Stephen Baxter returned home from Sligo last night reflecting on the “stuff of dreams” as his Crusaders side reached the Setanta Sports Cup final for the first time.
Sligo Rovers fought back from 2-0 down after the first leg to level the scores but a Colin Coates penalty in stoppage time at the end of the first period of extra time sent the Crues fans home walking on air.
It was a stunning performance from the Shore Road men who can now look forward to an all-Ulster final showdown with Derry City at Windsor Park on Saturday, May 12.
“We can feel very proud of our achievements,” said Baxter.
“It’s the stuff of dreams. This football club was dead and buried a few years ago and now we are in two fantastic finals and the heroic performances just continue.”
The game swung in Rovers’ favour on the half hour when Timmy Adamson poked a shot wide when clean through and that miss was even more painful on 34 minutes when Romauld Boco netted for the men from the west.
Crusaders were rocked just two minutes after the restart when Mark Quigley finished off a sublime move that had the visiting defence chasing shadows.
But Coates had the final say with a powerfully struck spot-kick after Declan Caddell had been bundled over in the box.
The absence of the injured Jason McGuinness was always going to be felt but Rovers were confident of netting an early goal to blow the tie wide open again.
Baxter lived up to his pre-match promise to not sit back by asking David Rainey and Timmy Adamson to lead the line.
Keeper Sean O’Neill would have expected a busy night and after digging out an early Joseph Ndo corner from under his crossbar he produced a smart block in response to Boco’s crisp shot in the eighth minute.
The Crues came through the opening 20 minutes unscathed but they were grateful for some sloppy passing from Rovers.
In fact, referee Arnold Hunter rejected a penalty appeal when Caddell’s shot appeared to strike Gavin Peers’ raised elbow.
On the half hour Crusaders missed a glorious chance to net that crucial away goal. Adamson sprinted clear of Danny Ventre who took a stumble but with only keeper Gary Rogers to beat, he steered the ball wide of the post.
On 34 minutes, the visitors really were ruing that miss. Ross Gaynor wrestled his way past David Magowan on the left wing before squaring the ball to Boco who scuffed his shot but it bounced into the net past O’Neill.
Two minutes after the restart the Hatchetmen were sliced open with clinical precision. A wonderful three-man move involving Gaynor and Lee Lynch culminated in Mark Quigley coolly slotting the ball into the corner.
Rainey just failed to get on the end of a David McMaster cross as the Crues still ventured forward.
On 62 minutes Adamson missed another opportunity when he headed Stuart Dallas’ cross over the woodwork.
As the tension mounted, tempers boiled over in the 68th minute when Lynch clashed with Caddell on the touchline. Lynch and Coates were booked in the melee which followed with Rovers boss Ian Baraclough also getting involved. To Baxter’s credit, he was straight onto the field to tell his players to move away from the unsavoury scene.
Crusaders’ luck was also out on 82 minutes when Rainey’s volley flashed wide across the goal.
Dallas’ fierce shot also whistled past the post and Morrow’s shot was superbly tipped over by Rogers as the Crues finished on the front foot.
The first half of extra time was uneventful until the Crues got their dream moment in injury time at the end of the first period.
Gavin Peers was adjudged to have fouled Caddell and Coates stepped up to rifle the spot-kick into the roof of the net. Although Rovers pressed, the Crues held out to send the travelling fans into ecstasy at the final whistle.
SLIGO ROVERS: Rogers, Keane, Davoren, Ventre, Peers, Ndo, Lynch (Dillon 108), Gaynor (Cretaro 80), Boco (Millien 124), Quigley, North. Subs (not used): Brush, Dykes, Owens, Cawley.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, McKeown, McBride, Magowan, Coates, Morrow, Caddell, McMaster (Snoddy 91), Adamson (Owens 80), Rainey (Leeman 124), Dallas. Subs (not used): Gargan, Halliday, Gibson.
Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).