The opening exchanges were quiet enough, and the first opportunity fell to the Sky Blues as Leroy Millar’s cross was met by the head of Allan Jenkins, but his effort was directed over Brian Neeson’s bar.
Soon after, a scramble in the box saw the ball fall kindly to TJ Murray who had space and time from 10 yards out, but the on-loan midfielder squandered his chance as he fired high into the stand.
Back at the other end, Jonathan McMurray tried his luck as he hit a half-volley from 30 yards out, and Neeson had to be alert to tip the striker’s shot over the bar.
McMurray seemed to be his side’s focal point as a lobbed through ball from Tony Kane found the ex-Cliftonville forward, but he released his shot too early, seeing it go well wide of the mark.
As the game reached the stroke of half-time, the Warden Street outfit took the lead. Willie Faulkner controlled the ball before jinking past three ‘Gers players, and pulled it back for the renowned late run of Jenkins, who showed his experience to coolly hammer the ball into the corner of the net, and give United a 1-0 advantage at the break.
Ballymena continued their dominance in the second half as Cathair Friel skinned Steven McCullough before finding strike-partner McMurray in the box, but the latter’s side-footed shot was off the mark.
With an hour played, Rangers looked to bring themselves more into the game as Adam Salley replaced Mark Clarke.
Set-piece specialist Kane then had a perfect goal-scoring opportunity from a free-kick following a foul on Fra McCafferty by Lee Chapman. Kane pinpointed his effort towards the top corner, only to be denied by a superb diving save from Neeson to tip the ball over the bar.
From the resulting corner, Kane sent in an inviting delivery which eventually fell for goal-scorer Jenkins only yards out, but he couldn’t repeat his heroics as he blazed over, much to the relief of the Carrick faithful.
As the game entered its final 10 minutes, Nathan McConnell entered the game in place of Eamon McAllister.
Only a minute later, a golden opportunity fell begging for the Carrickfergus side. McCullough’s cross found Paddy McNally who headed the ball downwards, and it bounced perfectly for Salley whose lobbed header beat Ross Glendenning, but landed the wrong side of the bar.
With 5 minutes to go, Chris Morrow replaced Martin Murray as Carrick piled on the pressure.
TJ Murray picked up Sean Noble’s pass in the middle of the park and charged forward, seeing off Kane before exchanging passes with Morrow. As he raced into the penalty area he was bundled off the ball by McCloskey, and referee Ian McNabb was happy to wave play on – a decision that was met with fury from the ‘Gers fans, players and management.
Rangers had one last chance in the closing minutes, as McCullough’s free-kick from the left found the lurking McConnell whose well placed shot drew a smart save from Glendenning to push the ball past the post.
One minute into injury time, Ballymena wrapped up their first ever league cup victory. TJ Murray lost possession in the centre-circle and the ball was eventually switched out to McCloskey, who had space and time to set himself before unleashing a thunderbolt of a strike into the top corner, confirming the full-time result and a disappointing ending to the Gers’ cup run, despite an incredible effort from the squad and management.
Carrick Rangers: Neeson, Chapman, Surgenor, McNally, McCullough, TJ Murray, Clarke (Salley, 60), M Murray (Morrow, 84), McAllister (McConnell, 80), Noble, Kelly.
Unused substitutes: Imbert, Taggart.