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Cliftonville 1 Crusaders 0

By Conor McLaughlin

There could be no stopping them now, you know.

Cliftonville roared nine points clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership with a thrilling late North Belfast derby victory over nearest challengers Crusaders on Wednesday — and they still have an extra game to spare.

Substitute Joe Gormley thundered home the only goal of a passionate contest that left the majority of Solitude’s capacity crowd dreaming that 2013 might just be the Reds’ year.

Every single ticket on offer was snapped up for this not-to-be-missed tussle and the energy on the sidelines often carried over onto the pitch, where neither set of players was prepared to give an inch in a showdown that certainly kept referee Raymond Hetherington on his toes.

And, while Cliftonville Street echoed to the tune of delirium from fans heading home for their turkey sandwiches, Reds boss Tommy Breslin was understandably keen for his players not to get swept away in the euphoria of such a potentially pivotal victory.

“You could maybe say we won ugly, but that’s the way it has to be sometimes,” he said.

“I’ve told the players before that you can’t always play your very best football in every match and it was maybe typical that, in front of such a big, noisy crowd, we didn’t perform the way we know we can but hopefully the joy they had when the ball hit the net will entice plenty of them back for our next game.

“We’re nine points clear but there are still 51 points to play for and, when you compare our nine to that 51, the lead pales into insignificance.

“We play Dungannon Swifts on Saturday and that’s the only thing we’re focusing on.

“The players know that they can’t take their eyes off the ball at any stage this season.

“You win one match and you immediately set about trying to win the next, which is exactly what our attitude must continue to be.”

Both goalkeepers were called into early action to save from free-kicks, with Crusaders’ Sean O’Neill getting fingertips to George McMullan’s effort before a cheeky attempt from Gareth McKeown brought a save from Conor Devlin.

The Reds shot-stopper heaved a sigh of relief on 36 minutes when his failure to deal with a routine strike put the ball on a plate for Gary McCutcheon and, though the Scotsman found the net with ease, he did so from an offside position; cutting visiting celebrations to an unexpected halt.

Crusaders enjoyed the better of the play in the opening half and should really have taken the lead when McMullan and Marc Smyth collided, leaving Timmy Adamson with a glorious chance that he nonchalantly toe-poked into the side-netting.

The hosts were much improved after the interval and Stephen Garrett twice brought saves from O’Neill.

Colin Coates then headed over the top from point blank range but anyone who thought this one would peter out into a scoreless draw evidently has no prior experience of a North Belfast tussle.

There’s always at least one twist to come — and so it prove Gormley and Boyce dotted a couple of passes together on the edge of the area and, though Gormley looked to have sneaked into an offside position when the ball fell back into his path, he made no mistake to leave the Red Army dreaming of a first league trophy in 15 years.

“I haven’t had the benefit of seeing it back again but he looked offside to me at the time,” said Crues boss Stephen Baxter.

“These things happen, though, and you just have to get on with it.”

CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, R Scannell, Johnston, McMullan, Garrett, Donnelly, O’Carroll, Smyth, Catney, Boyce. Subs: Seydak, Gormley (for Donnelly, 69 mins), Lynch (for O’Carroll, 90 mins), Cosgrove, O’Kane.

CRUSADERS: O’Neill, McKeown, Magowan, Coates, Craig McClean, Robinson, Caddell, McMaster, Heatley, Adamson, McCutcheon. Subs: McBride, Leeman, Watson (for McMaster, 65 mins), Snoddy, Rainey (for McClean, 84 mins).

Referee: Raymond Hetherington|(Dungannon).

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