Portadown 1 Crusaders 2: Who'd have thought that the early substitution of Crusaders captain Colin Coates would have been a blessing in disguise for the north Belfast men!
That’s how it turned out after Coates, suffering from a virus, made his exit after just 10 minutes, and David Rainey trotted on to head home the opener then set up the winner for the Stuart Dallas in an all-action thriller against Portadown that could have gone either way.
“I felt sick and just couldn’t continue,” said Coates after the game. “I didn’t feel great beforehand but agreed to give it a go.”
“I’m knackered,” joked Rainey as he made for the team bus home. “I’m 35 now and didn’t expect to leave the bench after just 10 minutes.
“But it’s a great win for us against a team that’s second in the league.”
Portadown applied most of the pressure, but the majority of their efforts petered out at the shooting stage, not least because master marksman Matthew Tipton was obviously feeling the after-effects of his recent injuries — a broken collar bone a month ago and a pulled rib muscle last week.
“We played most of the football,” manager Ronnie McFall insisted. “But we missed the chances and I’m very disappointed that we didn’t win. Tipton hasn’t been able to train as regularly as usual and it showed.”
But if Crusaders lost it territorially, they were certainly the sharper in front of goal, with Rainey opening their account on 15 minutes.
A Dallas corner from the left provided the opening and the self-confessed veteran nipped in at the near post to nod home.
Manager Stephen Baxter said: “It could have been three by half-time.
“Their keeper (David Miskelly) made two tremendous saves and they headed one off the line.
“We were the better side and thoroughly deserve the points.
“If we weren’t so inconsistent, we’d be much higher than our current fifth position and fewer than 14 points behind league leaders Linfield.”
Those two great Miskelly saves came from a stinging Chris Morrow volley and a thunderous free-kick by Ryan McCann, while Gary Breen headed off the line.
Portadown drew level on 65 minutes when Kevin Braniff rounded off good work by Jamie Tomelty and Keith O’Hara, with the shot deflected en route to the net and the Ports piled on the pressure.
But the Crues rallied and, after Miskelly brilliantly stopped a Rainey overhead effort, came the winner on 84 minutes.
Rainey explained: “I picked up a stray ball and spotted young Dallas on my right, I rolled in to him and he slammed it home superbly from about 20 yards. It was a wonderful strike.”
Even the on-form Miskelly — given the home fans’ man-of-the-match bottle of champagne — couldn’t get near it and the Seaview men went home happy.
Said Baxter: “The measure of that game was that their keeper was by far the busier of the two. We could have scored four goals but for him — we were far more dangerous than Portadown.”
McFall commented: “Nobody can deny we had the most of the play and created loads of openings. It was an entertaining, open game and we should have got something from it.
“And we really should have had a penalty in the closing minutes when Keith O’Hara had both feet pulled from under him. I feel very frustrated.”
PORTADOWN: Miskelly, Redman, O’Hara, Breen, Boyle, Tipton, Braniff, Tomelty, McCabe, Gartland, McCafferty, Subs: Murphy, Clarke, McCloskey (for Boyle, 82), Paget.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, McKeown, McBride, Leeman, Magowan, Coates, McCann, Morrow, Caddell, Dallas, Owens. Subs: Gargan (for McCann, 70), Rainey (for Coates, 10), Hazley, Snoddy, Gibson.
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast).