Peter Wilson reports from Ballymena Showgrounds
A late Conor McKendry free-kick helped Larne to begin the New Year with three points in a frenetic to the the derby at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
Both sides had players came into the game with players available once again from suspension: Tomas Cosgrove returned after being out for seven matches since early November. Meanwhile, Ballymena stopper Jordan Williamson was back in between the sticks after being dismissed in the away defeat to Coleraine on Boxing Day.
The game began on a quiet note with few clearcut chances for either side.
Marty Donnelly’s ball over the top on 10 minutes did have the Ballymena defence scrambling, but Jordan Williamson beat Johnny McMurray to the ball in the air.
Ballymena had the best chance of the opening exchanges only two minutes later as Ross Lavery drilled low from the edge of the box but Conor Devlin was equal to the deflected effort.
The home side should have taken the lead on 18 minutes with Cathair Friel clear through on goal but he was too hesitant in front of goal as Devlin was able to get down and sweep the ball from his feet.
It was the visitors who had a chance eight minutes after that as skipper Jeff Hughes controlled Donnelly’s cross field ball well but his strike from the left side of the area hit the side netting.
A dangerous Ballymena move just before the half hour mark could have ended with the ball in the back of the net as Joshua Kelly played a lovely low ball across goal toward the back post but no-one could provide the killer touch.
However it was Larne who took the lead in the 31st minute but in controversial circumstances as referee Tony Clarke first waved away strong Ballymena appeals for a penalty at one end before McMurray broke away down the other and unleashed a powerful shot which eluded Williamson as it nestled into the bottom right corner.
Near half-time, Lee Lynch stroked the ball in from the left wing and McMurray glanced his header only just wide.
Ten minutes into the second half, Donnelly lifted his 22 yard free kick over the wall but Williamson was alert to push it around the post.
Ballymena began the half more brightly and showed more of an attacking threat. This finally bore fruit when Lavery met a dropping ball on the volley 56 minutes in and his sweet strike went through a crowd of players and beyond the reach of Devlin low into the bottom right. The home side were now level.
The away side could have retaken the lead just 10 minutes later but Albert Watson headed just wide from Tomas Cosgrove’s corner on the left.
Larne did retake the lead with 20 minutes left when McMurray charged down Williamson’s attempted clearance and it ended up in the back of the net.
It could have been 3-1 after Fuad Sule let rip with a ferocious strike from the right-hand side of the area and stung the palms of the United stopper in the process.
After the defence failed to clear their lines from a throw in, Andy McGrory applied the vital finish with the half volley to level it for Ballymena with just five minutes left.
The Invermen left it late to grab the winner right at the death in the third minute of stoppage time as substitute Conor McKendry’s free-kick from the right flank evaded everyone else to sail into the net and seal all three points for Tiernan Lynch’s side.
Ballymena United: Williamson, Friel, McCullough (Knowles 90), Burns (Whiteside 83), Carville (A. Kane 71), McGrory, Ervin (c), Millar, Glendinning, Kelly, Lavery
Unused Subs: Addis, Mayse, McGinty, K. Kane
Larne: Devlin, Flowers, Kelly, Watson, Sule, Donnelly (McDaid 59), Tilney (McKendry 83), Lynch, Cosgrove (Ramsey 90), Hughes (c), McMurray
Subs: Mitchell, McEleney, Randall, Graham
Referee: Tony Clarke
It’s Irish Cup fifth round action next for the Invermen as they host Belfast Celtic on Saturday 4 January. Kick off at Inver Park is 3pm.