Strong start for Ballymena in Europa League campaign

Leroy Millar celebrates scoring Ballymena United's first European goal since 1984. Credit: INPHO

Ballymena United are celebrating a strong start to their Europa League campaign after they took a 2-0 win, while Cliftonville had to settle for a scoreless draw.

Thursday night’s home leg of the preliminary round clash between Ballymena and NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands was the first European game to be played at the Showgrounds in 15 years.

Despite plenty of chances for the Sky Blues – including a waved-off penalty call for a challenge inside the box on Adam Lecky - the sides played out a scoreless first half.

However, the hosts ended up breaking the deadlock early in the second half, when the ball was crossed to Cathair Friel and he knocked it down for Leroy Millar to find the net.

Just like that, Ballymena had taken the lead – and bagged their first European goal since 1984.

Ballymena United celebrate at the Showgrounds as they get their Europa League campaign off to a strong start. Credit: INPHO

Runavik did have a chance to quickly equalise, but the Sky Blues were up to the task and kept them at bay.

Then, on 56 minutes, Jude Winchester curled a cracking shot into the top corner and, after that 35-year wait for a European goal, Ballymena now had two within mere minutes of each other.

Ballymena's Jude Winchester in Europa League action. Credit: INPHO

A free kick for Runavik just about 10 minutes from full time caused Ballymena concern, but it went just over the target.

And with just about five minutes to go, Millar had a chance to score again and shore up Ballymena’s advantage, but his diving header also went just over the bar.

The 2-0 result still puts David Jeffrey’s side in a strong position heading into the return leg in the Faroes next Thursday.

Meanwhile, Cliftonville had to settle for a scoreless draw when they travelled to Wales to take on Barry Town in Cardiff.

The Reds, who had the best of the chances, have it all still to play for in their return leg at home at Solitude next Thursday.

Chris Curran, Conor McMenamin and Rory Donnelly all went close for Cliftonville.

Manager Paddy McLaughlin told his team’s official website he was pleased with the performance, if a little frustrated not to have secured an important away goal.

“I think it says a lot that we’re disappointed with a clean sheet and a draw away from home in Europe,” he added.