Crues fight all the way to get title defence up and running
Crusaders 4 Ards 2
What a cracking contest at Seaview. Victory for champions Crusaders, but boy did a resolute Ards side push them every step of the way.
Delayed until last night due to Crusaders being involved in Europa League action, the final match of the opening round of Premiership fixtures was certainly worth the wait.
Crusaders were entertaining and full of goals last season. If this was anything to go by, expect more of the same as they defend their title and go for a fourth crown in five years.
Michael Carvill and debutant Rory Patterson scored in the first half for Stephen Baxter's men, with Jordan Forsythe and substitute Declan Caddell on target after the break. Patterson also missed a penalty, while Gareth Tommons grabbed a brace for Ards, who had Joshua Kelly sent off late on in a breathless and brilliant game.
Ards boss Colin Nixon selected three of his new signings, Craig McClean, Kym Nelson and Sean Noble, for what promised to be a severe test.
Nelson nearly gave the visitors a surprise lead after just two minutes, striking a 30-yard free-kick just over the bar.
At the other end, errors in the Ards defence gifted Paul Heatley and Billy Joe Burns opportunities which were not taken.
If the home fans were disappointed by that, they were cheering with delight on 20 minutes after a splendid Carvill strike to open the scoring. The flowing Crues move started in their own half from a Burns throw-in, which was beautifully flicked into the path of Ross Clarke by Heatley. Clarke's precision pass found Carvill in space and he slammed the ball past Samuel Johnston.
The Crues should have doubled their advantage shortly after, with Heatley firing wide and Patterson's header stopped by keeper Johnston.
Patterson's moment came with 32 minutes gone. Philip Lowry cleverly touched a Clarke cross from the right towards the striker, signed last week from Derry City, and from eight yards out he showed the instincts of a high-class predator, swivelling and scoring despite the attentions of a defender.
Ten minutes later, Patterson was fuming with himself after attempting a Panenka style penalty only to see his chip go over the bar. The spot-kick had been controversially awarded by referee Tony Clarke after Johnston had pulled down Heatley, who was clear through.
Contact between the keeper and Heatley appeared to take place outside the box, with Johnston booked for the foul.
That kept Ards in the game because captain Tommons had delivered a smart finish 60 seconds after the Crues moved two in front. Lively David McAllister provided an inviting cross from the left and, with the Seaview back line all at sea, Tommons had the composure to find the net.
Ards felt they should have had a penalty of their own on 54 minutes when McAllister fell to the ground after a challenge in the Crusaders area. Newtownabbey official Clarke waved appeals away.
The champions knew they were in a match and Ards were determined not to take a step back, illustrated by Jonny Frazer and Howard Beverland going toe-to-toe on the touchline with other players from both sides quickly becoming involved.
On 56 minutes a fired-up Frazer was in the action again, delivering a brilliant right-wing cross, with the impressive Tommons ghosting into the box to slot the ball past O'Neill.
In what was turning into a fantastic encounter, the Crues regained the lead on 69 minutes with Forsythe powerfully nodding home Clarke's corner. It was a fine header from a player who doesn't always grab the headlines but consistently gives his all for the cause.
With tempers becoming heated, the home supporters expected a red card for Noble after a bruising challenge on Colin Coates. A caution was the result. On 80 minutes, however, Ards were reduced to 10 men when Kelly was given his second yellow card for an ill-timed foul on Patterson.
Fraser lashed the ball over on 90 minutes with Ards seeking a leveller before the reliable Caddell connected with Clarke's corner to finally put the match to bed.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, Beverland, Coates, Lowry (Caddell 64), Carvill (Cushley 64), Forsythe, Brown, Heatley, Clarke, Patterson (Snoddy 87).
Subs not used: McChrystal, Owens, Ruddy, Doherty.
Ards: Johnston, Byers (E McAllister 87), Elebert, Frazer, D McAllister, Kelly, Noble (McLellan 81), Tommons, McClean, Nelson (Cherry 67), McAleenan.
Subs not used: Mooney, Kelly, Mitchell, Torrens.