Coates heads Crusaders in the right direction
Colin Coates can have a dodgy hamstring for the rest of the season as far as Crusaders fans are concerned.
The centre-back was an injury concern ahead of the north Belfast derby but as he raced through a crowd of players to bury a powerful header into the net it was easy to have sympathy with his manager Stephen Baxter’s assessment of his skipper’s fitness.
“He had a little bit of a hamstring problem in the run-up to the game but these players don’t want to miss big games,” said Baxter.
“He talked about a fitness test but it is probably more in his head. He was commanding out there, along with (Davy) Magowan alongside him.”
Coates produced a man of the match performance to help fire the classy Crues to the top of the JJB Sports Premiership.
He won virtually every challenge in the air and on the ground as the Reds were brought down to earth following their County Antrim Shield semi-final victory over Glentoran.
Cliftonville manager Eddie Patterson will put the spotlight on his defence but the Crues outmuscled and out-thought their neighbours.
When Martin Donnelly’s corner was headed into the net from the edge of the six yard box by Coates in the 19th minute the Shore Road men were cruising, and while a mild storm had to be weathered after the break, this was a comfortable triumph for a team that is showing plenty of hunger combined with a ruthlessness in attack.
“Cliftonville have been a top side over the last few seasons so this game was a good marker telling us how far we have come,” said Coates who has been at the Crues since he was 15 before making his first team debut two years later.
“They had a decent spell in the second half but in the end it was relatively comfortable. It is always good to beat a team of Cliftonville’s stature.
“I don’t know how long we are going to stay top of the league but we are just going to stay focused on ourselves and not worry about any teams around us.
“Linfield and Glentoran have games in hand but hopefully we can keep churning out the wins.
“Big Stevie (Baxter) jokes that he gave me the armband to calm me down and I think it has worked.
“It is a huge honour to be captain of a great club like Crusaders — you just have to look at the previous captains as recent as Jeff Spiers, they are great role models.
“It’s a great honour and I feel it has improved my game greatly.
“There was a few boys who could have got man of the match including Dicko (Mark Dickson) who has been phenomenal and wee Mags (Davy Magowan) has been fantastic all season and brilliant to play alongside.
“This team can go as far as we want to go. There are question marks over the size of our squad but hopefully we won’t be hit hard by suspensions or injuries.
“We don’t fear anyone. Our performances against Linfield recently gave us a lot of confidence so there is no reason to fear anyone.
“Big Stevie has made some brilliant signings in the summer and those boys have went straight into the first team and been excellent.
“It’s early doors and we haven’t played one round of fixtures yet but we can go as far as we want to go and top four is a realistic target the way we are playing.”
Another close range header from David Rainey and a cool finish from Jordan Owens (above right) sealed the points for the Crues while a late strike from substitute Stephen O'Neill failed to disguise a miserable afternoon for the Reds.
The post-mortem at Cliftonville will be long and painful but a win in the rearranged league game at Coleraine tomorrow night is required to lift spirits.
Crusaders, in contrast, host managerless Dungannon Swifts tomorrow night, in buoyant mood and may be boosted by the return of Eamon Doherty from injury.
“Cliftonville beat us 4-0 here last year,” said Baxter.
“But we have come a long way since then and our football is nice to watch.
“I haven’t had a chance to see all the teams play although Linfield and Glentoran are both fantastic sides.
“We know we have to raise the bar week in, week out against these teams but we have shown that if we play our football we can compete with them.
“I’m enjoying watching the boys play and I thought they were brilliant against a good Cliftonville side.
“You’d rather be at the top of the league than in the bottom two or three spaces after nine games.
“But we will keep our feet firmly on the ground and I won’t let these boys get ahead of themselves.
“For 20 minutes of the second half I was given some of the boys a roasting as you cannot afford to lose your shape and discipline.
“You can’t allow that to happen when you are playing good teams because before you know it you will be two down.
“We have competed well against top sides but we also know we have a small squad.”