Crusaders won their first European game in 18 years with a stunning 3-1 victory over Lithuanian outfit Ekranas at Seaview.
Goals from Stephen Cockcroft, Jordan Owens and Colin Coates gave the Crues a richly deserved 3-0 lead. Even though Ekranas grabbed a late away goal, it didn't spoil a magnificent European night for the Shore Road club.
Their last European success came in 1996 when they defeated another Lithuanian side, Zalgiris Vilnius, 2-1 thanks to a brace from a youthful Chris Morgan.
Current Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter played in the game, but he missed last night’s enthralling victory due to a family holiday.
Baxter's assistant Jeff Spiers oversaw Crusaders' remarkable win.
“The late goal doesn't take the gloss off it for me,” said Spiers.
“It will give us something to think about ahead of next week's game but it doesn't change how good we were.
“We beat a full-time team who are in the middle of their season, while this is our first competitive game.
“We kept the ball better than them and we worked harder than they did, and we got our reward.
“We've watched their last few games and we had a plan. Our tactics worked perfectly.
“I'm not taking any credit for it though, it is the players who deserve all the praise. Big players like Jordan Owens and Colin Coates put in big performances.”
The other goalscorer will be an unfamiliar name to most, Cockcroft (20) thriving on his Seaview debut.
Spiers said: “We signed Cockcroft from H&W Welders at the end of last season and the plan was to break him in gently but during pre-season he was a breath of fresh air. He was very lively against Airbus on Saturday and we thought he had done enough to earn a start.”
Crusaders set the tone in the 12th minute when Declan Caddell clipped the ball to Paul Heatley but his shot was smothered by goalkeeper Kornelijus Timofeyevas.
It was a sign of things to come. The Lithuanian outfit simply couldn't live with the Shore Road power and pace.
With the Crues in total control, it was no surprise when they took the lead mid-way through the first half.
Heatley split the defence with a lofted pass that set Caddell through on goal.
Caddell bundled the ball past Timofeyevas before drilling it towards the net. With the ball set to slip past the post, Cockcroft made sure from a yard out.
Crusaders got their second goal in the 43rd minute.
Craig McClean's optimistic ball into the box from the left flank was completely missed by goalkeeper Timofeyevas, which allowed Owens to glance home from six yards.
Ekranas almost pulled a goal back with the final kick of the half, forward Rytis Pilotas’ sweetly struck free-kick cannoning back off the post.
Ekranas also had the first chance of the second half, but Coates cleared Aleksandar Girdvainis' 48th minute header off the line.
Just when it looked as if Ekranas might make a match of it, Crusaders killed the game as a contest. Cockcroft's 57th minute corner-kick was drilled at goal by Chris Morrow. Timofeyevas was only able to parry the ball back into the six yard box, where Coates nodded it into the Ekranas net.
Ekranas spoiled a perfect night for Crusaders with a vital 88th minute away goal.
The home defence were unable to clear an in-swinging corner and defender Aleksandar Susnjar was on hand to head the ball into the net.
Set-pieces aside, Crusaders outplayed Ekranas for the majority of the game. If they can produce a similar performance in Lithuania next Thursday night they will surely progress in Europe for the first time in their history.
Crusaders: O'Neill; Burns, Robinson, Coates, McClean; Clarke, Caddell, Morrow, Cockcroft (78 O'Carroll); Heatley; Owens (85 Adamson). Subs : McCrea, Magowan, Leeman, Snoddy, McCutcheon.
Ekranas : Timofeyevas; Meskins (69 Tanulevicius), Girdvainis, Susnjar, Petrauskas, Baranauskas (78 Dapkus), Norvilas, Pilotas, Salamanavicius (45 Stanulevicius), Kochanauskas, Dantas. Subs : Zukauskas, Duda, Sigitas Urbys, Simonas Urbys.
Referee : Javier Estrada Fernandez (Spain).