Belfast Telegraph

Bannsiders need dream finale as Seaview men won't collapse this year


Tight battle: Crusaders ace Gavin Whyte and Coleraine’s Stephen O’Donnell fight for possession at Seaview
Tight battle: Crusaders ace Gavin Whyte and Coleraine’s Stephen O’Donnell fight for possession at Seaview

By Steven Beacom

Crusaders would not be denied. They just kept coming and coming, with the pain of last season when they blew the chance to win a third league title in a row driving them on and on and on.

As substitute David Cushley netted an 84th-minute equaliser against Coleraine in an exhilarating finish, there wasn't just joy among the Crusaders players, management and fans at Seaview - there was a mighty sense of relief too.

In the end, a slow burner of a game turned into a rip-roaring affair. By the final whistle, the 1-1 scoreline ensured there was no change at the top of the table, with the Crues two points clear of Coleraine.

But for Stephen Baxter's side, that late goal proved crucial with the destiny of the championship staying in their hands.

Defeat and the brilliant, battling Bannsiders would have hit the front in the thrilling race for the Gibson Cup with four games left to play.

On 67 minutes, Oran Kearney's team had taken the lead through a well-placed Jamie McGonigle penalty, awarded after Colin Coates had brought down Eoin Bradley in the box.

From that moment the visitors stood firm, roared on by 1,500 passionate Coleraine followers desperate to see their club land only the second championship in their history.

Coleraine looked as though they would hold out as they put their bodies on the line. This would have been a performance of champions had they ended up with the precious victory.

Kearney's men have played with a style and a swagger all season. Last night they showed bundles of character to go along with all that class.

Even then it wasn't enough to keep Crusaders at bay. Baxter's men, with the outstanding Gavin Whyte, Paul Heatley and Jordan Owens to the fore, had scored a staggering 99 goals in 33 league matches entering the big championship crunch.

They knew they had it in them to find one last night and when captain Coates headed a Heatley corner across goal for Cushley to pounce, it was their 100th in the league and most important of the season.

Cushley had entered the fray 60 seconds earlier. Talk about a super sub. And talk about a superb title race.

The Crues are favourites but you get the feeling, like last term when Linfield won it on the final day, this one is going to the wire.

The Shore Road outfit were always going to bounce back from that disappointment, but it is Kearney's side who have made this season what it is - a campaign to remember.

The Bannsiders have not lost since November 18. That was their only league defeat all season versus Linfield.

Kearney's mixture of experience and youth will feel they still have an opportunity to follow in the famous footsteps of Coleraine's 1973/74 title winners.

I fancy, though, that they may have to win all of their remaining games to do just that because Crusaders won't fall apart like last time.

Game on.

Belfast Telegraph


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