Ballymena United’s hopes of reaching the top six of the Danske Bank Premiership were finally extinguished after defeat at Solitude.
The seventh and final meeting of the two sides this season lacked the drama of some of the previous encounters and was eventually settled by Jude Winchester’s shot with 15 minutes left.
Manager Glenn Ferguson made two changes from the line-up which beat Institute last Saturday - both of them in the back four, with Michael Ruddy replacing Stephen McBride at left-back and fit-again Paddy McNally coming in for Davy Munster in the centre of defence.
In a low-key opening, Jude Winchester and Ronan Scannell both had shots held by Tim Allen, while Ruddy made a timely sliding interception to cut out Joe Gormley’s cross from a threatening position.
Ballymena struggled to create openings, despite Eamon McAllister being prominent in the opening stages, and the winger created United’s first real opening just short of the half-hour when he cut inside from the left, only to shoot wildly off target.
As Ballymena slowly began to gain a foothold in the game, Johnny Taylor ghosted in at the back post to head Tony Kane’s free kick straight at Peter Cherrie, while Gary McCutcheon teed up Gary Thompson who shot just wide.
Cliftonville created the best chance after 41 minutes when Jay Donnelly - who had replaced the injured Ryan Catney - cut inside onto his left foot and his low shot was pushed away at full stretch by Allen, diving to his right.
And the big Australian excelled again in stoppage time, pushing Martin Murray’s fierce near post shot behind, after Murray had completed a neat one-two with Martin Donnelly.
Ballymena made a bright start to the second half with McCutcheon laying the ball off for Gary Thompson to fire a 25-yard thunderbolt which was met with a spectacular save by Cherrie to tip the ball over.
From the resultant corner, Cherrie failed to gather the ball and Jenkins and McAllister had shots blocked in a goalmouth melee.
At the other end, Marty Donnelly shot on the turn but his effort went just over.
United wasted their best opening on the hour when Jenkins flicked on Allen’s long clearance to send Cushley racing clear but the wide man scuffed his shot wide of the target.
Cliftonville also had a good opening when Gormley found a gap in the Ballymena defence and slipped a pass through to substitute Johnny McMurray but, under pressure, he could only shoot wide.
Ballymena saw another golden opportunity go a-begging on 74 minutes when Gary Thompson’s through ball sent Allan Jenkins clear on goal but the skipper, on his left favoured left foot, could only screw a shot wide.
And within a minute, Ballymena were behind. After Johnny Taylor had made a goal-saving tackle to block Gormley’s shot behind, from the resultant corner, James Knowles played a short pass to Jude Winchester, who took a shot before rifling a low shot into the bottom corner.
Ferguson threw on Neal Gawley and Darren Boyce in the closing stages but they were unable to fashion an equaliser and the Sky Blues’ season now hinges on next Saturday’s Irish Cup quarter-final against Harland & Wolff Welders.
Cliftonville: Cherrie, McMullan, Bonner, Smyth, Scannell (sub Cosgrove 76), Knowles, Murray, Catney (sub J Donnelly 25), Winchester, M Donnelly (sub McMurray 68), Gormley. Subs (not used): McGovern, McCarron.
Ballymena United: Allen, Ervin, McNally, Taylor, Ruddy, McAllister (sub Gawley 83), Kane, Thompson, Cushley (sub Teggart 69), McCutcheon (sub Boyce 83), Jenkins. Subs (not used): Tipton, Munster.
Referee: Evan Boyce (Ballygowan).