Ballymena United 1 - 4 Crusaders: Baxter happy to exorcise Showgrounds ghosts as Crues hit the ground running
Stephen Baxter was delighted as his Crusaders side managed to "right the wrongs" of last season and make a flying start to the new Danske Bank Premiership campaign.
Two defeats at the Ballymena Showgrounds last season proved pivotal as the Crues relinquished their grip on the title but there was no mistake this time as the Seaview men eventually cantered to victory after the second-half dismissal of United defender Kyle Owens.
"We worked very, very hard in the pre-season build-up towards this game - especially after losing here both times last year," said Baxter after Paul Heatley's double and further goals from Colin Coates and Jordan Forsythe earned his side a 4-1 victory. Matthew Shevlin had put the Sky Blues in front.
"We did what we had to do very professionally and we had a fantastic shape around the whole team.
"I felt we had a really good grip on the game and I felt comfortable at half-time but then we conceded a goal from the first ball into our box, which was very disappointing from our point of view.
"But once we made a very quick adjustment and changed our shape, we just drove at Ballymena and tried to penetrate them in the right areas and for the last 30 minutes I thought we were top, top drawer."
His opposite number David Jeffrey said: "It's a very simple, straight-forward analysis - the sending off changed the game.
"Up until then we had matched Crusaders all over the pitch and were every bit as good.
"On the sending off, there certainly is measurable doubt in my own mind and Kyle is telling me he didn't make any contact with the player.
"There were plenty of positives to take but I'm gutted for the players because they didn't deserve to get chinned 4-1," added Jeffrey.
The home side launched their first meaningful attack on 18 minutes when Tony Kane tapped a free-kick to Leroy Millar, who advanced a couple of steps before unleashing a thunderous strike that was brilliantly turned over the crossbar at the near post by Brian Jensen.
Crusaders missed a glorious chance six minutes into the second period when Jordan Owens collected the ball in a deep position and threaded a through ball into the path of Gavin Whyte, who outpaced Millar but fired his shot beyond the far post.
From a Ballymena corner, Crusaders broke at startling pace with Heatley in on goal but the winger's attempted chip lacked the height to beat Ross Glendinning in the Braidmen goal.
That miss proved costly as Ballymena grabbed the lead four minutes later. Conor McCloskey's long throw was met by Kyle Owens and Shevlin ran across Jensen and distracted the keeper, who failed to collect, and the teenage striker was on hand to bundle the ball home from close range.
But Crusaders were level on 61 minutes when keeper Glendinning came a long way from goal to meet Coates' free-kick but his punch lacked distance and when Philip Lowry helped the ball back into the penalty area, Heatley was on hand to direct it through a ruck of defenders into the unguarded goal.
Barely had the celebrations subsided when Ballymena were dealt another blow as Kyle Owens was red-carded for bringing down the clear-breaking Heatley 30 yards from goal.
Soon after, Heatley's miscued cross clipped the top of the crossbar on its way over but the winger eventually found his range in some style on 79 minutes.
Ballymena looked to have cleared the danger when Jordan Forsythe's cross was cleared but only as far as Heatley, who took a touch before arrowing a marvellous rising drive beyond the grasp of Glendinning.
And the Crues sealed the three points with eight minutes left with a simple set-piece routine when Heatley's corner was knocked down by Jordan Owens for Coates - who missed so much of last season through injury - to convert from six yards.
The Seaview side rubbed salt in Ballymena's wounds in stoppage time when Forsythe headed home from close range after a cross from Whyte.
- Action Mental Health Charity Shield: The Oval, today, 3pm