Portadown 1 - 1 Crusaders: Baxter accepts fate after ref 'messes up'
A 'messy decision' by referee Raymond Crangle and a brilliant header off the Portadown line from a Joshua Robinson crackerjack sent Crusaders home with just one point and cursing their luck.
Both turning points came in the dying minutes when Mr Crangle pointed to the centre-circle, evidently allowing the goal.
But after the Ports players protested and the referee consulted his assistant, the decision was "offside".
The Belfast whistler explained to the media that the linesman had told him via the intercom – "It hit a red" (a Portadown player).
"But I was 110 per cent sure that it had struck a Crusaders player on its way into the net, and the right decision was given in the end," he insisted.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter maturely accepted his fate.
"When you're having a bit of a poor run (just two points from the last four outings) these things are inclined to go against you," he said.
"That, along with a brilliant stop on the line by Darren Murray from a Joshua shot, summed up our afternoon.
"We really piled on the pressure in that last 20 minutes and Portadown were reeling, but you have to accept these things in football.
"Still, we're not out of the race, although three points would have been handy."
Crusaders' mood failed to improve when captain Colin Coates had to quit at half-time with an ankle knock.
"I don't know how long I'll be out," he said ruefully.
The match started off in overdrive with the two goals coming in the first 10 minutes – scores of the highest quality.
First on target was Ports' Sean Mackle, playing his 150th game in the Shamrock Red and hitting "by far the best goal I've ever netted". He ran onto a knock-down from Peter McMahon and let rip acrobatically from 20 yards, sending the ball creaming into the top corner.
Paul Heatley levelled when he went on a brilliant run and drilled hard and low past David Miskelly. And while Crusaders shaded it over the 90 minutes, Portadown – including five return players – deserved the point, given their gritty showing.
Manager Ronnie McFall certainly thought so.
"We had five players just back from injury and they found the going tough near the end on a sticky, sodden pitch," he said.
"I can't fault them for effort as they gave it all they had. In fact, had we put away all our chances, we might have won it.
"Indeed, if top striker Gary Twigg hadn't failed a late fitness test, we could have sneaked it."
A great effort from McMahon rattled the Crues goal framework with Sean O'Neill well beaten, and the keeper also pulled off a superb save from a Chris Casement free-kick.
But as Baxter said, the Ports visibly tired towards the end and backs-to-the-wall defending – and that late 'messy' piece of refereeing mitigated against the men from north Belfast.
Neither side could afford to lose, especially Portadown, who with just one point from the past three matches, leaves them 12 points adrift of leaders Linfield.
A top four spot is the best they can hope for – a position which is reported to be the minimum expected from the boardroom.
PORTADOWN: Miskelly, Casement, O'Hara, Ramsey, Breen, Mackle, Murray, McMahon, Mouncey, McCafferty, O'Connor (Barton 32 mins). Subs: Brennan, McStay, Friars, Rooney.
CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Leeman, Magowan, Coates (Snoddy 45 mins (D McAllister 86 mins)), McLean, Robinson, E. McAllister (McCutcheon 62 mins), Morrow, Caddell, Heatley, Owens. Subs: Cleary, McMaster.
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast).