United claim thrilling County Antrim Shield triumph

Ballymena United celebrate Paddy McNally's goal in tonight's Toals County Antrim Shield final against Linfield. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United celebrate Paddy McNally's goal in tonight's Toals County Antrim Shield final against Linfield. Picture: Press Eye.

Ballymena United won the Toals County Antrim Shield for the second time in four seasons after a thrilling 3-2 win over Linfield.

Goals from Paddy McNally, David Cushley and Eoin Kane eventually settled a pulstaing game in the Sky Blues’ favour after Linfield had battled back into the game with goals from Guy Bates and Mark Stafford.

Manager Glenn Ferguson kept faith with the side which took Linfield to extra time in Saturday’s Tennent’s Irish Cup tie at the same venue with the one enforced change of Paddy McNally coming in for the suspended Johnny Taylor.

In a frantic opening, the first chance of the game fell to Linfield when Guy Bates’ volley from Kirk Millar’s cross cannoned off the chest of United skipper Jim Ervin - despite howls from the home fans for a handball.

Ballymena’s first chance came on 14 minutes when David Cushley’s free kick was fumbled by Ross Glendinning but the keeper quickly recovered to grab the loose ball with Allan Jenkins closing in.

Linfield went mightily close to opening the scoring on 16 minutes when Jamie Mulgrew played a neat one-two around the edge of the Ballymena penalty area before smashing a drive off the United crossbar with Alan Blayney well beaten.

Jimmy Callacher headed wide for Linfield from a corner while Cushley fashioned a yard of space to fire a shot but his effort lacked the pace to trouble Glendinning.

Butr it was United who grabbed the lead on 32 minutes when McNally rose highest to power home a header from Tony Kane’s free kick after Cushley had been fouled.

Tony Kane then fired a free kick straight down the throat of Glendinning as Ballymena attempted to double their advantage.

Linfield looked for an early response at the start of the second half and it almost came as Andy Waterworth turned cleverly on the edge of the Ballymena penalty area before blazing a shot over.

Gary Thompson then fired a shot wide for Ballymena as the game continued to ebb and flow.

But instead it was Linfield who grabbed an equaliser on 52 minutes. It came after Allan Jenkins had been harshly penalised for a foul inside his own half.

From the resultant delivery by Niall Quinn, United keeper Blayney’s attempted punch only went straight into the air and as the ball dropped, Guy Bates was on hand to pounce to steer home the loose ball from close range.

But Ballymena were back in front on 59 minutes when Tony Kane’s sweeping crossfiled ball was chested down by Willie Faulkner into the path of Cushley whose shot deflected off defender Mark Stafford’s foot and crept into the bottom corner.

Linfield attenpted to find a way back into the match and Tony Kane had to head off his own goal line from a corner, with Jimmy Callacher heading the rebound over.

Callacher should have done better minutes later when he arraived unmarked to meet a corner but could only head tamely straight at Blayney, while Sean Ward fizzed an effort inches wide from 25 yards.

Callacher then tested Blayney with a 25 yard free kick but the former Northern Ireland keeper was up to the task, rising to tip the shot over.

But Ballymena landed a killer blow on 76 minutes. It came after some hesitant defending by Mark Stafford, who headed the ball down into the ground inside his own penalty area, and when the ball broke between a crowd of legs, Eoin Kane was on hand to fire home a fierce shot via the underside of the bar.

Stafford’s next header had an altogether more positive outcome for Linfield as he dived full length at the back post to head home from Mark Haughey’s cross.

And in a frantic finish, Linfield hit both the post and bar in the final minute of stoppage time before referee Ian McNabb’s final whistle brought delirium to the large Ballymena travelling support.

Linfield: Ross Glendinning, Haughey, Stafford, Callacher, Quinn (sub Burns 67), Millar, Ward (sub Frazer 76), Mulgrew, Clarke (sub Gaynor 64), Bates, Waterworth. Subs (not used): Hegarty, Reece Glendinning.

Ballymena United: Blayney, E Kane (sub Ferguson 90+2), McNally, Ervin, McBride, Taggart (sub Henderson 90+4), T Kane, Thompson, Faulkner (sub Shevlin 83), Cushley, Jenkins. Subs (not used): Nelson, Hanley.

Referee: Ian McNabb (Glengormley)