Ballymena United - the enigma club of local football.
Only four days ago I watched them stage a thrilling comeback to topple fancied Larne at Warden Street. Tonight they simply didn’t turn up.
Cliftonville will have few easier semi-finals. Normally these are real pressure games, tight and often decided by a solitary error or piece of brilliance. Tonight’s occasion was far from typical.
The Reds barely had to break sweat. They weren’t at the top of their game themselves, it simply wasn’t necessary, and when Paul O’Neill’s air-shot sent the Ballymena defence off on a picnic, Ryan Curran had the simple task of applying the finishing touch from close-range.
Then on the approach to half-time Joe Gormley sensed hesitancy between McGrory and Williamson in the Ballymena goal, accelerated between the two and tumbled under Williamson’s challenge. Penalty! Was it or was it not? Seen them given, seen them not...
Referee Andrew Davey said, “Yes!” and I think he got it right, despite the Ballymena manager in his post-match comments telling us all that Gormley himself said he didn’t think it was a foul.
If the game wasn’t over then it certainly was before the second-half was 7 minutes old. Ives, unchecked collected McDermott’s diagonal ball in the box and rolled it into the path of Gormley. The pair appeared to be enjoying the freedom of Solitude at that moment and Cliftonville’s sliding #19, propelled the ball goal wards. Williamson managed to get a solid hand in the way but it wasn’t enough. 3-0!
It’s difficult to recall shot on target or clear-cut opportunity that fell Ballymena’s way. Luke McNicholas looked consummately at ease in handling the few testing crosses that came his way. That apart he could’ve stayed home and still earned his clean-sheet.
Reds boss Paddy McLaughlin was pleased with his players application. He told the BBC...
I’m delighted we are in a final, the players and club deserve it. The fans have been superb this season and we are delighted for them, they have something to look forward to now.
“We can park it, the final isn’t for a while, and we have a lot of big matches in the league.
“On tonight’s performance I thought the boys were superb - clean sheet, three good goals and we played some really good football. It’s a good night all round.”
Despite being “happy with their effort and commitment” David Jeffrey on the other hand must be wondering how to achieve consistency with Ballymena. He was proud as punch last Friday, puffing out his chest and rightly showering his players with accolades.
Tonight his team just weren’t at the races.
As a contest it was a poor semi-final, the outcome determined way before the game’s conclusion. Forever loathe to leave a game before the end, it was more difficult to remain for the final, shrill blast of Andrew Davey’s whistle than depart early for the evening. The interest in this one had long gone.
Cliftonville: McNicholas, McDermott, Ives, C. Curran (Kearns, 86), R. Curran (Donnelly, 75), O’Neill, McDonagh, Lowe, Addis (Coates, 88), Gormley, Turner (Harney, 88)
(Subs not used) - Dunne, Foster, Doherty.
Ballymena United: Williamson, Redman (Graham, 81), Wilson, McElroy, Waide (Parkhouse, 57), McCullough, Kane, Barr, McGrory, Keeley, Millar (c)
(Subs not used) - Johnston, Chapman, Henderson, Bramall, Smith
Referee: Andrew Davey
Asst Ref: Gareth Eakin, Andrew Nethery
4th Official: Keith Kennedy