Crusaders 2 Linfield 2: "Sick as a proverbial parrot” was how David Jeffrey felt when David Rainey hammered in Crusaders’ late equaliser at Seaview.
And so he should be. There was plenty of controversy in this titanic battle on the Shore Road but when the dust settled on a pulsating festive treat there was no escaping the fact that this was a costly two points dropped by the champions.
Fourteen points behind league leaders Cliftonville going into the game, this was no time for further slip-ups but the Blues conceded late goals in each half — both of which were avoidable.
Crusaders weren’t exactly in the mood for a night of carol singing either after being on the wrong end of two massive calls from referee Ross Dunlop’s assistants.
The visitors were awarded a penalty when Craig McClean was accused of pulling back Philip Lowry and striker Jordan Owens was shown a straight red card after the touchline official spotted an elbow on Albert Watson.
The Crues also thought they deserved a spot-kick after Jamie Mulgrew collided with Declan Caddell in the penalty area.
Reasons to be less cheerful in both camps then as Owens is suspended for the Boxing Day derby with league leaders Cliftonville and Jeffrey confirmed that William Murphy suffered concussion and must be a major doubt for the Glentoran clash.
But on the evidence of the final few minutes of this roller coaster ride, it is a point gained for the Crues and two dropped for Linfield.
Jeffrey said: “My players fought their guts out. We showed unbelievable character. We have seven points out of nine from games against Ballinamallard United, Dungannon Swifts and Crusaders. That’s not a bad return but, of course, we really wanted the three points.
“I thought it was a cracking, smashing game, a real belter and Cliftonville will be delighted. If Linfield were in their position people would say it’s Linfield’s title to lose so they are very much in the driving seat.
“I’m heartened with this performance but now we have injuries to worry about for Boxing Day. William Murphy is out and Philip Lowry must be a massive doubt. Michael Gault has also been battling injuries.”
Billy Joe Burns’ superb volley on 20 minutes fired the Blues in front but Gary McCutcheon’s eighth goal of the season levelled matters just before the interval.
Brian McCaul’s controversial spot-kick in the 57th minute restored Linfield’s lead and after Owens’ dismissal the visitors looked home and hosed, but subsititute Rainey’s last minute finish was greeted by warm applause across the north of the city.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter admitted that Owens is “beyond gutted” after being ordered to take an early bath.
“It’s tough on a lad who has played so well but now misses the biggest game of the season,” he said.
“He doesn’t deserve to but that’s the way it is. I can only manage a football team and work out shapes and systems. It’s outside of my control when referees come here and make decisions at our ground.
“The disappointing thing for me is, having a penalty given against us in the Coleraine game, losing two points which we shouldn’t have lost, we go to the Oval and the same linesman doesn’t give us a blatant penalty kick when we should have won that match.
“Then this happens to us today. I can only manage a team.
“These guys are professional referees so they have to referee games. Two linesmen made big calls today and that’s all I can tell you.
“But in the context of the game, down to 10 men and trailing 2-1, we have got to be pleased with a point.”