IRISH LEAGUE: Ballymena United and Cliftonville share points in thrilling encounter

Kyle McVey, who scored Ballymena United's first goal in today's game at the Showgrounds, tussles with Cliftonville's Jay Donnelly. Picture: Press Eye.

Kyle McVey, who scored Ballymena United's first goal in today's game at the Showgrounds, tussles with Cliftonville's Jay Donnelly. Picture: Press Eye.

Ballymena United continued their unbeaten start under David Jeffrey as they shared the points in a thrilling 2-2 draw with Cliftonville at the Showgrounds.

The Sky Blues looked to be well placed for a victory as goals from Kyle McVey and a Tony Kane penalty put them two goals clear inside the opening 25 minutes.

Jay Donnelly pulled a goal back for Cliftonville before Ballymena had Gavin Taggart sent off before half time.

The second half was played almost exclusively in Ballymena’s half with Cliftonville’s pressure eventually telling when Daniel Hughes levelled with eight minutes left.

Despite a difficult, heavily-sanded surface, Ballymena started brightly with some intricate football drawing ripples of applause from the home crowd.

That soon turned to cheers on 11 minutes as the home side took the lead with about as simplistic a goal as you’ll ever see.

Tony Kane hurled a long throw into the penalty box from the right flank and Kyle McVey rose unchallenged with his header looping over Cliftonville keeper Peter Burke and dropping into the net.

Ballymena continued to press and were rewarded with a second goal on 24 minutes.

It came from a penalty award after referee Ross Dunlop adjudged that Allan Jenkins had his shirt pulled by Marc Smyth as he challenged for a header in a crowded goalmouth.

After the referee had dispersed a minor flare-up in the penalty area, Tony Kane kept his cool to send Burke the wrong way from the penalty spot.

Cliftonville needed an urgent response and they got it within three minutes.

A half-cleared ball dropped to Jay Donnelly on the right hand corner of the penalty area and the Northern Ireland under-21 striker fired a first time volley which Blayney, diving to his right at full stretch, got his hand to but the ball eluded his grasp and ended up creeping inside the far post.

It was almost 2-2 on 34 minutes as the visitors cut Ballymena open with James Knowles unselfishly squaring to the unmarked Stephen Garrett whose shot beat Blayney but was hacked off the line by the unlikely defensive saviour of winger Jonny Frazer.

The game took another twist on 42 minutes when Ballymena were reduced to 10 men after midfielder Gavin Taggart was shown a straight red card for an off-the-ball incident involving James Knowles. The two players had tangled just second earlier while the ball was still in play.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, Ballymena almost added to their tally a minute later when Johnny Taylor’s firm header from a Kane free kick was brilliantly touched onto the crossbar by Burke before being hacked clear.

The half-time interval allowed simmering tempers to cool and Cliftonville began the second half in search of an equaliser with Levi Ives trundling a shot wide of Blayney’s goal.

As Cliftonville cranked up the pressure, the early stages of the second half were played almost exclusively in the United half and Frazer again popped up to clear a Jay Donnelly shot off the line at the base of the post.

Cliftonville’s domination eventually paid off as they drew level on 82 minutes when substitute Daniel Hughes collected a beautifully disguised pass from James Knowles before slotting past the advancing Blayney.

Hughes then had a snap-shot tipped over by Blayney and from the resultant corner, Knowles saw a shot hacked away off the line by Frazer for the third time in the game as a pulsating encounter finished all square.

Ballymena United: Blayney, Ervin, Taylor, McVey, McBride, Frazer (sub E Kane 88), Taggart, T Kane, Thompson, Faulkner (sub Henderson 82), Jenkins. Subs (not used): Nelson, McNally, Henderson, Hanley.

Cliftonville: Burke, Brennan (sub Hughes 69), Bonner, Smyth, Ives, Garrett (sub Mooney 81), Knowles, Winchester, M Donnelly, J Donnelly, Murray. Subs (not used): Flynn, McMullan, George.

Referee: Ross Dunlop (Carrickfergus).