Ballymena United again failed to translate their cup form into the Danske Bank Premiership as they lost 4-2 at Cliftonville today.
The Sky Blues conceded three goals - two of them penalties - inside the opening 23 minutes before battling back into the game at 3-2 down, only to succumb to a late James Knowles goal.
Manager Glenn Ferguson made one change to his team from the midweek County Antrim Shield win over Larne with central defender Paddy McNally - out of the picture for most of the season - recalled in place of Gareth Rodger.
But it was a miserable start for the Sky Blues as they conceded a goal inside the opening five minutes. The move was initiated down the right hand flank with David McDaid backheeling the ball into the path of Chris Curran, whose measured curling effort drifted in over the head of keeper Alan Blayney.
David Cushley’s half volley was straight into the chest of Reds keeper Conor Devlin, while Marty Donnelly drilled a shot wide for the home side before Cliftonville doubled their lead on 16 minutes.
Curran this time cut inside from the left flank and as he was about to shoot, he was upended by a combination of William Faulkner and Jim Ervin.
David McDaid fired the resultant spot kick straight down the middle to double the home side’s advantage.
Worse was to follow for Ballymena as they conceded a third goal - again from the penalty spot - on 23 minutes.
A spinning shot appeared to be heading out for a goal kick until United keeper Blayney needlessly brought down Stephen Garrett on the dead ball line.
McDaid again shot down the middle of the goal, away from Blayney’s dive, to add to the home side’s lead.
Strangely the third goal seemed to be the spur that Ballymena needed to get back into the game and they pulled a goal back just two minutes later.
United claimed that Johnny Taylor’s header from Cushley’#s corner had crossed the line before Ryan Catney’s clearance but as the ball was hacked out, it dropped to Faulkner 25 yards out and he despatched a rising half volley into the top corner beyond the stretch of Catney.
That goal lifted Ballymena and they had a chance to reduce the deficit further when Matthew Tipton latched onto a ball from defensive to race clear but as Reds keeper Devlin advanced from his goal, the veteran striker’s attempted lob dropped over the crossbar.
Ballymena enjoyed a huge let-off five minutes into the second period when Curran sprinted onto a ball over the top and beat Blayney was a crisp shot - only to see the ball come back off the inside of the post and into the grateful hands of the goalkeeper.
And as the home side turned the screw, Marty Donnelly came agonisingly close with an effort that curled centimetres wide of Blayney’s post.
Instead,it was Ballymena who grabbed the vital next goal on 61 minutes. Cushley fired a low shot that was brilliantly saved by Devlin, Tipton fluffed two effort to force home the rebound but the ball eventually dropped for Gary Thompson to volley home from 14 yards.
Ballymena pressed for an equaliser but Willie Faulkner snatched at a half-decent opening, dragging his shot wide.
But as Ballymena battled to level the scores they wee hit with a sucker punch with seven minutes left.
Full-back Tomas Cosgrove drifted in from the right flank and rolled the ball into the path of early substitute James Knowles, who guided a neat shot away from the outstretched arm of Blayney.
The Reds almost scored a fifth late on when Stephen Garrett headed wide from close range at the near post.
Cliftonville: Devlin, Cosgrove, McGovern, Flynn, Ives, Curran, Winchester (sub Knowles 4), Catney, Winchester, Donnelly (sub George 77), McDaid, Garrett. Subs (not used): McMullan, Brennan, Murray.
Ballymena United: Blayney, Ervin, McNally, Taylor, McBride, Faulkner, T Kane, Thompson, Cushley (sub Ferguson 90+3), Jenkins, Tipton (sub Henderson 81). Subs (not used): E Kane, Ruddy, McVey.
Referee: Lee Tavinder (Dungannon).