Ballymena United’s fading hopes of a top six finish in the Danske Bank Premiership were all but extinguished after a 2-0 defeat at Glentoran.
The Sky Blues paid the price for a slow start - including conceding a hotly-disputed penalty - as they fell to a defeat which leaves them 11 points behind sixth-placed Glentoran with only five games left until the league ‘split’.
United tried hard to get something out of the game with an improved second half performance but they rarely looked like adding to their impressive recent record at the east Belfast venue.
Manager Glenn Ferguson resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes after the previous week’s ‘derby’ flop against Coleraine, although David Cushley was a notable absentee as he was missing from the starting line-up for only the second time this season.
That handed a rare start to transfer-listed striker Darren Henderson, while Kyle McVey came into the centre of defence in place of the ill Paddy McNally.
The home side made a bright start but they were given an extremely fortuitous helping hand as they took the lead on nine minutes.
It came from the penalty spot and it was a hugely contentious award as Jim Ervin looked to have timed his full-stretch challenge on Jonathan Smith to perfection to knock the ball back to keeper Alan Blayney.
Referee Raymond Hetherington remained unmoved until his assistant flagged, prompting the Dungannon official to award the penalty and leading to a posse of Ballymena players surrounding the officials.
With the penalty having been given, it looked as though Ervin was facing his third red card of the season for denying an obvious goalscoring opportunity but remarkably, Hetherington did not issue a card of any colour.
When the dust had settled, Smith stepped up to fire his spot kick down the middle, past the dive of Blayney.
Teenager Smith had another chance soon after, from almost exactly the same spot when the penalty award was given but this time the striker scuffed his shot wide of the far post.
With Glentoran dominant, they almost doubled their lead on 17 minutes when Blayney spilled a deep cross from the left but as the loose ball fell to Steven Gordon, his goalbound shot was quickly charged down by Ervin.
But there was a sense of inevitability about a second Glentoran goal and it duly arrived on 22 minutes when Ciaran Caldwell collected a pass from Chris Lavery and drifted in from the left, neatly side-stepping past Ervin before cracking a low shot past Blayney.
It took Ballymena 25 minutes to fashion a meaningful opportunity with winger Leroy Millar turning cleverly on the edge of the Glentoran penalty area before firing over.
If that was a difficult chance, Henderson should certainly have reduced the arrears two minutes later when he bustled his way onto a loose ball inside the penalty area but with only Elliott Morris to beat, the striker’s effort cannoned off the legs of the veteran goalkeeper.
It could have been even worse for United before the break but Jay Magee headed wide from six yards from Chris Lavery’s inswinging corner.
Ballymena knew they needed to make a bright start to the second half and they should have halved the deficit four minutes after the restart when Jonny Frazer’s cut-back from the right found Darren Henderson but from six yards out, the striker could only manage an air shot and the chance was gone.
Then Frazer went on a solo run which ended with the on-loan winger blazing a shot wildly over, while Tony Kane’s low free kick went through the Glentoran wall but not past Morris.
Substitute Willie Faulkner then warmed Morris’ palms with a low shot but the keeper was able to grab the loose ball before any Ballymena players could follow up.
In a rare Glentoran second half attack, Curtis Allen dinked the ball over advancing keeper Blayney but in the scramble that followed, Jonathan Smith’s close range effort came back off the post with the youngster under pressure from Kyle McVey.
Ballymena continued to press for a way back into the game but Frazer teed up Faulkner who blasted over, while Frazer himself had an effort blocked by Morris in a collision which both players requiring treatment.
Glentoran came close to adding a third goal in stoppage time when Curtis Allen headed home from close range.
Glentoran: Morris, Holland, McCullough, Birney, Magee, Addis, Gordon (sub Morrow 46), Lavery (sub Patton 90+2), Caldwell (sub Scullion 69), Allen, Smith. Subs (not used): Gibson, Hogg.
Ballymena United: Blayney, T Kane, Ervin, McVey, McBride, Taggart (sub E Kane 72), Thompson, Frazer, Millar (sub Faulkner 59), Jenkins, Henderson (sub Tipton 56). Subs (not used): Ferguson, Smith.
Referee: Raymond Hetherington (Dungannon).