Belfast Telegraph

Baxter: we'll come back even hungrier after ending 10-year wait

Ballinamallard 0 Crusaders 3

Glory days: Crusaders captain Colin Coates lifts the Irish Cup
Glory days: Crusaders captain Colin Coates lifts the Irish Cup
Oh no: John Connolly looks on after being caught out by Jordan Owens’ early header at Windsor Park
Paul Heatley shows off the trophy
All smiles for Jordan Forsythe and Declan Caddell

By Graham Luney

Harry McConkey's mention of Lionel Messi while summing up the threat of Jordan Owens may have been a little far-fetched but it did illustrate the size of the task facing Ballinamallard United.

The Mallards' run to the Irish Cup final was a fairytale story but Crusaders, without being at their best, still had enough quality and firepower to bring the trophy to the Shore Road for the first time in 10 years.

Owens, along with skipper Colin Coates and Declan Caddell, played in the 2009 decider against Cliftonville but the big frontman has now matured into a club legend and one of the Irish League's best ever finishers.

Premiership defenders can't contain him and the Championship side were floored by the 29-year-old within six minutes, though keeper John Connolly will feel he shouldn't have been beaten.

Philip Lowry's phenomenal work rate and clever play in midfield could have won him the man of the match award but at least he got another Cup final goal after his one for Linfield in the 2010 decider.

And Ross Clarke needed only two minutes to make his vital contribution, slamming home the third before David Cushley had even shaken off his disappointment after being pulled from the game.

The Mallards returned home with their heads held high and the knowledge that if the Crues had been more ruthless the scoreline could have been more embarrassing.

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There is only pride following their brave run to the final but for the Crues their last hurdle was the easiest one to pass.

Glentoran, Linfield, Ballymena United and Coleraine had been dealt with so no one can say they are fortunate winners.

Placed alongside the County Antrim Shield, making it two of the four domestic prizes on offer at Seaview, means it has been another memorable season for the Hatchetmen despite their lethargic title defence.

Paul Heatley won't forget his 300th appearance and young keeper Harry Doherty certainly savoured his first Irish Cup outing of the season.

Crusaders' greater quality and fitness shone through in the sunshine and although they looked sluggish at times in the opening half, the Fermanagh men couldn't land a blow.

And United's plan to frustrate their opponents in the early stages was blown away inside six minutes.

Billy Joe Burns' deep cross met the head of Owens, whose looping header found the net.

Connolly got his fingertips to the ball but couldn't stop it falling behind the line.

United, wearing their white kits, attempted to respond immediately but Ryan Campbell's low drive trickled wide of the post.

The Ferney Park men appeared nervous and they could have fallen further behind when Burns' cross found Jordan Forsythe but his header sailed over the top.

Forsythe looked in the mood and in the 20th minute his powerfully-struck free-kick whistled past the post.

The Crues did most of the attacking but couldn't find a creative spark.

Lowry was twice unable to find the killer touch when he sniffed danger.

Caddell missed two opportunities within as many minutes as the first half came to an end.

Connolly made a comfortable save while the second effort flew well over the woodwork.

Darragh McBrien's shot was off target but it was a warning to the Crues, who were struggling to kill off the contest.

The Crues' failure to add to their lead injected fresh confidence into the Mallards.

But the second half started in similar fashion to the first... with a Crusaders goal.

In the 47th minute, Heatley's corner wasn't cleared and Lowry's header goalwards struck the head of Nathan Cashel before disappearing past Conolly.

It was an early indication that the Crues meant business and Heatley's low shot trickled across the six-yard box and wide of the post.

Clarke replaced Cushley and his first touch made it 3-0 on 53 minutes.

Heatley cut the ball back and Clarke located the net to record his eighth goal of the season.

Left-back Michael Ruddy screwed a shot wide in another let-off for the underdogs.

Cashel's curling effort clipped the outside of the Crues post at the end of an impressive United attack and that was as close as the Mighty Ducks came to inflicting damage.

The crowd of 5,744 didn't witness a Cup classic but Crusaders won't worry about that.

It's a fourth Irish Cup for the club and this time it doesn't seem likely Stephen Baxter's men will have to wait 10 years to do it all again.

And the additional £200,000 that comes with Europa League qualification should assist Baxter's rebuilding plans.

"My job is to keep the boys' standards very high and make sure we are challenging for these trophies," he said.

"We can never mentally switch off and that's why we drive them on as hard as we can. Every game I want to win, we are playing for four trophies and to win two is absolutely fantastic.

"The boys will get time off, they need a break and we will come back fitter, hungrier and stronger, we will be ready.

"The day I give up saying those words is the day I won't be speaking to you (the media)."

A Crusaders season that started with a whimper has finished with a bang.

BALLINAMALLARD: Connolly, Taheny, Smyth, Clarke, Arkinson, Campbell, McCatney (Hume, 69 mins), Kelly (Warrington, 79 mins), Cashel, O'Reilly, McBrien (McManus, 60 mins). Unused subs: Edgar, McCann, Harney, Glynn.

CRUSADERS: Doherty, Burns, Coates, Lowry, Ward, Cushley (Clarke, 52 mins), Caddell, Forsythe, Ruddy, Owens (Patterson, 86 mins), Heatley. Unused subs: O'Neill, Beverland, Snoddy, Ronan Hale, Rory Hale.

Referee: Ian McNabb (Newtownabbey).

Man of the match: Philip Lowry

Match rating: 6/10

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