League titles may not be handed out in December, but Crusaders could be forgiven for parading the Gibson Cup around Solitude after strengthening their grip on the crown.
Not only did they dish out a seasonal stuffing to derby rivals Cliftonville, they extended their lead at the summit to seven points thanks to Linfield’s slip-up at home to Glentoran – the perfect Christmas present for boss Stephen Baxter.
“The manner of the performance was top drawer,” said Baxter after goals from Jordan Owens, Howard Beverland, Gavin Whyte and Declan Caddell accounted for the Reds, who had substitute Jay Donnelly sent off in the final minute for a reckless lunge on Craig McClean.
“We outworked them and that gave us the right to play,” he added. “We hustled Cliftonville and stopped them passing the ball.
“We scored four, but also hit the woodwork and created other chances. To do what we did against a top team in such a big game was really satisfying.”
Though the Crues’ victory was emphatic, the contest arguably swung on two key moments early in the second-half when Cliftonville passed up two gilt-edged opportunities to level matters.
Behind when Owens finished after being teed up by Paul Heatley just before the break, the hosts were thrown a golden opportunity when Billy Joe Burns was adjudged to have handled inside the area by referee Arnold Hunter, who had no hesitation in awarding a penalty.
Cliftonville’s record from the spot this season is every bit as woeful as Sean O’Neill’s save ratio is impressive and, sure enough, the visiting skipper was the hero again, diving low down to his right to deny Stephen Garrett.
Within 60 seconds, a ball over the top put Davy McDaid through on goal but he dallied just long enough for Michael Gault to intervene with a majestic last-gasp challenge to preserve the Crues advantage.
That brief storm weathered, Crusaders set about killing Cliftonville off shortly afterwards and doubled their lead on 53 minutes when, caught out by a short corner that allowed Billy Joe Burns to deliver under no pressure, the home rearguard was napping again as Owens kept the ball alive and set Beverland up for an opportunity he simply couldn’t miss.
It was 3-0 with 15 minutes left on the clock; Whyte taking advantage of the Reds’ lassez-faire approach to defending as he scampered through to confidently find the corner.
The best was saved til last, though, as Caddell wrapped things up with an outrageous long-range effort that swirled beyond the despairing grasp of Peter Burke and into the top corner.
With Glentoran having by now levelled against Linfield at Windsor Park, there wasn’t a great deal more that Crusaders could have wished for from their afternoon’s work but they came close to adding to their tally twice in the closing minutes with Whyte failing to find the target after nipping round Burke before Jordan Forsythe struck the post from distance.
Cliftonville’s misery was complete as the game ticked into injury-time; Donnelly’s heavy touch tempting the sub into a needless flying challenge on McClean, leaving ref Hunter with no choice but to order the striker off.
Home boss Gerard Lyttle admitted: “Crusaders battered us after the second goal, let’s be honest about it.
“There are fine margins in matches. If we score the penalty or Davy takes his chance, I believe it’s a different game but the fact is we didn’t score either and the Crues were deserving winners.
“I wasn’t too harsh on the players after the game because, to be honest, our preparations were terrible this week. The squad’s been hit by a bug, the boys have been sick and big Jason McGuinness’ wife was nearly ringing an ambulance for him, he was that bad.
“It’s not an excuse but, at the same time, I can’t be going in and having a go at people when I know the circumstances of what’s been going on.”
CLIFTONVILLE: Burke, McGovern, Ives, McGuinness, Curran, Knowles, McDaid, Garrett, M Donnelly, Catney, Cosgrove. Subs: J Mooney, Winchester, J Donnelly (Catney, 57 mins), Lavery (M Donnelly, 57 mins), A Donnelly.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Burns, Beverland, Gault, Carvill, Caddell, Forsythe, McClean, Owens, Heatley, Whute. Subs: Lowry, Mitchell (Burns, 90 mins), Dougherty, Clarke (Whyte, 87 mins), Snoddy (Caddell, 82 mins).
REFEREE: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge)
MAN OF THE MATCH: Howard Beverland
MATCH RATING: 7/10