Crusaders pip Coleraine on dramatic last day of Irish Premiership title race
Danske Bank Irish Premiership
Ballymena United 1 Crusaders 2
IN the end, Crusaders did not need to rely on that huge goal haul – they just relied on their mighty points total instead.
The Crues netted an incredible 106 times in this league campaign, but their 91 points put them two clear of Coleraine, and ensured that the Gibson Cup returned to Seaview for the third time in four seasons.
Stephen Baxter’s men took to the pitch at the Showgrounds on Saturday knowing that all they had to do was match Coleraine’s result at Glenavon and their goal difference cushion would see them over the line.
But when Cathair Friel chipped over Brian Jensen around the hour mark to put Ballymena 1-0 up, and with Coleraine drawing at Mourneview Park, the Bannsiders became in-running favourites.
However, the dominant Crues equalised when Philip Lowry pounced on a rebound from sub David Cushley's shot on 77 minutes, and went ahead after a fine strike from Cushley with four minutes to go, to render Coleraine’s 0-0 draw with Glenavon academic.
Baxter was asked whether he feared the worst when Friel’s effort bounced into the net, but insisted that there was “no panic.”
Indeed, the one and only man he summoned from the bench all day - in response to that goal - won the game for the Shore Road men.
“My overriding feeling was when they scored, I looked straight at the clock, which was right across from us at Ballymena - you can see it very clearly – and I knew on 66 minutes that we had time,” said Baxter.
“And I prepared the two subs, I wasn’t sure which one to bring on first. I was thinking about bringing both on, but there was no panic. We needed a couple of goals and I knew there was time to get them.
“And when you’ve a weapon like Cushley coming off the bench, he only needs to get it onto that left foot, and if he sees the goal there’s every chance he’ll score."
After the game, Baxter paid tribute to his players who have ensured that what is already a golden era for the north Belfast club will continue for a while yet.
“They’ve been superb,” declared Baxter. “We’ve won three titles in four years, but this squad of players, whilst all the other boys have done particularly well, this squad has been the best with regards to the campaign because it was a longer, harder fought campaign.
“And I just felt that we had that extra bit of something about us this year. And we had big results. We won at Linfield 5-2, we won at Lurgan 6-1.”
Baxter also said that he was glad for the thorough test his side had against the Braidmen.
“We knew we wouldn’t get it easy, because David Jeffrey doesn’t give anybody anything easy.
“And they played their eye strings out, and I think that’s good because, at least if you’re Coleraine, you know that nobody lay down and gave it to somebody else. It was hard fought, hard won.
“But I’m pleased that we did it and I’m pleased that we won it by the two point margin because to win it on goal difference, they would have been saying: ‘Well…,’ whereas the two point margin just puts the icing on the cake.”
Coleraine just came up short in this campaign – in any other year they would have been convincing league champions. Ultimately, although they lost just once, their 12 draws proved too many.
Baxter heaped praise on the manager of the runners-up, and said that he hopes Coleraine can finish their season with style in the Irish Cup final.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Oran Kearney,” said Baxter.
“He’s a lovely guy, he’s always the same way. He knows how to shake hands and do everything in the correct manner.
“I’ve so much time for him, and I really hope that they can get about their business next week and see if they can redeem something from their season.”
THE 0-0 draw between Glenavon and Coleraine on Saturday meant that the Lurgan Blues finished the season in third place and are guaranteed Europa League football alongside Coleraine, while Linfield, who were beaten 2-1 at home to Cliftonville finished fourth and have qualified for the Europa League play-offs alongside Cliftonville, Ballymena United and Glentoran.
The Glens lost 3-1 at home to Ballinamallard United, with the win not enough to save the Mallard from the drop. In the other two games on Saturday, Carrick Rangers, who beat Warrenpoint Town 3-2 finished in the relegation play-off position, while Dungannon Swifts beat Ards 4-3.