H&W Welders 2, Ballymena United 3

Ballymena United skipper Allan Jenkins stretches for a loose ball during today's Irish Cup tie against Harland & Wolff Welders. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United skipper Allan Jenkins stretches for a loose ball during today's Irish Cup tie against Harland & Wolff Welders. Picture: Press Eye.

Ballymena United staged an astonishing comeback at Tillysburn Park to reach the semi-finals of the Irish Cup.

The Sky Blues looked to be heading out of the competition as they trailed the Championship One side 2-0 with just 11 minutes left, after Matthew Tipton had missed a second half penalty.

But goals from Darren Boyce, Tipton and Gary Thompson - with virtually the last kick of the game - saw United produce a turnaround reminiscent of the previous round of the competition against Cliftonville, to set up a semi-final showdown with Portadown.

Manager Glenn Ferguson handed a debut to teenager Craig Gardiner at left-back with Stephen McBride suspended and Michael Ruddy injured.

A frantic opening saw United almost take the lead inside the opening 45 seconds. Defender Gary Spence’s attempts to head a difficult swirling ball back to his goalkeeper fell short and Allan Jenkins latched onto the loose ball and bore down on goal but his effort was blocked by the legs of Michael Dougherty.

United had another good opening on nine minutes when Gary Thompson burst into the penalty area and when his shot was blocked into the path of Jenkins but as the Scot fired towards goal, full-back Gareth Beattie threw himself at the ball to make a crucial block.

The Welders almost went in front from their first opening on 16 minutes when former United striker Michael McLellan - who joined the east Belfast side in the summer following his release by Ballymena - hit an instinctive snap-shot which forced a good save from keeper Tim Allen.

Straight away at the other end, United spurned a golden chance when Tipton centred for the in-rushing Jenkins but the skipper could only scuff his shot and Dougherty was able to get down to scramble the effort away.

The Welders were almost the authors of their own misfortune on 23 minutes when Gawley’s harmless -looking cross was headed back towards his own goal by Paul Dickson, forcing Dougherty to stretch to pluck the ball out of the air and avoid an embarrassing own goal.

Instead it was the home side who went in front 10 minutes before the interval from the penalty spot.

From a ball played through the centre, United hesitated looking for offside but play was waved on and full-back Gardiner was always struggling to get caught up as he got the wrong side of Chris Middleton before making his challenge.

Referee Ian McNabb took his time before awarding the penalty and McLellan confidently tucked home the resultant penalty.

There was early controversy in the second period as Allen tumbled over McLellan as he collected a high ball but spilled the ball as he landed on the ground.

McLellan rolled the loose ball into the unguarded goal but referee McNabb adjudged that the goalkeeper had been impeded and ruled out the strike, much to the annoyance of the home side.

But there was no question mark as the Welders doubled their advantage on 51 minutes.

It started from Ballymena being on the attack and Gardiner’s attempted cross from the left was charged down and the home side launched a lightning-quick counter-attack with Mark Magennis brilliantly switching play to release McLellan down the left-hand channel and the striker ran through before cutting inside Gary Thompson and calmly rolling the ball past Allen and into the bottom corner.

Ballymena looked to have gained a way back into the match when they were awarded a penalty after referee McNabb adjudged that Gary Thompson had been fouled after firing a shot wide.

Matthew Tipton stepped up by keeper Dougherty dived to his left to push away the striker’s spot kick.

With just 13 minutes left at that stage, it looked as though Ballymena’s cup journey might be coming to an end but within two minutes they had pulled a goal back when Tony Kane’s cross was headed down by David Cushley for substitute Darren Boyce to nod home from close range.

Ballymena were buoyed by this and levelled with five minutes to go when Gary McCutcheon’s corner was headed back across goal for Tipton to atone for his penalty miss with a spectacular flying volley.

It looked as though the game would be heading for extra time but there was one final, dramatic twist as United piled bodies into the box and when Jenkins’ shot ricochetted into Gary Thompson’s path and the midfielder blasted home to complete a remarkable comeback.

Ballymena United: Allen, Ervin, McNally, Taylor (sub Munster), Gardiner (sub Boyce), Gawley (sub McCutcheon), Thompson, Kane, Cushley, Jenkins, Tipton. Subs (not used): Nelson, Teggart.