that another win would rubber-stamp their slot.
Six defeats from seven games since overcoming the Reds on League Cup semi-final duty early last month had sent United tumbling, allowing a rejuvenated Glens to clamber into the final top-six spot that had for so long looked destined to be Ballymena’s.
While the Braidmen had suffered three losses in 10 days prior to Tuesday night’s outing, their hosts – who provided free admission to all spectators following the original fixture’s abandonment back in January – had enjoyed an upturn in fortunes.
Premiership victories over Crusaders and Carrick Rangers either side of eliminating Linfield from the Irish Cup had buoyed the Reds and they made a confident start to proceedings last night, with Rory Donnelly drawing a save from Ross Glendinning, who picked himself up to turn a Jay Donnelly effort onto the bar.
United pulled in front seven minutes before the break when McMurray, played through by Fra McCaffrey, appeared to take an inadvertent touch that took the ball beyond goalkeeper Brian Neeson.
Having started the first-half well only to concede, Cliftonville saw the same pattern develop after the interval.
Both Donnelly brothers were thwarted by Glendinning before Rory rocked the crossbar with a header.
Visiting sub Matthew Shevlin saw a glorious opportunity to wrap things up go to waste when he shot straight at Neeson when clean through on goal while, at the other end, a fierce Joe Gormley volley struck Rory Donnelly and looped over the top.
That would prove pivotal because, just minutes later, United had made it 2-0; Flynn slamming home after Tony Kane’s delivery from a short corner had fallen favourably inside the area.
Cliftonville’s night went from bad to worse when Garry Breen was stretchered off with what looked like a nasty ankle injury and the 10 men were left cursing Glendinning once again when his flying save stopped Rory Donnelly from setting up a grandstand finale.
There was nothing the keeper could do in injury-time, however, when Harney reacted quickest to turn the ball home from inside the area but it was too little, too late for the Reds as Ballymena saw things out to add further interest to the race for the top six.
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, McGovern, Breen, Harney, Curran, Bagnall, Winchester, Gormley, J Donnelly, Grimes, R Donnelly. Subs: Mooney, Ives (Grimes, 66 mins), Lavery, Cosgrove (McGovern, 71 mins), McDonald (Winchester, 61 mins).
BALLYMENA: Glendinning, Kane, Ervin, Balmer, Flynn, McCullough, McCaffrey, McKinney, Quigley, McMurray, Friel. Subs: McDermott, Faulkner (McCaffrey, 85 mins), Weir, Millar (McKinney, 76 mins), Shevlin (McMurray, 66 mins).
REFEREE: Lee Tavinder (Dungannon)