Steven McCullough's moment of magic sends Ballymena United into final
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McCullough lit up a disappointing affair eight minutes into the second half as he produced a trademark free kick to give the Sky Blues the win over their Championship opponents.
The game was turned on its head in the final 20 minutes after Kym Nelson was sent off following a free-for-all kickstarted by a tackle on John McGovern.
But David Jeffrey’s men held on despite a resolute Newry, who took their place in the last four after Glentoran’s expulsion from the competition, throwing everything at them in the closing stages.
It was a cagey enough opening as both sides tried to come to terms with the dry surface.
Daniel Hughes’ speculative long-range effort on ten minutes was the first real effort on goal, but Jordan Williamson easily dealt with it.
For Ballymena McCullough blazed over from the edge of the box after good work by Ryan Waide to get a cross in from the left-hand side.
Leroy Millar couldn’t get enough purchase on his turn and shot from a Nelson knockdown and Stevie Maguire gathered as we moved to the midway point of the first half.
The Newry stopper was forced into action again on 33 minutes as Millar slipped the ball inside for McCullough, whose first-time effort had to be tipped over by Maguire.
Overall though it was a largely forgettable first half with chances at a premium.
Ballymena started the second half with renewed vigour forcing a couple of early free-kicks, but they were still finding Newry a tough nut to crack.
But Darren Mullen’s men were left helpless as the Sky Blues edged in front on 53 minutes.
It was that man McCullough and his wand of a left foot who curled them in front from another set-piece in what was the first moment of real quality in the game.
Ballymena were well on top now and they almost doubled their advantage on 64 minutes as Waide chased down a long ball before hooking a volley goalwards from an acute angle which Maguire did well to parry away.
City were hanging on as their Premiership opponents started to turn the screw forcing several corners.
With 20 minutes to go though the game blew up after Brendan Barr had brought down John McGovern. A melee ensued with the majority of players from both sides involved.
Referee Steven Gregg eventually restored calm but not before he showed Kym Nelson a red card and Darren King and Lorcan Forde a yellow apiece.
Barr was also cautioned for the initial foul.
Newry threw on James Teelan and Declan Carvill as they pushed for the equaliser. But to their credit Ballymena were dealing with everything thrown at them.
Keeley’s block from a McGovern shot was the closest Newry came as we moved into stoppage time.
Six minutes were added on but the Sky Blues saw it out to secure their placeagainst Crusaders in next Saturday’s final.