Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Crusaders up for dog eat dog title challenge

Crusaders 3 Portadown 2

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter

There's life in the old dog yet, but a smart little pup has also been seen running on the Shore Road.

The old dog in question is Mickey Collins, a title winner with Portadown and Cliftonville who doesn’t need to learn new tricks.

While he was at his snarling best on his Crusaders debut against his old club on Saturday, 21-year-old David McMaster is beginning to show his teeth for the Hatchetmen.

While 32-year-old Mickey stamped his authority in the congested midfield area alongside the hard working Eamon Doherty, former Abbey Villa gem McMaster offered an effective outlet on the right wing.

With Martin Donnelly also a revitalised force on the left wing, the Crues were creating havoc on the flanks, allowing Mark Dickson and Jordan Owens to go for goal.

The arrival of Collins is another inspired piece of transfer business by manager Stephen Baxter though he would probably refer to it as a “no-brainer” given the player’s pedigree.

But McMaster is just starting to make a name for himself and the early signs are very encouraging.

His powerful second half volley — his first goal for the club since his arrival in the summer — will live long in the memory.

But it had been coming. The 21-year-old was a thorn in Lisburn Distillery’s side last month and was perhaps unfortunate to lose his place for the Boxing Day clash with Cliftonville.

Baxter may elect for experience when he names his squad for tomorrow night’s County Antrim Shield final with Linfield at the Oval but McMaster knows he has given his manager something to think about.

“It was brilliant to score the goal,” said McMaster who was making only his second start for the league leaders. “I have never felt so much joy in my life. It was my first goal in the league and that is always special.

“I do think we can win the title if everyone can stay fit. We have a good squad here.

“There was a lot of possession in the first half but then the five goals came quickly in the second half.

“It’s brilliant here at Seaview, I know it is a big step up but I’m just glad to be here. There is a big crowd and that puts you under more pressure to perform.

“I just want to be part of this club, get starts and games under my belt and hopefully more goals. I just want to enjoy my football. I know it’s a big step up but I’m happy I’m getting involved.

“I used to play on both wings for Abbey Villa but I didn’t have a great left foot so I prefer playing on the right. I can’t really comment on the team for the final, that’s up to the manager but of course I would love to be involved.”

After his side’s 3-2 defeat, Ports boss Ronnie McFall hit out at the Crues’ new 4G surface, referring to it as “very poor”.

McFall’s negative view has been shared by Glentoran striker Gary Hamilton and Lisburn Distillery hitman Glenn Ferguson, all of whom walked off the pitch after defeats. Sore losers or have they legitimate health and safety concerns?

Not surprisingly, McMaster likes playing on the new pitch.

“I think everyone gives off about the pitch but I like it because it is fast and zippy,” he said. “You can get the ball under control and run at people and that’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t have a problem with the pitch.”

Baxter is perhaps getting a little fed up with opponents moaning about the pitch but it didn’t stop a player of the calibre of Collins stamping his authority on proceedings.

Without the suspended quartet of Chris Morrow, David Rainey, Aaron Black and Ryan McCann, the former Dundalk player’s Crues bow could not have been timed better.

His most telling contribution lead to the 52nd minute opener, a perfectly timed and executed pass to the byline allowing Stephen McBride to cross into the danger area and McMaster to provide the exquisite finish.

The former Cliftonville hero is already a Crusaders favourite.

“I thought David (McMaster) and Mickey (Collins) were both very good,” said Baxter. “Mickey is an excellent player. Player of the Year at Dundalk, I feel he can do an excellent job for us this year.”

McFall said: “Players cannot keep their feet. It’s just solid and there’s no give on it. There needs to be serious thoughts given to it. Hockey is played on astro turf and there is hockey pitches that are off because of the weather with frozen surfaces. UEFA president Michel Platini recommends that football be played on grass and I agree.

“This is an exceptional period of weather we are having but why is there no astro turf pitch down at Windsor Park or Wembley? When Manchester United played Chelsea in the final of the Champions League they dug up this surface and put grass down. It’s only down here because clubs can make money and rent it out. Football, as far as I am concerned, should be played on grass. I’m not a lover of these surfaces.”

Baxter, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, said: “Ronnie’s a mastercraftsman. He has been around a long time and he may not be used to this sort of quality pitch that is coming into the game. The old age may be getting to him eventually!

He added: “If CSKA Moscow can play on it in the Champions League it is good enough for us in the Irish League. And if Manchester United can play on it, it is good enough for Portadown. If they had gone home with the points we probably wouldn’t have heard any comment. Our chairman talks to other chairmen and there are six of them who would love to put one down tomorrow.

“If it can help the cash flow at your club you can be more competitive in the transfer market. This pitch will be the saviour of Crusaders Football Club.

“I can agree it has been a little frosty and difficult to turn on but you can pass the ball beautifully on it. There is no water or mud and you get a nice, slick surface. Every team in the country is training on it. This is the future for clubs at this level of football.”

Crusaders fans should perhaps start thinking about arriving at half-time. All the ‘excitement’ in the north Belfast derby happened after the interval while on Saturday five goals flew in during an amazing 11-minute spell from the 52nd minute.

Kevin Braniff’s sweetly struck free-kick wiped out the Crues lead in the 58th minute but two minutes later John Convery redirected a wayward shot from Mark Dickson into his own net.

In the 62nd minute Braniff’s shot struck Mouncey’s legs in the box and sailed past Keenan. Owens then netted the winner after Convery’s backward header fell out of the reach of goalkeeper David Miskelly.

Portadown’s misery was complete when they were denied a penalty at the death when Gary McCutcheon’s drive appeared to strike David Magowan’s arms when the defender lay on the ground.

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