Crues chief Baxter says team deserve great credit
Crusaders 1 Cliftonville 1
Stephen Baxter insists his Crusaders side will deserve immense praise regardless of how the final day of an enthralling Danske Bank Premiership season turns out.
Following Saturday, when both the Crues and Coleraine drew, it is fitting that the sensational title battle between them goes down to the wire with the top two on 88 points and Baxter's men in pole position thanks to their vastly superior goal difference (+67 to + 45).
The Crues, seeking their third league success in four years, are away to David Jeffrey's Ballymena United while Coleraine, going for a second championship in their history, travel to third placed Glenavon.
While Coleraine were coming back from two down on Saturday to draw 2-2 at Linfield, the Crues were being denied time and time again by Cliftonville goalkeeper Brian Neeson in their 1-1 draw at Seaview.
Early on, Neeson made an excellent save to stop Crues skipper Colin Coates, and his form continued with Leeds United target Gavin Whyte and striker Jordan Owens left in disbelief by the number of times he kept them out.
It took a stunning curling effort from Paul Heatley on 59 minutes to beat Neeson.
Two minutes earlier Joe Gormley gave Barry Gray's men the lead with one of the goals of his career - a breathtaking 35 yard strike. Prior to that, late in the first half there was controversy when Rory Donnelly had a goal disallowed with referee Raymond Crangle ruling that the forward had pushed Coates before putting the ball in the net.
It was a questionable decision.
What is certain is that this season has delivered one of the best title races in Irish League history.
"I'm happy to be in the position that we can take charge of our own game and play our football, leave nothing behind and see where that takes us," says Baxter, who has done a brilliant job in rejuvenating his squad after last season's crushing disappointment of losing the Gibson Cup to Linfield when they led the table for so long.
"If our best is good enough, I will congratulate my team, and if we lose the game I'll still congratulate my team because I really think from start to finish they have been superb.
"I'm not sure we have been given the credit we deserve this season for what we have accomplished. We were a minute away from going through in Europe, we won the County Antrim Shield and went to the semi-finals of the IRN BRU Cup and the League Cup.
"I'm exceptionally proud of what we are doing right now and I know how much this team have given to us. Hopefully next weekend we can celebrate what would be a great title win."
Last season it was a Crusaders defeat at Ballymena that undermined their hopes. Is it fate that they could win this term's Irish League crown at the Showgrounds? Baxter labels Ballymena boss Jeffrey, a winner of nine titles when in charge of Linfield, a 'master craftsman who won't make it easy for us'.
Cliftonville's big day comes on May 5, when they face Coleraine in the Irish Cup final, but boss Gray could rightly be pleased with his side's commitment to the task at Seaview.
Neeson was exceptional, Gormley's goal astonishing and Levi Ives outstanding.
"I thought our performance was good," said Gray, who felt the decision to disallow Donnelly's goal was soft.
"And what a goal from Joe. Also, Brian Neeson was brilliant, he kept us in it. He has been great for us all season, he is a very good shot stopper. There are parts of his game he needs to work on but the experience he has gained this season will only make him better.
"The ground was tense with what was at stake for Crusaders. The only place where it wasn't tense was my dug-out! It's brilliant that the title race is going to the last day. I see both teams winning their final games."
CRUSADERS: Jensen, Burns, Coates, Beverland, Ward, Lowry, Snoddy, Carvill, Heatley, Whyte, Owens. Subs: Forsythe for Carville (75), Cushley for Snoddy (84). Subs not used: O'Neill, McChrystal, Glackin.
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, Ives, Harney, Curran, Bagnall, Cosgrove, Grimes, McDonald, R Donnelly, J Donnelly, Gormley. Subs: Garrett for McDonald (67), A Donnelly for Harney (69), Lavery for Gormley (79). Subs not used: Dunne, Winchester.
Referee: Raymond Crangle.