Odhrán Crumley reports from the Showgrounds
You could quite literally feel the tension in the Coleraine Showgrounds cut as Darren McCauley’s 56th minute strike hit the bottom left corner of the net.
Ballymena came to Coleraine hoping to derail their local rival’s title chances, but for the Bannsiders a lot more was at stake than simply ‘bragging rights.'
Oran Kearney’s men shaded the early exchanges. Jamie McGonigle won a corner, which met the head of Stephen O’Donnell but his header was straight at Ross Glendinning.
Minutes later, Coleraine broke from a Ballymena corner. Stephen Dooley played in McGonigle but once again Glendinning was up to the task saving with his feet.
As the clock ticked towards the 20th minute, Kevin Braniff tried a quick restart from a free, but succeeded only in giving the ball away to Darren McCauley.
McCauley played the ball out wide to Eoin Bradley, and his well struck effort was directed away for a corner by Glendinning.
The theme of the first half seemed to be the home side breaking from Ballymena frees.
Kyle Owens chipped one such free into the area that was headed clear into the path of McGonigle, who broke with real pace. He found McCauley but the latter’s shot was well off target.
An onslaught on the Ballymena goal continued. A lovely flick from Bradley sent the ball into the path of McGonigle but no one was there to direct home his cutback.
Half time was quickly approaching and the home supporters were growing frustrated with the referee, none more so than when Jim Ervin appeared to pull down McGonigle in the area but no penalty was awarded.
David Jeffrey’s men had contained the Bannsiders at the break with the game remain goalless and the tension intensifying by the minute.
Coleraine began the second half just as they had finished the first, on the attack.
Josh Carson whipping a wonderful cross into the area from the right which met the head of Bradley but he could not keep his header down.
The deadlock was finally broken 11 minutes into the second half, and the tension shattered, as Darren McCauley’s shot out of nothing ended up in the bottom left corner of the net.
On the hour mark, with confidence high, McCauley had another go from range this time his left-footed effort was blazed over the bar.
Ballymena had their first real chance of the game when Tony Kane floated a free kick into the area. Kyle Owens couldn’t get enough on the header and it was easily saved by Chris Johns.
United weren’t finished yet, Cathair Friel’s inviting cross fell into the path of Matthew Shevlin but his shot was bravely blocked by Aaron Traynor.
In the final minute of normal time. Ballymena won a free kick 25 yards from goal.
Kane stepped up and had a shot at goal that couldn’t have come any closer without going in, brushing the top left corner of the side netting and prompting the away support to believe it had gone in.
Three minutes of additional time were added on and the Bannsiders looked to consolidate their win.
Two minutes into the three additional minutes Josh Carson was dismissed on a straight red for a really poor challenge on Willie Faulkner, prompting a period of handbags.
Kiernan Kennedy sounded his whistle soon after to bring the game to an end confirming a 1-0 win for Coleraine and three precious points in the title race.
Coleraine: Chris Johns; Lyndon Kane, Ciaron Harkin, Darren McAuley, Eoin Bradley (Aaron Burns 63); Josh Carson, Gareth McConaghie, Stephen O’Donnell, Aaron Traynor, Jamie McGonigle (Ian Parkhill 75); Stephen Dooley.
Subs not used: Adam Mullan, Steven Douglas, Martin Smith.
Booked: Eoin Bradley (29), Lyndon Kane (90).
Sent off: Josh Carson (92).
Ballymena United: Ross Glendinning, Tony Kane, Kyle Owens, Stephen McAlorum, Cathair Friel, Kevin Braniff (Leroy Millar 77), Andrew Burns (Johnny Flynn 63), Matthew Shevlin, Jim Ervin, Fra McCaffrey (Willie Faulkner 63), Conor Quigley.
Subs not used: Adam McCracken, Francis Nolan.
Booked: Matthew Shevlin (42), Stephen McAlorum (53), Willie Faulkner (92).
Sent off: None.
Referee: Keith Kennedy.
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Darren McCauley (Coleraine).