Ballymena United clinch the Christmas No.1 spot with win over Ards

Ballymena United's Leroy Millar celebrates his goal against Ards.
Ballymena United's Leroy Millar celebrates his goal against Ards.

Ballymena United 2, Ards 0

LEROY Millar inspired Ballymena United to a comfortable victory over Ards which saw the Sky Blues clinch the Christmas No.1 spot in the Danske Bank Premiership.

The midfielder, who signed a new long term deal last month, netted a 12th minute opener before providing a sublime assist for Jude Winchester 10 minutes before the break.

The Sky Blues had penalties saved by Ards keeper, Samuel Johnston in either half while Ards' Kyle Cherry had a goal disallowed but the two goal cushion was enough to see them secure a new club record of 17 consecutive matches unbeaten.

It was incredibly a 12th straight win for the home side who lead the festive pack by four points ahead of the Boxing Day clash with Coleraine.

The Sky Blues made just the one enforced change to the team which defeated Crusaders 1-0 in the League Cup in their last outing with the injured Tony Kane replaced by Andrew Burns.

Boasting an incredible winning run of 11 straight matches coming into this match against the league's basement side, the odds certainly didn't favour Ards who went into the game four points adrift at the bottom.

And it all went to plan in the early stages for David Jeffrey's men as Leroy Millar headed downwards into the bottom corner of the net from James Knowles' right wing cross with just 12 minutes on the clock.

Ards did have the ball in the back of the net six minutes later when goalkeeper, Thomas McDermott attempted to gather a chipped ball into the box. As he came to claim the ball, Cherry managed to get a head to it to dispossess him and find the net, however, referee, Shane Andrews blew for a foul on the Ballymena keeper.

That decision appeared to spark Ards into life and they really should've been on terms on 23 minutes from a corner but Michael McLellan somehow headed Gareth Tommons superb delivery wide of the post from six yards as Ards boss, Colin Nixon punched the dugout in frustration.

Ballymena began to warm to the occasion and Millar tested Samuel Johnston's reflexes with a driving shot from 25 yards which was tipped over the bar.

From the resultant short corner, Jude Winchester curled the ball towards goal from the edge of the penalty box and Johnston palmed it clear superbly.

The home side doubled their advantage 10 minutes before the interval following some superb play by Millar. The midfielder won the ball and drove through the Ards defence before finding Winchester with a sublime pass and the ex-Cliftonville man slotted clinically into the net.

Ballymena were awarded a penalty on 43 minutes when Cathair Friel was brought crashing down inside the penalty area after being played clean through on goal by Lecky's incisive pass.

Up stepped Knowles to take the spotkick but Johnston saved superbly low to his right hand side as he parried clear.

Johnston kept his side in the game with two excellent reaction saves to deny Winchester and then Knowles as Ballymena finished the half strongly.

Ballymena appeared to take their foot off the pedal at the start of the second half and McDermott needed to be at his best to turn Cherry's long distance effort behind.

Following a swift counter, the ball was spread wide to Steven McCullough who took the ball in his stride before rattling the top of the Ards' crossbar with a blistering strike.

The Braidmen were awarded a second penalty kick on 77 minutes when Winchester was brought down recklessly by Cherry.

There was some confusion over who was to take the spotkick with substitute, Jonathan McMurray, Winchester and Knowles in discussion. Ballymena boss, Jeffrey settled the matter dictating that Winchester should take it but his penalty was saved by Johnston.

The home side were cursing their luck but the win leave them top of the pile for Christmas while Ards still search for that elusive win.

Ballymena United: T. McDermott; A. Burns (S. McGinty 76), K. Balmer, J. Addis, S. McCullough; J. Knowles, J. Ervin, J. Winchester, L. Millar; C. Friel (R. Mayse 87), A. Lecky (J. McMurray 71); Subs Not Used - B. McCauley, C. Quigley, S. Whiteside, M. Shevlin.

Ards: S. Johnston: M. Kerr, C. Byers, A. McAleenan, C. McClean; E. McAllister (M.McKenna 82), K. Nelson (R. Strain 56), G. Tommons, K. Cherry; D. McAllister; M. McLellan (M. Kelly 80); Subs Not Used - M. Davidson, J. Kelly, J. Mitchell, S. McArthur.

Referee - Shane Andrews.