Ballymena United 2, Cliftonville 2

Ballymena United striker Matthew Tipton shields the ball from Cliftonville's Jaimie McGovern during today's Danske Bank Premiership match at the Showgrounds. Picture: Press Eye.
Ballymena United striker Matthew Tipton shields the ball from Cliftonville's Jaimie McGovern during today's Danske Bank Premiership match at the Showgrounds. Picture: Press Eye.

Allan Jenkins scored a last-minute equaliser as Ballymena United and Cliftonville slugged out a thrilling Danske Bank Premiership fixture at the Showgrounds.

Jude Winchester looked to have snatched victory for the league champions in the 89th minute only for Jenkins to drill home an even later leveller.

There had been controversy as referee Colin Burns over-ruled his assistant who had signalled for a Ballymena penalty, seconds before Chris Curran had cancelled out Matthew Tipton’s opener for the home side.

Manager Glenn Ferguson recalled midweek hat-trick hero David Cushley in place of Alan Teggart in the only change to the starting line-up from the previous Saturday’s win at Coleraine, meaning skipper Allan Jenkins had to settle for a place on the bench on his return following suspension.

Ballymena had the first opening on four minutes when Gary Thompson threaded a through ball into the path of darren Boyce but he could only shoot weakly at keeper Ryan Brown.

At the other end, Stephen Garrett’s left-wing cross flicked off the head of United defender Mark McCullagh and with Dwayne Nelson scrambling across his goal, the keeper was relieved to see the ball drop outside the far post.

The visitors almost went in front on 14 minutes when Jude Winchester’s ball saw Tiarnan Mulvenna beat United’s offside trap but as he tried to place the ball past the on-rushing Nelson, the keeper got enough of a block on the effort to allow Johnny Taylor to complete the clearance.

Straight away at the other end, Gary Thompson’s slaloming run ended with the midfielder trundling a shot inches wide of the far post.

Ballymena spurned a clear opening on 27 minutes when left-back Stephen McBride’s cross from the left was headed back across goal at the back post by Darren Boyce but the in-rushing Neal Gawley could only head tamely at Brown.

The former Ballymena keeper was again in action on 33 minutes as he beat away a fierce shot from Matthew Tipton after the striker had made space for himself in the penalty area.

But the striker was not to be denied and two minutes later he met Neal Gawley’s measured cross from the right with a glancing header which eluded the grasp of Brown and rolled into the far corner.

Cliftonville mounted a strong response and Nelson had to dive to his right to push David McDaid’s 25-yard free kick around the post.

And as the Reds forced a succession of corners, Chris Curran then outpaced Mark McCullagh but just as the winger was about to shoot, he was foiled by a timely interception from Aaron Stewart.

Ballymena started the second half brightly with Cushley forcing Brown to dive to his right to push away a free kick from fully 35 yards.

Cushley again brought the best out of the visiting keeper on 57 minutes when he cut inside from the right onto his favoured left foot and his rasping drive was acrobatically turned over by Brown.

Tipton appeared to catch WInchester with his outstretched arm in the centre circle but referee Colin Burns waved play on, to the obvious annoyance of the Cliftonville management.

Substitute Tony Kane came close to doubling United’s lead when he latched onto Eamonn Seydak’s short back header, poked the ball past Brown but could only watch as the ball drifted wide of the near post.

There was controversy as the game entered the final 15 minutes.

Firstly the referee’s assistant clearly placed his flag across his chest to signal a penalty for Ballymena for a handball offence, only to be over-ruled by referee Burns.

As Ballymena’s irate players surrounded the official, play went up the other end where Chris Curran squeezed a shot past Dwayne Nelson at the near post.

In an amazing finale, Cliftonville looked to have snatched victory on 89 minutes when Jude Winchester lashed home a shot from just outside the area after Ballymena had failed to clear their lines.

But the drama hadn’t finished yet as in the final minute, substitute Allan Jenkins picked up a loose ball in the Cliftonville half and advanced a couple of steps before firing a left-footed shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty area.

Ballymena United: Nelson, McCullagh, Taylor, Stewart, McBride (sub Ruddy 86), Gawley (sub Kane 70), Taggart, Thompson (sub Jenkins 86), Cushley, Tipton, Boyce. Subs (not used): Teggart, McVey.

Cliftonville: Brown, McMullan, McGovern, Flynn, Seydak, Garrett (sub Donnelly 60), Winchester, Catney, McDaid (sub Murray 71), Mulvenna (sub Gormley 60). Subs (not used): Knowles, Cosgrove.

Referee: Colin Burns (Newtownabbey).