Goal-getter Paul O'Neill pops up with late winner for Cliftonville to deny Ballymena
Dankse Bank Irish Premiership: Cliftonville 2 Ballymena 1
CLIFTONVILLE made it back-to-back wins last night and moved into fourth place in the table after a hard-fought win that went some way to exorcising the bitter 4-0 defeat the Reds suffered at the hands of Ballymena United back in November.
Paul O’Neill grabbed the winner for Paddy McLaughlin’s men with eight minutes remaining. Ryan Curran’s goal on the half hour mark was cancelled out by Seamus McCartan’s strike on 42 minutes before O'Neill popped up with his late strike in a tie that looked like drifting towards stalemate.
Last night's clash didn't reach any great heights but the home side just about deserved the three points.
If the Solitude faithful had been allowed in the ground, they wouldn’t have been long in letting their players know they needed to improve the tempo of their play.
There was effort from both sets of players but not the gut-busting kind that a raucous home support can only bring. Sky Blues boss David Jeffrey bellowed from his technical area from start to finish of last night’s league clash, demanding more of his players.
And the former Linfield boss turned away in anguish in the 24th minute after central defender Conor Keeley screwed his header wide of the Cliftonville upright after being picked out by a James Knowles corner from the Waterworks end.
Apart from Keeley’s poor header the opening half hour was incident-free and desperately lacking in quality.
Celtic’s on-loan midfielder Barry Coffey looked the best player on the field in the first half. Not only was the Tipperary man’s passing range from the central midfield area hugely impressive, his work-rate equalled his quality in possession when he pressed Ballymena captain Jim Ervin into an uncharacteristic error on 30 minutes.
Not once but twice Coffey forced errors out of the Sky Blues central defender as he attempted to clear before the ball bounced kindly for lone striker Ryan Curran who fired low past the advancing ‘keeper Ross Glendinning from 18 yards out.
But the home side’s lead lasted just 12 minutes – an equaliser that was entirely avoidable.
Ballymena’s advancing right back Trai Hume sent in a dangerous low cross but Garry Breen’s poor clearance fell to McCartan – Ballymena’s hat-trick hero on their last visit to Solitude back in November – who controlled inside the penalty area and thumped the ball past the despairing dive of Aaron McCarey who was beaten by power more than placement.
Probably still carrying the disappointment of conceding that equaliser a few minutes before half-time, the Reds were lucky not to fall behind a few minutes into the second period when the visitors overloaded the left flank but Ben Wylie fired over the bar 12 yards from goal.
For the next 30 minutes there was more perspiration than inspiration and very little meaningful goal action until Paul O’Neill, one of Cliftonville’s new signings, ghosted into the visitors’ penalty area but his left-footed drive was deflected for a corner.
But from the resultant set piece on 82 minutes, the home side edged in front again through O’Neill.
Breen made amends for his first-half mistake by retrieving the ball and sending in a fierce cross from the right which O’Neill did well to react and head home from close range to claim his third goal in a matter of weeks since signing from Glentoran.
Ballymena huffed and puffed in the closing stages but the Reds defence held firm to take the win.
Cliftonville: A McCarey, K Lowe, A Donnelly, R O’Reilly, G Breen, L Bagnall, B Coffey (D Kearns 77), P O’Neill, C Curran, R Hale (D O’Connor 57), R Curran Subs not used: D Dunne, M McCrudden, S Foster, O Casey, L O’Brien
Ballymena United: R Glendinning, T Hume, S Graham, J Ervin, C Keeley (R Redman 46), J Knowles (R Waide 61), J Winchester, J Kelly, B Wylie, J McCready (P McElroy 76), S McCartan Subs not used: D Graham, A Kane, P McElroy, A McGrory, K Keenan
Referee: Shane Andrews