Ballymena United 2, Cliftonville 1
BALLYMENA United threw a spanner in Cliftonville's Carling Premiership title challenge with a thrilling victory at the Showgrounds.
The championship-chasing Reds were caught cold with two United goals inside the opening five minutes at Warden Street.
Albert Watson's bizarre own goal gifted Cliftonville a way back into the match before the interval but Eddie Patterson's side were unable to force an equaliser and instead relinquished leadership of the league to Linfield.
Ballymena made a flying start with a goal after just 77 seconds.
Keeper Dwayne Nelson's clearance was allowed to bounce near the edge of the Cliftonville penalty area and as goalkeeper John Connolly and defender Peter Hutton left it to each other to deal with the situation, the alert Kevin Kelbie nipped in to head home the loose ball for his ninth goal of the season.
It got even better for the Sky Blues just three minutes later.
New signing Gary Muir fizzed a cross from the left which was headed back across goal by Gary Haveron where makeshift striker Mark Surgenor was on hand to volley home from close range for his first goal for his hometown club.
The Reds gained a lifeline in fortuitous circumstances on the half hour. George McMullan's free kick from the right-hand side seemed comfortable for Albert Watson to clear but the defender appeared to lose his footing and his miscued header instead crept past his own keeper at the near post.
In the second half, the Reds enjoyed sustained spells of pressure without ever fully extending Nelson, who was well protected by a stubborn United rearguard.
It was the home side who came closest to scoring again when Kelbie clipped a free kick from just outside the penalty area over the Cliftonville wall, only to see it come back off a post.
The Reds were denied twice in quick succession when firstly, Nelson acrobatically tipped a Mark Clarke header over the crossbar and from the resultant corner, Hutton's header was headed off the line by Lee Colligan.
"We're delighted to win obviously. We got off to a real fast start," said United boss Roy Walker.
"We were very unfortunate with the goal we lost when Albert slipped. He completely lost his footing and the ball has come off the 'thruppeny bit' – it was just rank misfortune.
"Outside of corner kicks, Cliftonville didn't get through and get shots at Dwayne very often. They had lots of possession in front of our back four but thankfully not beyond it.
"But Surgy was clean through and could have scored, Kevin hit the post and had we been a wee bit more careful on the break, we could have scored again.
"But we were playing the top team in the league and we were always going to come under pressure – they aren't league leaders for nothing – but by and large we stood up to Cliftonville.
"It was a spirited performance in which we defended well from the front.
"Kevin and Surgy worked very hard up front and Gary Muir is a player. You can see the attributes he brings to us – pace, two good feet and a good crosser of the ball," added Roy.
Ballymena United: Nelson, Ramsey, Colligan, Haveron, Albert Watson, Stewart, Smith, Muir, Surgenor, Kelbie (sub McLaughlin 90+4), Lockhart. Subs (not used): Taggart, Cushley, McConnell, Aidan Watson.
Cliftonville: Connolly, B Holland, Donaghy, Hutton, R Scannell, McMulland, Caldwell (sub Jones 77), Catney, Clarke, C Scannell, Boyce (sub M Holland 71). Subs (not used): Fleming, O'Hara, Dunlop.
Referee: Dessie Loughery (Limavady).