Bannsiders prove title hunger
Coleraine 3 Crusdaers 3
What a game and advert for Irish League football - six goals, a red card, defensive mistakes, a stirring fightback and high drama as the top two in the Danske Bank Premiership had to settle for a share of the spoils in a Showgrounds classic.
Coleraine looked dead and buried as a brace from Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley had Crusaders in control at 3-1, but the game turned on its head after the dismissal of Crusaders skipper Colin Coates for a second yellow card on 63 minutes.
A thunderbolt from Jamie McGonigle reduced the arrears to a single goal, before Darren McCauley headed home the equaliser to set-up a grandstand finish. The Bannsiders nearly found a late winner as Eoin Bradley's clipped effort was cleared off the line by Sean Ward to end 90 minutes of dramatic action on the Ballycastle Road.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter was disappointed to see his side miss the chance to go four points clear in the table, but praised both sets of players for providing an entertaining game.
"There was nobody short changed here today - what a game of football," Baxter said.
"I thought we were off it for the first 30 minutes, then we turned it up a gear or two and got ourselves 2-0 in front.
"The playing conditions for both teams were difficult and every player to a man on both teams deserves the most amazing amount of praise.
"It was a feisty game of football, there were yellow cards, red cards, goals and there was no fuss from the players. I'd rather watch that than Stoke and Crystal Palace draw 0-0!"
Baxter admitted he was frustrated with Raymond Crangle's decision to award Colin Coates with a first-half booking for a scuffle with Eoin Bradley, but had no complaints with the second.
"We're disappointed with Colin's first booking and we want to have another look at it," Baxter added.
"I've asked the referee to look at it but I don't know if we'll get anything back there.
"A yellow card was given to both players to try and settle it down. For the second he misjudges the flight of the ball, he fouls his man and it's a red card."
With Crusaders still in the running for five trophies - starting with tomorrow night's County Antrim Shield final - the Crues boss insists he'd still like to add to his squad before the transfer window closes after rumoured interest in Warrenpoint Town striker Darren Murray.
"I could do with bringing half a dozen players in but the chances are one more might work, but some of these things are outside of my control," Baxter revealed.
"You can only make the offers you think you can make. If clubs don't want to sell there's not much you can do.
"We are still chasing one or two things, but we have Michael Carvill playing for the reserves today and Jamie Glackin and Craig McClean who didn't make today's squad.
"So we do have very capable players who are ready to play, and they will all be called on very quickly."
His opposite number Oran Kearney praised his squad's 'mettle' as they remain on course to challenge for their first Gibson Cup since 1974.
"Up until the 35th minute we were quite pleased with how everything had gone," Kearney continued.
"But we shot ourselves in the foot with two errors that gift them the two goals.
"The first goal I think Aaron Traynor dives in on Gavin Whyte and with a player of his calibre you have to stand up and make it harder for him.
"The second one, Ciaron and Adam mess up a quick free-kick and it was crazy after how we managed the first half hour of the match.
"We asked a few questions at half-time and we queried if they had the mettle to give that wee bit more. They did that and more in the second half and it was pleasing."
Kearney is hopeful that a deal can be reached for Linfield's Aaron Burns before the end of the week.
"It's been highly documented about our interest in Aaron Burns and we will wait on the word back on that this week," he said.
COLERAINE: Johns, Mullan, Harkin (Smith, 76 mins), McCauley, Bradley, McConaghie, Lyons, O'Donnell, Traynor, McGonigle, Dooley. Unused subs: Douglas, Ogilby, Carson, Parkhill.
CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, McChrystal, Beverland, Coates, Ward, Caddell (Snoddy, 79 mins), Forsythe (Lowry, 58 mins), Owens, Heatley, Whyte. Unused subs: Jensen, Cushley, Bonner.
Man of the match: Gavin Whyte
Match rating: 10/10
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)