Belfast Telegraph

Paul Heatley and David Cushley give Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter plenty to savour

Cliftonville 1 Crusaders 5

Triple joy: Crues ace Paul Heatley celebrates hitting the first leg of his brilliant hat-trick
Triple joy: Crues ace Paul Heatley celebrates hitting the first leg of his brilliant hat-trick

By Conor McLaughlin

Stephen Baxter saluted Crusaders' best performance of the season after seeing off Cliftonville in style at Solitude.

The Reds were simply no match for their five-star visitors, who exerted full control over proceedings from the moment David Cushley put them ahead with a second-minute penalty.

Cushley would then tee Paul Heatley up to make it 2-0 before adding the third himself. Heatley would go on to net numbers four and five ahead of Rory Donnelly registering a consolation for the hosts - not that it took the shine off Baxter's day.

"It was a fabulous performance," he said.

"We've had some good days this season and a little bit of rubbish in there too, but this one was right up there.

"The win against Glenavon a few weeks ago was one of our best displays, but for us to come to Solitude in a derby on Boxing Day and play like that against a team as good as that was phenomenal.

"We didn't let Cliftonville play from the very first minute and forced them to do things they didn't want to do. We pressed and worked them all over the park and the win was a very convincing one - but it could have been six, seven, eight, nine, 10. All of my players were fantastic."

Things could barely have got off to a better start for the Crues, who were awarded a penalty after just 63 seconds when Jaimie McGovern's clumsy challenge sent Declan Caddell tumbling.

Cliftonville goalkeeper Richard Brush, making his first appearance since being taken seriously ill in mid-November, was sent the wrong way as Cushley found the corner.

It was 2-0 on 13 minutes and, even at that early stage, it was truly game, set and match. Cushley's perfectly-weighted touch sent Heatley through and he somehow squeezed the ball in via the crossbar from the narrowest of angles.

There was never any way back for Cliftonville after that and, though they should have had a 49th-minute penalty when Michael Ruddy handled inside the box, the fact of the matter is they were outclassed all over the park.

The lightning speed at which the Crues broke away from that penalty appeal demonstrated their superiority in this game; Cushley thundering home from outside the area to make it 3-0.

Number four came 17 minutes from time and, again, Cushley was instrumental in slipping the ball to a totally unmarked Heatley, who made no mistake with a confident finish over Brush.

More slack Cliftonville defending paved the way for Heatley to complete his treble when, spooked by harrying and pressing from Rory Patterson, the home backline were unable to clear the danger and Heatley laid claim to the match ball.

Donnelly's 86th-minute finish proved scant consolation for Cliftonville, with Crues boss Baxter left beaming after his side's display.

"People talk about form and that's the key thing for us - maintaining form like this," he added.

"When we beat Glenavon, Jordan Owens picked up an injury in training a few days later and then Rory Patterson got suspended for three games, and things like that can go against you and stop you building any momentum.

"For the first time this season, I have been able to name the same starting team for three games in a row and it's been three wins.

"Players aren't doing anything to merit being taken out of the team and you just hope that kind of form can be sustained going forward."

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