Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders' title party kicks off in style at Solitude

Cliftonville 1 Crusaders 3

By Graham Luney

If you've waited 18 years for a league title win, you might as well make it two. This golden chapter in the 118-year-old history of Crusaders Football Club became even more significant last night as the club secured back to back Gibson Cup victories for the first time.

Closest challengers Linfield won 4-0 at the home of rivals Glentoran but the champions got the victory they needed, cruising to a 3-1 win over Cliftonville at Solitude with Gavin Whyte and a Paul Heatley double settling this one-sided contest.

George McMullan netted an 86th-minute consolation but the Reds were well beaten on a night that belonged to their opponents.

It's only the north-Belfast side's sixth championship after crossing the line first in 1973, 1976, 1995, 1997 and last season.

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The Crues are often ridiculed for a direct style of play and their artificial surface at Seaview is criticised but their proud place in the Irish League history books is assured.

The players are proper legends in a memorable campaign that has been all about making history from the very start.

The 2015-2016 season began with the Shore Road side's first victory in Europe's premier club competition when a Champions League win courtesy of an away goal against Levadia Tallinn got the ball rolling.

But the history boys weren't finished. Striker Jordan Owens went on to break the club's goalscoring record when he hit his 158th career goal against Rathfriland Rangers in the Irish Cup, moving ahead of legendary finisher Glenn Hunter.

There was even a remarkable personal story in the middle of it all as striker Diarmuid O'Carroll has now won four league championships in a row with the two north-Belfast clubs after transferring his magic touch from Solitude to Seaview.

Once again Linfield put up a fight but came up short.

Back to back title wins is the club's finest hour and will secure another cash windfall to bolster the hunt for even more prizes.

Last year's Champions League adventure pocketed around £525,000 on top of the £38,250 for winning the league title.

This year's prize money for the champions is £12,000 and £100 for every point gained but other clubs should fear Crusaders' financial muscle, allowing manager Stephen Baxter to refresh his squad with new recruits including Michael Gault and David Cushley.

Whyte drilled in the opener in the ninth minute and composed finishes from Heatley in the 56th and 58th minutes ensured the party wouldn't be cancelled.

The Crues could have won more emphatically with Heatley and Owens missing chances and the Reds had to make three goal-line clearances but, along with McMullan's late consolation, it didn't matter a jot.

A new cliche has emerged in the domestic game which states 'whoever finishes above Crusaders will win the league' and that's possibly the best compliment that can be paid to them.

But the future can be left for another day. Right now they should enjoy this moment as the glory days don't last forever.

That's what makes them so special, particularly for a club that has had to fight back from financial difficulties and relegation in 2005.

From rags to riches, the Crues continue to live the dream.

CLIFTONVILLE: Burke, McGovern, Bonner, Flynn, Ives, Curran, Catney (McMullan 46), Knowles (Winchester 78), Donnelly, McDaid, Hughes. Subs not used: Garrett, George, Lavery.

CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, Magowan, Coates, McClean, Whyte, Caddell, Snoddy, Forsythe, Heatley (Carvill 87), Owens. Subs not used: McKibbin, Clarke, O'Carroll, Mitchell.

Match Rating: 7/10

Man of match: Paul Heatley

Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).

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