McDaid: Cliftonville are back in title hunt
Crusaders 2 - Cliftonville 2
David McDaid has backed Cliftonville to maintain their chase for the Danske Bank Premiership title after the Reds ended leaders Crusaders' eight-match winning run with a superb fightback in the north Belfast derby on Boxing Day.
A draw - which keeps the gap between the top two at eight points - was the least Cliftonville deserved and it was McDaid's free-kick which gave the visitors the confidence to go on and claim their first point in five games between the fierce rivals.
"Even when they went two up, I still thought we could do it," said the former Coleraine striker. "If we scored one I knew we could score two, they would get edgy. We were the better team by a long way until they scored the first goal.
"Eleven points would probably have been too big a gap to close but we were back to ourselves, we played a lot better, we squeezed them very high and they struggled. The result was a big psychological boost and now we will be ready for Warrenpoint."
James Knowles had taken the rest of his side's free-kicks in the match - indeed, it was his 88th minute cross which was headed home by Jay Donnelly for the equaliser - but McDaid had no doubt who was taking the direct shot on goal 12 minutes earlier.
"I just fancied it, I said to James I'm hitting this one," added McDaid and it was so accurate that goalkeeper Sean O'Neill could only watch it curl into the top corner.
It was O'Neill, though, who had prevented Cliftonville taking the lead with second-half saves from Donnelly, twice, and Garrett and his team-mates rewarded him with two goals in the space of three minutes.
The first - Crusaders' 50th of the campaign - was well worked from the right hand touchline by Jordan Owens, Michael Carvill and Matthew Snoddy to set up Jordan Forsythe, 15 yards out and unmarked, and he gave Conor Devlin no chance.
The lead was doubled from the penalty spot by Billy Joe Burns, after Owens had been pushed in the back by Tomas Cosgrove, and suddenly all Cliftonville's possession in the first 72 minutes counted for nothing.
Crues boss Stephen Baxter probably couldn't believe the position his team found themselves in and admitted as much when he took off Carvill and sent on Declan Caddell.
"At that stage you are looking to see the game out, but you can't legislate for a wonderful free-kick and a great header at the back post and, credit to Cliftonville, they had a never-say-die attitude," agreed Baxter.
But the Crues, who are usually as strong as any team in the second half of the season, are 13 points better off than at this stage 12 months ago, when they went on to win the league.
"Last year we were five points behind on New Year's Day so an eight point lead is good. There is pressure leading from the front, there are no easy games and there's a lot to do," he added. "But we are still unbeaten since the opening day. It will get tougher before it gets easier and we are going to need our squad. Paul (Heatley) is out with a broken thumb, but you have to get on with it."
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, Magowan, Coates, McClean, Forsythe, Snoddy, Robinson, Carvill (Caddell, 77 mins), Whyte (Clarke, 85 mins), Owens.
Cliftonville: Devlin, Cosgrove, Flynn, McGovern, Ives, Curran, Catney, Knowles, Garrett, McDaid, J Donnelly.
Man of match: Gavin Whyte (pictured)
Match Rating: 7/10
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)