Cushley is the hero in Crues' thrilling comeback
Crusaders 4 Linfield 3
David Cushley loves the big occasion. Last season, his goal won the league title for Crusaders. Last night, his dramatic injury-time winner clinched the Toals County Antrim Shield for Stephen Baxter's men.
It was a magical finish for the Crues but a shocking one for Linfield, who were 3-1 ahead at the break and 3-2 in front with just two minutes left.
The Blues had scored through Mark Stafford, Kirk Millar and a Colin Coates own goal, with Cushley also on target before the break. Then came the extraordinary comeback with Coates, Jordan Forsythe and the brilliant Cushley earning the Crues a stunning success.
While the Crues kept the same starting XI that cruised past Ballymena United in the Irish Cup in their last outing, Blues boss David Healy made five changes to the side that lost 2-0 at Glenavon in the league on Friday.
Out went goalkeeper Gareth Deane, defender Ryan McGivern, Kyle McClean, Daniel Kearns and suspended skipper Jamie Mulgrew. In came Conor Mitchell, Stafford, Andrew Mitchell, Matthew Clarke and Millar.
With Storm Gareth doing its thing, the rain was driving down at kick-off and the wind was blowing a gale. Linfield were playing with the elements and made them count early on.
Crues defender Sean Ward produced a fantastic clearance from Matthew Clarke's cross with Millar ready to pounce.
Moments later, Sean O'Neill did well to claw away a dangerous Niall Quinn corner.
The Crues keeper was at fault on eight minutes, though, when the Blues took the lead. This time he failed to deal with a corner from Millar and the ball dropped to Stafford a couple of yards out, allowing the defender to gleefully put the ball in the net.
The Crues were not shy in putting themselves about with a few tasty challenges, one of which from Billy Joe Burns on Andrew Mitchell earned the full-back a booking. Team-mates Coates and Declan Caddell were also cautioned later in the first period, along with Linfield's Millar.
Cushley looked threatening for the Shore Road outfit as the half wore on. It was no surprise that the gifted No.11 levelled in the 28th minute, smashing a low left-foot strike into the net after Jordan Owens had bullied the Linfield rearguard. Questions, though, could be asked of Blues goalkeeper Mitchell, who could have done better.
Amazingly by the half-hour, after showing great character to fight back, Crusaders found themselves 3-1 down.
On 29 minutes, Andy Waterworth's effort from just inside the box was pushed out by O'Neill but only to the energetic Millar, who slotted home.
Millar was having an impressive match. Shortly after scoring, his cross from the right flank caused havoc, with a clearance from Burns hitting Coates on the head and ending up in the net.
It was a frantic opening 45 and concluded with O'Neill saving Chris Casement's free-kick and Mitchell keeping out Caddell at the other end.
The second half began with constant pressure from the Crues, who now had the wind at their back. Forsythe had an effort well cleared by Matthew Clarke and Ward's wicked strike from distance deflected just wide.
You got the feeling a goal was coming for Baxter's side. It did in the 61st minute when Forsythe's corner was headed in by Coates.
The Crusaders skipper then almost levelled, hitting the post from another Forsythe set-piece.
Former Crues ace Josh Robinson almost restored Linfield's two-goal lead, glancing Quinn's corner off target prior to O'Neill showing his quality with an excellent stop from Stafford's overhead kick inside the box.
When play switched to the other area, Stafford blocked Ronan Hale and fellow substitute Kyle Owens nodded over.
Linfield looked as if they were going to see it out, but on 88 minutes they lost focus at the back, with Forsythe allowed the freedom of north Belfast four yards out to sweep home Cushley's in-swinging corner.
And then, in injury time, that man Cushley was on hand to win the Shield with a bullet header from a superbly weighted free-kick from Forsythe.
What a finish. What a match.