Heatley double seals glory night for Crusaders
Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter said he was "overwhelmed" with emotion after guiding the Shore Road club to their first ever aggregate victory in a European tie.
Paul Heatley was the two-goal hero as the Crues – who led 3-1 going into the second leg of their Europa League first qualifying round joust with Ekranas – made it back-to-back wins against their Lithuanian opponents to book a meeting with IF Brommapojkarna of Sweden.
"It's a wonderful moment in the history of Crusaders Football Club," said Baxter.
"I'm just overwhelmed when I think about what we've achieved here and all of the emotions which spilled out at the end of the game. We had everyone – players, directors and supporters – celebrating and congratulating one another in the changing room afterwards and it's a wonderful feeling to have made our mark like this."
Though the visitors survived an early scare when goalkeeper Sean O'Neill showed good reflexes to prevent Paul Leeman from registering an own goal, they were always in control of proceedings and almost opened the scoring on 13 minutes when Jordan Owens – making a club-record 10th appearance in UEFA competition – produced an acrobatic effort that was well saved by Lukas Zukauskas.
Owens also sent a headed effort against the crossbar as the Crues went in search of the security strike which would cancel out Ekranas' late away goal at Seaview last week and their prayers were answered 11 minutes after the interval when, thanks to a perfectly timed pass from Declan Caddell, Heatley was able to spring the hosts' offside trap and coolly stroke the ball past the advancing keeper and into the bottom corner.
Ekranas levelled through Lukas Kochanauskas on the hour, only for Heatley to restore the north Belfast side's advantage with a fine solo effort that saw him twist and turn away from Martynas Duda before once again getting the better of Zukauskas.
"Everyone performed magnificently but Heatley was a real dangerman and a livewire throughout," added Baxter. "In the last five minutes or so, I was confident we were going through on aggregate but was concious that Irish League teams rarely win both legs of a European tie so I was delighted to see us do that."
Crusaders begin their trip home from Panevezys today but it won't be long before they're back on their travels with Stockholm and that date with Brommapojkarna – who secured their own progress by defeating VPS last night – awaiting next Thursday.
"All being well," added Baxter, "and assuming the technology works as it should, we'll be studying the DVD of their game on the plane which will give us a start in our preparations.
"Before that, however, we're going to do a bit of celebrating and it's a small party that is richly deserved because what these players have done out here is magnificent and they deserve to enjoy it."
EKRANAS: Zukauskas, Duda, Susnjar, Pilotas, Girdvainis, Petrauskas, Salamanavic, Baranauskas, Umeh, Kochanauskas, Elivelton. Subs: Timofejevas, Urbys, Meskinis (Kochanauskas, 65 mins), Tamulevicius (Salamanavic, 59 mins), Dapkus, Stanulevicius, Norvilas (Baranauskas, 52 mins).
CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, Leeman, Robinson, McClean, Cockcroft, Morrow, Caddell, Clarke, Owens, Heatley. Subs: McCrea, Magowan (Morrow, 90 mins), Snoddy (Heatley, 73 mins), O'Carroll (Cockroft, 55 mins), Adamson, Whyte, Dempster.
Referee: Yaroslav Kozyk (Ukraine)