Cliftonville 1, Ballymena United 2

Gary McCutcheon on the attack for Ballymena United in Saturday's Irish Cup match at Cliftonville. Picture: Press Eye.
Gary McCutcheon on the attack for Ballymena United in Saturday's Irish Cup match at Cliftonville. Picture: Press Eye.

Two late goals took Ballymena United into the quarter-finals of the Irish Cup after an incident-packed tie at Solitude.

David Cushley fired two free kicks - the first in the last minute followed by an unstoppable effort in stoppage time, as the Sky Blues avenged their recent League Cup final defeat by Cliftonville.

Manager Glenn Ferguson handed a debut to goalkeeper Tim Allen and the tall Australian made a bright start, confidently claiming a high, hanging cross inside the opening minutes.

United had an early opening when from Allan Jenkins’ forward pass and outmuscled Jaimie McGovern but his attempt to find strike partner McCutcheon was intercepted by keeper Peter Cherrie.

At the other end, Marty Donnelly’s corner was met by a header from Jay Donnelly but the striker’s effort was straight at Allen.

United spurned another opening on 15 minutes when Neal Gawley’s corner fell nicely for Jenkins but the United skipper could only screw his shot wide when well placed.

Both sides created openings in the early stages but in most instances, the shooting from both sides was off target.

United’s goal survived a Cliftonville onslaught just before the half hour when, firstly, Paddy McNally made a crucial interception of Catney’s pass and as the ball bounced loose, Marty Donnelly’s goalbound effort was blocked by Johnny Taylor.

Allen was almost caught out on 32 minutes when he advanced from his line to collect a Tomas Cosgrove through ball but Joe Gormley nipped in and his flicked header almost went over the head of the keeper.

United came close on 38 minutes when Cushley picked up a loose ball 25 yards from goal. He feigned to shoot on two occasions before eventually hitting a shot from just outside the box which took a slight deflection before going inches wide of the post.

United survived a couple of clear Cliftonville openings in the closing stages of the half, firstly when Jay Donnelly seized upon a loose ball and fed a pass into the path of Marty Donnelly whose fierce shot was parried into the air by Allen, with the goalkeeper grabbing the loose ball.

And Allen produced another good stop a minute later. Neal Gawley lost possession in the centre circle and Johnny Taylor’s attempted clearance ricocheted off Marty Donnelly’s shins to release Jay Donnelly who raced clear but Allen got down sharply to hold his low effort.

United’s hopes of continuing their disciplined first half performance were jolted when they conceded a goal inside the first two minutes of the second period.

Johnny Taylor was on the ground, having been wrong-footed by Gormley and the Cliftonville striker tumbled to the ground over the defender’s body with referee Colin Burns pointing to the penalty spot. George McMullan confidently tucked the penalty into the corner.

United argued they should have had a penalty of their own shortly afterwards when Cushley tangled with Jaimie McGovern as he attempted to follow up his initial shot, which had been kept out by the legs of Cherrie.

And the United fans behind the goal their side were attacking were left fuming again a few minutes later when Neal Gawley’s low cross appeared to be deflected wide by a defender’s hand.

Ballymena were sliced open on 68 minutes when Jay Donnelly raced clear but just as the striker was about to pull the trigger, full-back Stephen McBride made a crucial challenge to nick the ball back to keeper Allen.

The Australian stopped again excelled on 74 minutes when Jay Donnelly bore down on goal and his angled shot was beaten away by Allen. As the ball spun into the air, it was met by a header by Marty Donnelly which appeared to be arrowing into the bottom corner but Allen somehow sprang across his goal to palm the ball behind.

United wasted a glorious chance to level the scores on 82 minutes when Jenkins’ low cross from the right found substitute darren Boyce but he could only blaze over from 12 yards when well placed.

Allen added another superb save to his list of stops on 84 minutes when he did superbly to touch Jay Donnelly’s shot onto the inside of the post.

And it proved a crucial moment as Ballymena grabbed an equaliser in the last minute of the match as David Cushley’s free kick from 20 yards took a deflection and spun past Cherrie into the net.

Astonishingly, the drama wasn’t yet finished as United were awarded a free kick 25 yards from goal in the third minute of stoppage time. Cushley stepped up to rifle a truly unstoppable shot into the top corner beyond the grasp of Cherrie.

Cliftonville: Cherrie, McMullan, McGovern, Smyth, Scannell, Cosgrove, Catney, Winchester (sub Bayly 85), M Donnelly, Gormley, J Donnelly. Subs (not used): Knowles, Murray, Bonner, McCarron.

Ballymena United: Allen, Ervin, McNally, Taylor, McBride, Gawley (sub Thompson 68), Kane, Jenkins, Cushley, McCutcheon (sub Boyce 68), Tipton. Subs (not used): Nelson, Teggart, McCaul.

Referee: Colin Burns (Comber).