Crusaders canter to north Belfast derby win over hapless Cliftonville
Dankse Bank Irish Premiership: Cliftonville 1 Crusaders 5
IF Crusaders were brilliant in yesterday’s north Belfast derby, Cliftonville contributed by being abysmal. The defending league champions turned Solitude into a wake house as they thumped five goals past their neighbours in a painfully one-sided St Stephen's Day encounter.
A hat-trick from man-of-the-match Paul Heatley and a brace from the irrepressible David Cushley saw Stephen Baxter’s men canter to victory and fire a warning signal to the teams above them that they’ve no plans on handing over the Gibson Cup at the end of the campaign.
They may be in fourth place in the Premier but the Shore Road men are just five points off pacesetters Ballymena United.
Rory Donnelly tapped home a consolation goal for the Reds in the closing stages that didn’t yield much applause from the home supporters, with many of them already bound for the exits.
After three wins on the trot, Barry Gray’s men have now conceded 11 goals in their last two games with the Reds manager having a host of problems to address ahead of the remainder of their Christmas programme.
“We scored five today, but it could have been 10,” said Baxter afterwards.
The gap between the two sides was galling. The most worrying aspect from Gray’s point of view was the lack of fight and resilience shown by his players after the visitors grabbed their second goal as early as the 13th minute.
Reds defender Jaimie McGovern up-ended Declan Caddell in the penalty area in the second minute and Cushley confidently converted past the returning Richard Brush in the Cliftonville goal.
There was no reaction of note from the home side. Eleven minutes later, Heatley struck his first of three goals with a precise left-footed drive from a difficult angle that found the top corner.
Again, no reaction of note from the home side.
“We shut the game down very quickly on Cliftonville today,” said Baxter. “High pressing football from the front and we didn’t let them have the ball in midfield and we forced them to play long, which they didn’t want to do.
“And we were able to deal with the two lads up front [Joe Gormley and Rory Donnelly] fairly well.
“So it was a very comprehensive performance by us.”
The home side huffed and puffed but not with their usual zeal. They lost most 50-50s going and nobody in a red shirt was able to take charge of a game that began slipping away from them as early as the second minute.
Caddell and Jordan Forsythe ruled central midfield while the Reds defence had no answer to Cushley and Heatley’s clever movement.
In the 50th minute, the visitors counter-attacked superbly after Joe Gormley was dispossessed and from distance Cushley found the bottom corner with a rasping drive.
At 3-0, high numbers of Cliftonville fans left the ground in dismay.
With the game stretched Heatley struck again in the 73rd minute and had the industry of Rory Patterson to thank for his third in the 86th minute.
Barry Gray skipped his post-match media duties last night, while Baxter described his side’s performance as one of the highlights of their disjointed campaign so far.
“We’ve had to come to terms with life without Gavin Whyte [who moved to Oxford United], one or two inconsistent performances and one or two injuries.
“We’ve lost seven games in the league and somehow we’re still in and around the title race. There’s a long way to go and a lot of football to be played, but that’s the type of performance we’re looking for. That’s as good as we played. There wasn’t too many that played below an eight [out of 10] today.”
He added: “When you’re slightly behind you can lose a game and fall away…The only thing I’m concentrating on is keeping our form good and keeping our players motivated to play and keeping them in the race – and we’re still in the race. It’s such a long race and you need a lot of stuff going in your favour.”
The Reds were completely demoralised after yesterday's eagerly awaited derby - while Crusaders are back in the title hunt.
Cliftonville: R Brush, J McGovern, L Ives, J Harney, A Donnelly, R Catney (L Bagnall 76), C Curran (R Curran 76), S Garrett, C McConnell (R Harkin 54), R Donnelly, J Gormley Subs not used: R McKenna, G Breen, T Maguire, C McMenamin
Crusaders: S O’Neill, BJ Burns, M Ruddy, H Beverland, C Coates, P Lowry, D Caddell (M Snoddy 74), J Forsythe (R Brown 85), D Cushley (R Patterson 74), P Heatley, R Clarke Subs not used: H Doherty, S Ward, M Carvill, K Owens
Referee: A Davey