Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders find top gear and surge to top of the table

By David Mason

Big Jordan Owens celebrated a new long term deal by grabbing a killer third goal against Coleraine which helped take Crusaders to the top of the Danske Premiership table.

Owens and skipper Colin Coates put pen to paper on new contracts before their team bared their title teeth.

Teenage sensation Gavin Whyte shot Stephen Baxter's boys into a first half lead, but it took a quick second half double whammy from Paul Heatley and Owens to really snuff out the challenge of the Bannsiders.

"It's good to get the boys tied down," said Baxter. "Colin signed a four-year deal and Jordan agreed terms for three years. They are two big players for the football club.

"I was thrilled with the performance of the team tonight. We knew it would be difficult, but once we got the three-goal cushion in the second half, it took the pressure off."

Heatley was right out of luck on six minutes when his speculative 25 yard drive smuggled its way through the arms of Michael Doherty, who was fortunate to see the ball crash off the post.

The Bannsiders had to wait until 19 minutes for their first shot on target. But Neil McCafferty's rasping free kick was brilliantly beaten out by Sean O'Neill following Coates' clumsy challenge on Ian Parkhill.

Both teams then came within inches of taking the lead.

Clarke's free kick was flicked goal wards by Declan Caddell, but Doherty did brilliantly to plush to safety.

The visitors responded with Mark Miskimmin having a low effort crash off the legs of O'Neill and, when the rebound fell to Shane McGinty, his 30-yard drive was spectacularly flicked over the crossbar by the head of Billy Joe Burns.

Crusaders broke the deadlock on 29 minutes with Whyte gobbling up his second goal of the campaign.

Snoddy's cross fell invitingly for Heatley, who completely fluffed his lines in front of goal, but the ball was cleared off the line by Stephen Douglas to the 18-year-old, who ballooned the net from eight yards.

The home team almost increased their lead four minutes before the interval.

The alert Clarke slipped a free kick to Burns, whose raking 30-yard drive fizzed inches past the post.

But it was Kearney's boys who really should have had the final say in a frenetic opening half.

Parkhill sent Miskimmin hurtling into the box and his low shot looked like sneaking in at the post until O'Neill's out-stretched boot deflected it clear.

Crusaders came out for the second half looking for a killer second goal.

And, they really should have capitalised on an error from Howard Beverland, who shamefully let Owens wriggle free inside the box. The ball fell to Caddell, who held his head in frustration as his shot was deflected past the post.

The Crues rode their luck on 68 minutes when Parkhill cut in from the right only to see his low shot rebound off the base of the post.

But Crusaders at last eased the tension that hovered over the Shore Road venue by grabbing a second goal.

Heatley picked up an Owens pass, tricked his way into the box, before slotting the ball into the bottom corner of the net.

Then Owens made it a night to remember on 74 minutes.

He met a pin-point Whyte cross and his bullet header powered past Doherty to make it 3-0 - and that was game over.

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