Crusaders now need a massive helping hand from Cliftonville, admits Beverland
Ballymena United 3-0 Crusaders
Crusaders' players, management and fans will find themselves in a most unusual position on Saturday - desperately hoping that their north Belfast rivals, Cliftonville, do them a massive favour.
Having been in control of their own destiny in the race for a third Gibson Cup on the bounce, the Crues let their title grasp go in spectacular style at Warden Street as Ballymena United threw a major spanner in the works.
Three late goals - one created by Cathair Friel and the other two converted by the striker who now has 22 to his credit - coupled with Linfield's win at Coleraine mean that, unless the Blues slip up at Solitude on Saturday, the title will be leaving Seaview.
The simply atrocious Showgrounds pitch didn't help their cause, but nor did shambolic defending, wasteful finishing and an inspired display by Ross Glendinning, the goalkeeper on loan from Linfield who is now a hero at Windsor Park.
Crusaders defender Howard Beverland bravely faced up after the match to admit that they were now very much second favourites and that it will take another huge shock if they are to complete a title hat-trick.
"We're hugely disappointed," he said.
"We've come this far, 33-plus games in the league and it's come down to the last one and technically it's not over, but for each of us in the dressing room we probably feel that it is over - but we'll do a professional job next week, raise our game and hope that things go our way elsewhere.
"We're hurting and we will be until Tuesday when we're out on the training pitch again and getting the opportunity to focus on the next game against Glenavon and make sure we do all we can. Nobody is handing out any titles yet but it has swung a huge way towards Linfield, so we'll pick ourselves up.
"Cliftonville need to go out and play for themselves, first and foremost, they're going out to play for home advantage in the play-offs and they know that is a big advantage for them on their pitch, so they need to go out and do a professional job and I'm sure they will go out and do that.
"They pride themselves in beating any opposition and, of course, we'll be hoping the game swings their way but we have a job to do against Glenavon and that's not a foregone conclusion.
"We need to improve on today's performance, we need to come at it with greater hunger and desire to make sure that come the final whistle we don't get beaten if Linfield lose and we had a chance to swing it back in our own favour.
"There's one game left, it's going to take a huge effort but the title hasn't been handed out yet."
As for the Sky Blues, if they can better Cliftonville's result next weekend it will clinch fourth spot in the league and home advantage in the play-off semi-finals - although given the minefield that masquerades as a pitch that may be something of a double-edged sword.
"I just hope that someone, somewhere, the council or someone who has been elected listens," said David Jeffrey.
"We're trying to build a club for the town and the community and we have a fantastic setting here but the pitch was dreadfully difficult to play on.
"The reason we didn't come in 2-0 up at half-time was because the pitch was so dire Cathair Friel mis-hit his shots.
"Earlier in the season when people asked had we re-set our targets, I said very clearly 'no' because I didn't think we were in that position to get there. Privately I said to the players 'do you think we could get there?' and it was more of a suggestion and now it's possible we could get fourth and that would be fantastic.
"The records are there to be talked about after you've won a game of football not to be thought of prior to it so we go to Coleraine next week just wanting to do our best and see what happens."
Ballymena: Glendinning, Ervin, Millar, Owens, Flynn, Loughran (Kane, 46 mins), McCaffrey (McKinney, 63 mins), McMurray, Friel, Jenkins, McCloskey, (Henderson, 80 mins). Unused subs: Allen, McCracken.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, McClean, Keane (Mitchell, 75 mins), Beverland, Forsythe, Whyte (Cushley, 75 mins), Caddell, Owens, Carvill (Suarez, 67 mins), Heatley. Unused subs: Dougherty, Snoddy.
Referee: Tim Marshall (Irvinestown)