Ballymena United suffered a heart-breaking defeat in an epic WASP Solutions League Cup final at Windsor Park.
Having trailed 2-0 at the interval, two goals from substitute David Cushley gave United fresh hope before the league champions grabbed victory with a Martin Donnelly goal 10 minutes from full-time.
Manager Glenn Ferguson sprang something of a surprise by recalling goalkeeper Dwayne Nelson for the first time since United’s 7-0 mauling at Solitude in November.
But when the action began, United made the worst possible start, conceding a goal after just 55 seconds.
A hopeful long ball through the middle saw Jay Donnelly beat Davy Munster to a header to flick the ball into the path of Joe Gormley.
As Nelson advanced from his goal, Gormley nicked the ball past the keeper’s despairing clearance on the edge of the penalty area, leaving the ace striker a clear run to slot the ball into an unguarded goal.
Ballyme made a positive response and they were awarded a free kick just outside the penalty area after Marc Smyth was booked for upending Darren Boyce but Tony Kane’s fierce strike clattered into the defensive wall.
At the other end, Tomas Cosgrove’s cross from the right somehow found a way through the United rearguard but Gormley’s acrobatic overhead kick at the far post was just wide of the target.
Cliftonville threatened again as Marty Donnelly’s corner was headed just over at the back post by Jaimie McGovern,
As United tried to forge a way back into the game, Tony Kane’s clever through ball released Matthew Tipton but the striker miscontrolled and the chance was gone.
Tipton came close on 31 minutes when his header from Gary Thompson’s cross crept inches wide of the far post.
But just as United were beginning to exert some pressure, they were hit with a sucker punch on 37 minutes as the Reds doubled their advantage.
Marty Donnelly’s free kick from the left was only half-cleared and when Eamonn Seydak put the ball back into the penalty area it bobbled through several Ballymena players and fell for Gormley to force the ball home from close range.
Ferguson’s response was to make an attack-minded change at half-time with David Cushley on in place of Davy Munster, with Jim Ervin switching to centre-back and Tony Kane reverting to right-back.
And United almost halved the deficit four minutes into the second period when Tony Kane’s inswinging corner was headed off the line by Marty Donnelly with keeper Cherrie beaten.
Cliftonville could have put the outcome beyond doubt on 51 minutes when Tomas Cosgrove released Jay Donnelly but as he raced clear, he tried to square the ball form Gormley to complete his hat-trick and keeper Nelson intercepted.
That miss proved costly as within a minute United had halved the deficit. From another Kane corner, the ball fell to Cushley at the back post and he hooked home a shot with the aid of a deflection.
Cliftonville had a chance to extend their lead as Gormley latched onto a through ball and squared for Jay Donnelly whose low shot beat Nelson but trundled inches wide.
And again United made the cup holders pay for their profligacy as the Sky Blues levelled the scores on 58 minutes.
The chance looked to have gone as Gary Thompson took a heavy touch as he burst into the penalty area but the midfielder’s perseverance hurried McGovern into a hasty clearance which went only as far as the edge of the penalty area where it was met with a blockbuster of a right foot shot by Cushley past a motionless Cherrie.
As both sides slugged it out in a tremendous second half, United had strong appeals for a penalty waved away as Eamon Seydak appeared to handle the ball while on the ground in the penalty area but referee Raymond Crangle remained unmoved.
As the game flowed from end to end, it was Cliftonville who struck the decisive blow on 80 minutes.
Tony Kane’s defensive header from George McMullan’s right wing cross lacked power and only went as far as Marty Donnelly, whose cross shot found the corner of the net despite Nelson getting a hand to the ball.
As United threw men forward in a desperate search for an equaliser, Cliftonville almost score a fourth in stoppage time as Nelson’s legs denied David McDaid and the keeper then recovered to push the substitute’s follow-up effort around the post.
Ballymena United: Nelson, Ervin, Munster, Taylor, Munster (sub Cushley 46), McBride, Kane, McCaul (sub Teggart 88), Jenkins, Thompson (sub Surgenor 90), Boyce, Tipton. Subs (not used): Surgenor, Addis, Gawley.
Cliftonville: Cherrie, McMullan, Smyth, McGovern, Seydak (sub Scannell 76), Cosgrove (sub McDaid 58), Catney, Winchester, M Donnelly, Gormley (sub Murray 71), J Donnelly. Subs (not used): Bayly, McCarron.
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)