Crusaders 1 Cliftonville 0: Skipper Coates makes up for spot kick failure
CRUSADERS boss Stephen Baxter hailed his team after they grabbed a last-gasp equaliser against Cliftonville in this north-Belfast derby thriller at Seaview.
Liam Boyce shot the title holders into the lead early in the second half after Colin Coates became the villain of the Shore Road faithful after blasting a spot kick hopelessly over the crossbar.
The Cruesaders skipper then popped up with an equaliser with practically the last kick of the game.
The result means that Cliftonville now trail Premier League table toppers Linfield by six points, with the Crues a further point adrift.
"I thought we were sensational," purred Baxter. "It was two gladiators going at it from start to finish.
"We shaded the first half in terms of possession. Then it was a tale of two penalties – one missed and the other scored.
"We really went for it over the last 20 minutes or so and we are pleased to have salvaged a draw.
"It was no more than we deserved. There is one thing about this team, they keep going right to the finish. We threw everyone forward to try and get the equaliser.
"It was fitting that Colin got the goal. He was so disappointed with his penalty miss.
"He apologised to the lads after the game, but he turned in a sterling performance.
"It was a great battle between two committed and brilliant teams – Cliftonville are champions and they showed what a great side they are.
"Some will say the result did neither team any favours – Linfield are now in the box seat, but there is a long long way to go in this title race.".
Baxter made two changes to the team that crashed to defeat at Ballymena on Saturday – their first in 24 matches – relegating Gary McCutcheon and David McMaster to the bench as Josh Robinson and Paul Heatley both returned from injury.
Cliftonville's Tommy Breslin, buoyed by his team's recent form – they are unbeaten in their last 11 league games – drafted in influential midfielder Barry Johnston, who had completed a two game ban, with George McMullan dropping out.
There is always added spice when these two meet and, with Crues goalkeeper Sean O'Neill and Reds' midfielder Ryan Catney refusing the customary hand-shake at the start because of previous involvement, it set the tone for what was a feisty opening.
It was the Crues who created the first opening with Chris Morrow firing over a left wing cross for Jordan Owens to head at Conor Devlin.
Eamon McAllister then capitalised on a rare moment of hesitancy in the Cliftonville defence and his hurried shot, looped harmlessly over the top.
Crusaders were asking all the questions with Morrow forcing Devlin into a save after drilling in a 20 yarder.
Cliftonville burst forward on 26 minutes when Boyce tricked his way past Paul Leeman, but he could only pull his shot across goal.
Moments later, Boyce tip-toed his way past two half-hearted challenge from Coates and Craig McClean and just as he was about to shoot Leeman came to the rescue.
The Crues missed a glorious chance to break the deadlock on 50 minutes when Heatley skipped past Martin Murray and Marc Smyth before he was hauled down by a desperate Johnston challenge.
Coates stepped up to blast the spot kick over the crossbar and high into the back of the grandstand.
Referee Hunter then awarded a penalty to the Reds after Gormley buckled under a tackle from Coates. Boyce stepped up to send O'Neill the wrong way and give Cliftonville the lead.
The Reds almost struck again when Murray's rasping drive flew inches past the post with O'Neill beaten.
Crusaders almost levelled on 71 minutes. Robinson's pass was cleverly dummied by substitute McCutcheon, leaving Declan Caddell in the clear, but his shot curled wide.
Robinson then went in late on Devlin, that sparked a free-for-all – yellow cards were given to Robinson, Jordan Owens and Cliftonville's Smyth.
Reds' substitute Diarmuid O'Carroll almost hit a second in injury time, cutting in from the left only to see O'Neill beat away his shot with his legs
Coates then popped up in injury time to salvage a point for the Crues, somehow screwing the ball into the bottom corner, beyond the grasp of Devlin.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Leeman, Magowan, Coates, E McAllister (McCutcheon 64), Morrow (D McAllister 76), Robinson, Caddell, McClean, Owens, Heatley. Subs:McMaster, Snoddy, Cleary.
Cliftonville: Devlin, McGovern, Scannell, Johston, Donnelly (Cosgrove 89), Seydak, S,yth, Cathey, Gormley, Murray (O'Carroll 88), Boyce. Subs: McNally, McMullan, Doherty.
Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).