Europa League play-offs: Ballymena clinch £200,000 windfall as Braniff hits winner

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Ballymena United clinch lucrative Europa League spot after 2-1 win over Glenavon

Ballymena United clinched an estimated £200,000 windfall after Kevin Braniff hit a late winner in the Europa League play-off final against Glenavon.

After a goalless first half, Cathair Friel's 22nd goal of the season put Ballymena ahead on 53 minutes.

Glenavon fought back and after Rhys Marshall volleyed an equaliser on 66, Andy Hall hit the Ballymena woodwork.

However, ex-Glenavon man Braniff's deflected 25-yard shot beat Johnny Tuffey to give Ballymena a 2-1 win.

Kevin Braniff's strike was his first Showgrounds goal for Ballymena
Kevin Braniff only joined Ballymena from Glenavon in January

Ballymena manager David Jeffrey had only introduced the former Northern Ireland striker from the bench a couple of minutes earlier.

As Glenavon produced intense late pressure, James Gray had a glorious injury-time chance but failed to get a good connection as Ross Glendinning made a comfortable save.

Ballymena's victory sees them earn a European place for the first time since the 1989/90 season.

The Lurgan Blues looked the better side for much of the first half as Joel Cooper dragged a shot well after bursting clear of the Ballymena defence and home keeper Ross Glendinning had to make a superb double save to deny Gray and Ciaran Martyn.

Ballymena did come into the game more in the second quarter with Kyle Owens and Friel both missing headed chances.

However, Ballymena raised their game after the restart and they took the lead on 53 as Joe McKinney's clever ball into space released Johnny McMurray to tee up a close-range finish for Friel.

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Ballymena boss David Jeffrey hails hero Kevin Braniff after play-off triumph

McMurray wasted a glorious chance to double Ballymena's advantage within a minute and it looked an expensive miss as Marshall volleyed an equaliser 13 minutes later.

As Ballymena's nerve threatened to fail them, substitute Andy Hall hit the home woodwork with a free-kick from nearly 40 yards with Marshall also nodding the follow-up against the crossbar.

However, the match then had a further twist as Braniff's 80th-minute shot looped over Tuffey and into the net off the underside of the crossbar after taking a wicked deflection.

Glenavon desperately chased an equaliser in the closing minutes and Gray, who joined the Lurgan Blues in the New Year as Braniff departed the club, missed the inevitable great chance to force extra-time as he failed to connect well with only Glendinning to beat.

Thrilled Ballymena fans invaded the pitch after the final whistle as the club's renaissance under David Jeffrey continued.