Ballymena Utd 0 Crusaders 3
Keep looking over your shoulder Linfield — the Hatchetmen are coming.
Crusaders romped to a 3-0 victory over Ballymena United to move to within three points of the champions — although David Jeffrey’s men have a game in hand — and barely had to break sweat to do it.
In fairness they were helped by the defensive generosity of the home side and the intervention of referee Stephen Weatherall who awarded the Crues a penalty and later ordered off Paul McAreavey for an aerial tussle with Colin Coates, but this is a side that doesn’t need much help.
With 11 men it would have been tough for United but with 10 it was impossible, although they deserve great credit for sticking to their task manfully having to play the last hour a player in arrears, but the fact remains they have failed to notch a win in 10 games.
And once again it was a self-inflicted wound that caused the early damage, skipper Gary Haveron’s attempt to head a bouncing ball back to his keeper in the second minute falling woefully short and Jordan Owens gleefully lashing it past Ryan Brown.
United boss Roy Walker was a peripheral figure in the build-up to the game with rumours that he was set to quit his post, but he took his usual position on the sidelines fielding a side that gave first starts to Lee McCaughern and for McAreavey, in an unaccustomed forward role.
But it was to be an all-too brief and forgettable night for the former Linfield man.
Firstly referee Weatherall stunned the crowd when his whistle sounded after a tangle in the box between McAreavey and Coates — and the upshot was a penalty for the visitors, a yellow card for the Ballymena man and the Crues’ skipper hammering home from the spot.
That was in the 29th minute and two minutes later McAreavey was leaving the field, shown a second yellow card and then a red for appearing to catch Coates with his elbow — a decision that infuriated the home team and fans alike, with the Belfast official exiting to a cacophony of boos at the interval.
Michael Halliday exited before the hour after coming out second best in a tackle with Haveron.
United’s spirited rearguard display was ended with 13 minutes to go, Owens releasing Chris Morrow who left Haveron in his wake before coolly slotting home with the outside of his right foot, and it is finishing of this class that will keep Stephen Baxter’s men in the hunt for the title.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Brown, Smith, Colligan, Haveron, Albert Watson, Stewart, Taggart, McCafferty (Surgenor 45), McAreavey, McCutcheon, McCaughern (Carson 59). Subs not used: Berry, McDowell, Young.
CRUSADERS: Keenan, McKeown, McBride, Magowan, Coates, McMaster, Morrow, Dallas (Cassidy 85), Watson, Halliday (Caddell 59), Owens (Rainey 79). Subs not used: Donnelly, Sweeney.
Referee: Stephen Weatherall (Belfast).