Ballymena United Thirds’ hopes of Harry Cavan IFA Youth Cup glory ended in gallant failure tonight.
Clifford Adams’ side put in a hard-working performance but eventually went down 4-1 against a Crusaders Colts side packed with both pace and physical strength.
Crusaders made a bright start in front of a healthy crowd at Mill Meadow, Castledawson, with United keeper Callum McCabe having to be alert to turn a long-range effort around the post inside the opening minute.
And the keeper was again involved in the early stages, making a great block with his outstretched foot after some tricky approach play from livewire Crusaders winger Salou Jallon.
Ballymena eventually settled into the game and came close on 16 minutes when Jake McNeill’s powerful header from a corner was superbly tipped over by Crues keeper Jason Craughwell.
McCabe was by far the busier of the two keepers in the first half, making two more smart saves to deny a long-range Ross Holden effort, then confidently handling a low Dylan O’Kane free kick.
And it was no great surprise that the Shore Road side took the lead on the half hour mark as big central defender Cameron Stewart headed home from a Dale McCreery free kick.
Ballymena looked for an immediate response with Leon Bonnes heading just wide from a Josh McCready corner and then Bonnes latched onto Stewart Nixon’s through ball but with team-mate Mark Lowry screaming for the ball to be rolled square across the goal, Bonnes blazed his effort over.
At the start of the second half, Leon Bonnes had a chance inside the box, only to be thwarted by a timely tackle from Crusaders goalscorer Stewart. It led to a succession of corners for the Sky Blues but with no end result.
Instead it was Crusaders who doubled their advantage on 54 minutes as they broke with pace down Ballymena’s left and although McCabe did well to keep out an initial effort, Ross Holden was on hand to bundle home from close range.
Just when it looked as though the game was getting away from Ballymena, they responded in spectacular fashion on 64 minutes.
Josh McCready curled a pacey free kick over the wall which struck the underside of the crossbar before bouncing clear but the referee’s assistant adjudged that the ball had crossed the goal-line.
Straight away at the other end, McCready was a hero as his perfectly timed tackle denied Brandon Doyle after the Crusaders striker broke clear.
But Doyle was not to be denied on 78 minutes following another rapier-like Crusaders attack which ended with Ryan Nimmick squaring for the striker to slot home.
And the Seaview boys put the gloss on an impressive performance with a fourth goal with five minutes left when Ross Holden’s clever shot on the turn through a ruck of players went past the unsighted McCabe to put the outcome beyond any doubt.
Ballymena, to their credit, continued to attack with Bonnes firing over from a tight angle, while another McCready thunderbolt was acrobatically tipped over by Craughwell.
Ballymena United u-19: McCabe, Campbell, Crawford, Corry, McCready, Logan, Lowry (sub Neilly 55), McNeill, Hamilton (sub Dobbin 83), Nixon, Bonnes. Subs (not used): Cairns, Carson