Ballymena United’s miserable run of Danske Bank Premiership form in 2015 continued as they were beaten by title-chasing Crusaders at the Showgrounds.
The defeat means that the Sky Blues have taken just four points from nine league fixtures since the turn of the year as their descent down the league table continues.
Manager Glenn Ferguson once again utilised the versatility of skipper Allan Jenkins by deploying the Scot in the centre of defence in a squad weakened by suspensions to senior players David Cushley, Johnny Taylor and Gary Thompson.
That resulted in places on the bench for teenagers Craig Gardiner, Jason Johnston and Jake McNeill.
It was the league leaders who made the brighter opening and they almost went ahead on eight minutes.
Ballymena made several failed attempts to clear a bouncing ball which eventually fell to Paul Heatley just inside the penalty area. The winger cut inside onto his left foot before firing a shot which appeared to be arrowing towards the top corner before Tim Allen sprang across his goal to acrobatically tip the effort behind.
United enjoyed an incredible let-off on 10 minutes from a situation entirely of their own making. Jenkins passed the ball back to Allen who, rather than clear his lines, played a return pass to Jenkins on the edge of the penalty area.
The ball bobbled up and Jenkins lost possession to Heatley just inside the area before appearing to bundle over the winger in front of goal. As the Showgrounds faithful held their breath, anticipating a penalty and a red card which would rule Jenkins out of next week’s Irish Cup semi-final, referee Tim Marshall waved play on.
Jenkins took full advantage of his reprieve as he gave United the lead on 16 minutes. The goal came when a corner was only half-cleared as far as Tony Kane, whose cross back into the box was helped on by Brian McCaul to Matthew Tipton at the back post.
The striker laid the ball back for the in-rushing Jenkins to fire a shot which deflected off defender Timmy Adamson to wrong-foot keeper Sean O’Neill before nestling in the corner of the net.
Heatley had a low show saved by Allen before Crusaders drew level on 26 minutes when a move down the left culminated with Jordan Owens’ low cross being slid home by the in-rushing Heatley, despite Ballymena’s protests for offside.
Crusaders had an opening early in the second half when full-back Billy Joe Burns crossed from the right and the ball was controlled by Owens who took a neat touch to create a shotting chance but just as he was about to pull the trigger, Jim Ervin made a crucial intervention.
From another Burns cross from the right, United failed to clear and Timmy Adamson swivelled before producing an instinctive half volley which was met with a sharp reflex save by Allen.
The Shore Road side eventally went in front on 67 minutes and again, it came following a Burns cross from the right which hung in the air. Goalkeeper Allen was challenged by Owens and as the ball fell loose, Adamson was on hand to poke home from close range with the goalkeeper’s protests that he had been fouled falling on deaf ears.
Skipper Colin Coates came close to doubling the visitors’ advantage with 10 minutes to go when his header from Craig McClean’s corner was flicked over the bar by Allen.
But the reprieve was short-lived as from the resultant corner, taken by Richard Clarke, was met with a powerful header by the in-rushing Owens.
The striker almost scored again with another downward header from a Heatley cross but Allen was again well placed to save, as the visitors ran out comfortable winners.
Ballymena United: Allen, Ervin (sub Boyce 72), McNally, Jenkins, McBride, McAllister (sub Gawley 61), Kane, McCaul (sub McNeill 83), Surgenor, Tipton, Teggart. Subs (not used): Gardiner, Johnston.
Crusaders: O’Neill, Burns, Magowan, Coates, McClean, Caddell, Clarke, Heatley, Adamson, O’Carroll (sub O’Flynn 70), Owens. Subs (not used): Leeman, McKibbin, Hanley, O’Hanlon.
Referee: Tim Marshall (Irvinestown)