BALLYMENA UNITED 2 CRUSADERS 4
Ballymena United’s seven-match unbeaten run came to an end as Crusaders made ground in their defence of the Danske Bank Premiership title with an impressive 4-2 win at the Showgrounds. A pulsating game saw Paul Heatley put the champions ahead with a third minute penalty before Allan Jenkins headed United level.
Matthew Tipton then missed a penalty for Ballymena before Jordan Owens headed Crusaders back in front before the interval.
Gary Thompson levelled matters in the second period but goals from Gavin Whyte and Jordan Forsythe earned Stephen Baxter’s side three vital points.
Crusaders came close within the opening two minutes when Jordan Owens, unmarked in the penalty area, saw his header from Craig McClean’s free kick clip the top of the crossbar..
But the home side’s reprieve was short-lived as the champions went in front a minute later.
Referee Ian McNabb adjudged that Johnny Taylor had grappled Owens to the ground and Paul Heatley sent Dwayne Nelson the wrong way from the resultant spot kick.
The Crues felt they should have been awarded a second penalty in the fifth minute when Michael Ruddy upended Heatley right on the edge of the area but this time the referee awarded a fruitless free kick.
Ballymena’s first real effort came on 13 minutes when Eoin Kane’s sliced shot dropped onto the top of the net, with keeper Sean O’Neill appearing to have the effort covered.
The home side restored parity on 20 minutes when Johnny Taylor’s long ball was headed down by Allan Jenkins to the right hand channel when Tony Kane acrobatically hooked the ball back into the area and Jenkins was on hand to deftly flick a header beyond O’Neill.
Crusaders spurned a good opening as O’Neill’s long clearance was missed by Taylor, leaving Heatley racing clear down the left. He spotted strike partner Jordan Owens in the middle but his cross was inches too far in front of the in-rushing forward and the chance was gone.
Ballymena should have gone in front on 31 minutes when they were awarded a penalty after Billy Joe Burns clipped Matthew Tipton’s heels.
The Welshman, United’s top scorer, hesitated in his run-up and ballooned his spot kick over the bar.
And Crusaders made the Sky Blues pay for their profligacy as they went ahead on 38 minutes.
Andrew Mitchell crossed from the right and his deep centre was met with a trademark towering header by Owens which Dwayne Nelson couldn’t keep out, despite getting a hand to the ball.
Crusaders almost added an instant third when Heatley wriggled clear of Taylor but with the angle narrowing all the time, the winger’s effort flashed wide.
Crusaders started the second period at the same breakneck pace they began the first with Owens sending a header inches wide, while Heatley warmed Nelson’s palms after he had manufactured a yard of space.
Gavin Whyte was next to threaten as he dispossessed Michael Ruddy and bore down on goal but his effort was saved by the legs of Nelson at the expense of a corner.
Ballymena still posed a threat and came close to levelling on 63 minutes when Matthew Tipton’s measured curling effort came back off the crossbar with O’Neill beaten.
And the home side eventually drew level on 69 minutes when substitute Gary Thompson turned the ball home from an acute angle after O’Neill was only able to parry David Cushley’s shot.
But Crusaders’ response came within 90 seconds as Gavin Whyte collected a loose ball and weaved past two defenders before slotting past Nelson for a marvellous individual goal.
Ballymena almost levelled straightaway at the other end when Matthew Shevlin’s shot came back off the post but Crusaders opened up a two-goal lead on 77 minutes when Richard Clarke’s corner was headed down by Josh Robinson and Jordan Forsythe was on hand to sweep home from close range.
Ballymena United: Nelson, Ervin, Taylor, Rodger, Ruddy (sub Gawley 80), T Kane, E Kane (sub Thompson 58), Jenkins, Cushley, Shevlin, Tipton (sub Magennis 85). Subs (not used): McNally, Taggart.
Crusaders: O’Neill, Mitchell, Burns, Robinson, McClean, Snoddy, Clarke, Forsythe, Whyte (sub Molloy 85), Owens, Heatley. Subs (not used): Magowan, O’Carroll, O’Flynn, McKibbon.
Referee: Ian McNabb (Glengormley)