Johnny McMurray, Ulster, Mark Allen, Belfast Giants

The Ulster Fri Round-Up

Glenavon trip up at Ballymena, Mark Allen look in form heading into NI Open and another Ulster youngster gets a chance!!!

It had to come to an end some time.

Johnny McMurray’s last gasp header condemned table-topping Glenavon to their first league defeat since the opening day of the Dankse Bank Premiership season, as the rain poured down on the Ballymena Showgrounds last night.

United took an early lead in this one. Andy McGrory toe-poking the ball home in the eighth minute, from all of four yards, after some neat build up play from David Jeffrey’s side.

The league leaders, after letting a glut of chances go a-begging, finally equalised with eighteen minutes left as Mark Sykes continued his impressive goal-scoring form. The Northern Ireland U-21 international, finishing low to the corner when the ball broke to him at the edge of the box.

It looked like the spoils were to be shared, until substitute McMurray produced a beautiful glancing header at the end of Tony Kane’s cross to snatch it for the Sky Blues.

Glenavon remain top, at least for this morning, with chasing Linfield having the opportunity to assume pole position should they beat Warrenpoint Town at Windsor Park this afternoon.

In last night’s other top-flight encounter, there was no let up in Darren Mullan’s misery, as he watched his Newry City side succumb all-too-easily to champions Crusaders in South Down.

Despite having the majority of chances in the first-half, City were made to pay after the break. Rory Patterson won, and then converted a penalty four minutes into the second-half to put the Crues one-up.

Harry Docherty, tending nets for the champions, was called into action on a number of occasions thereafter, as the border side went in search of an equaliser, but they were eventually to be undone through defensive lapses.

With twelve minutes to go, John Boyle failed to deal appropriately with a long ball, and his header fell straight into the path of Paul Heatley, who anaged to squeeze the ball through Steven Maguire in the Newry goal. And deep into injury-time, it was that man Heatley again who would profit from some questionable defending from the homeside, easily beating the offside trap before having all the time in the world to again beat Maguire.

Welcome relief for Stephen Baxter, claiming only their third victory on the road this season. But for Darren Mullan, that’s now ten without a win, and things are looking particularly bleak, only a point off the foot of the table.

Ulster will enjoy the more pleasant climes of Treviso today, when they take on Benneton in Round 8 of the Guinness Pro 14.

Having arrested the poor form that saw them fall to provincial rivals Munster and Connacht, with a convincing win last week at home to the Dragons, Dan McFarland will be hopeful that his side can continue their climb of Pool B with another victory in Italy.

In a much changed Ulster line-up in wake of this week’s international call-ups, McFarland will not have the services of Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Will Addison, Jacob Stockdale or John Cooney available to him, however fellow call-ups Rob Herring and Stuart McCloskey have been given the green light to play.

Matthew Lowry picked up a quad injury in last week’s win at Kingspan Stadium and will be replaced by Peter Nelson at full-back. There’s a senior debut for academy prospect James Hume at centre, whilst Robert Baloucoune retains his place on the wing after impressing last week.

Billy Burns comes back in at out-half after injury, whilst Herring replaces Best at hooker and Timoney comes in for Murphy up front, in a team captained by Alan O’Connor.

Ulster: Nelson; Baloucoune, Hume, McCloskey, Speight; Burns, Shanahan; O’Sullivan, Herring, Moore; O’Connor (capt), Treadwell; Coetzee, Reidy, Timoney.

Replacements: Andrew, Warwick, O’Toole, Ross, Jones, Stewart, McPhillips, Kernohan.

Mark Allen has reached the final of the International Championship in the Far East, as he looks to retain the trophy he won in 2017.

Holding a 5-3 interval advantage over Matthew Stevens in yesterday’s semi-final, the Antrim man powered to a 9-6 victory to set up an encounter with either Neil Robertson or Jack Lisowski in Sunday’s final.

The Australian and the Englishman are currently locked at four frames a piece heading into their final session this afternoon.

World Number 12, Allen, will win just shy of £200,000 if he was to retain his title, a nice fill-up heading into next week’s NI Open at the Waterfront.

The Belfast Giants are back in a familiar position, as they hit the summit of the Elite League table last night, for the first time this season.

Having battled to OT victories away to Manchester Storm and Nottingham Panthers last weekend, Adam Keefe’s squad have made the trip to Scotland this weekend for three fixtures against Fife Flyers, Glasgow Clan and Dundee Stars respectively.

And last night, they grabbed the two points with a measured 2-1 victory over hosts Fife.

Blair Riley and David Rutherford goals saw the Giants into a two-goal lead before Paul Crowder pulled a goal back for the Scoti

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