Crusaders back in title race after hammering Reds in derby
Crusaders 4-1 Cliftonville
Teenage sensation Gavin Whyte produced another magical performance, but it still wasn't enough to convince Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter he deserved the man of the match award following a thrilling North Belfast derby at Seaview.
Goals from Jordan Owens, who bagged a double, skipper Colin Coates and substitute Nathan Hanley earned the Shore Road boys their first win over their big rivals in four meetings.
Even though defender Johnny Flynn was gifted a first half equaliser, the Reds were left to wallow in self pity after crashing to their first away defeat in 14 months.
To make it even worse, they had what appeared to be a legitimate equaliser wiped out by referee Ross Dunlop six minutes from time; the Carrickfergus official declaring the ball had previously gone out of play, on the advice of his assistant.
It was Whyte who lit up an exhilarating clash between two teams that look destined to last the pace in what is developing into a fascinating title race. He was watched by St Johnstone boss Tommy Wright, the former Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, who can't have been anything other than impressed by the 18-year-old.
Baxter said: "Gavin is a fantastic talent, there is no question about that. He's still learning the game, but if he keeps progressing and working hard, he could certainly have a big future in the game.
"I didn't know Tommy was here, or the reason of his visit. But there were certainly quite a few players out there who caught the eye.
"Personally, my man of the match was Paul Heatley. I thought he was fabulous. We put him in a little role to allow him to play and he did that. He was threatening every time he was on the ball, as was Gavin.
"But you can go through them all. Every player in a red and black shirt turned in a sparkling performance. Jordan got two goals and quite rightly received a lot of plaudits, but Colin Coates and David Magowan were superb at the back, blotting out two of the best strikers in the country in Joe Gormley and David McDaid.
"To a man, we had 11 big performers. It was important we got back to winning ways after the disappointment of our defeat by Bangor in the League Cup in midweek.
"We were a little bit light in terms of numbers due to injury and Timmy Adamson's suspension. But young Matthew Snoddy, who is basically a central midfield player, came in to do a fantastic job on the left hand side.
"His link up play with Gavin and Paul was super. We now have to take those positives, build on them and move on and hopefully stay in the race. That's all it is at this moment in time. It's all very tight.
"Believe me, if you are nine points behind, you are still well in the hunt.
"You simply play each game when it comes along, work hard and try to put points in the bank and move on to the next game, which is Coleraine next Friday night.
"They were flying until they slipped up at the weekend. It will be another tough, tough game."
Reds manager Tommy Breslin was in little doubt that Smyth's disallowed goal was a game changer.
"The match hinged on certain decisions outside our control," said Breslin. "Was the ball out of play before Smyth scored? I don't know.
"The referee's assistant missed two or three throw-ins in our favour which were right next to him, but he was able to see the ball out of play some 70 yards at the other side of the ground. It was a massive decision.
"It certainly would have been a different game at 2-2 with only a few minutes left. You can understand our players' disappointment.
"If the linesman can tell me he is 100% certain that the ball went out of play and the television cameras can prove it categorically, then I'll hold up my hands and admit I'm wrong.
"As far as I'm concerned, I don't think it did. So how can anyone make that decision?"
Breslin was also critical of other infringements that were not spotted.
"There was a blatant push on Marc Smyth that led to Crusaders' third goal, but again that went unpunished," he added. "I never come out and criticise, but this was so blatant and difficult to swallow in such in important game. If we are going to be subjected to decisions like that for the rest of the season, it's anybody's league!
"I appreciate it's difficult for officials, but they have to get the big calls right. They have to apply the rules and not be influenced by what has gone on beforehand."