Paul Heatley and Ben Kennedy were Crusaders’ derby heroes as Cliftonville’s perfect home run melted away like the north Belfast snow at Solitude.
Heatley pounced to blast the visitors ahead in the closing stages of the first half and Kennedy converted just past the hour for Stephen Baxter’s men, who roared back in style from their dour weekend draw with Carrick Rangers to deny Cliftonville a return to top spot.
Still falling within the 12 days of Christmas, the contest retained its claim to a festive moniker and the elements played their part with a light snow having fallen over the day. There was even a pitch inspection thrown in for good measure, too.
There was never any serious question of Solitude’s surface falling foul of the conditions and, with all the derby elements firmly in place, all that remained was for the teams to serve up fare worthy of the occasion.
Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin unsurprisingly stuck with the same XI that started the weekend’s victory over Glenavon, but was able to welcome goalkeeper Declan Dunne and full-back Conor McDermott to a bench boasting the likes of Joe Gormley and Colin Coates — whose legendary status in these ties was earned on the other side of the track.
The Crues, meanwhile, made three changes to the side that was held to a goalless draw by Carrick Rangers last time out — a contest which represented the Shore Road side’s first outing in the aftermath of their latest Covid-enforced postponements.
Josh Robinson, Robbie Weir and skipper Billy Joe Burns all returned as Daniel Larmour and Adam Lecky dropped to the bench, while Jarlath O’Rourke missed out entirely.
The action took a little while to warm up and it was the hosts who made most of the early running; Ryan Curran’s header over the top from Levi Ives’ 16th-minute corner the first opportunity mustered by either side.
Within a minute, Curran and Paul O’Neill seemed to get in each other’s way in their attempts to convert a Jamie McDonagh cross before Cliftonville were dealt a blow when Rory Hale — just recently back following a lengthy hamstring injury — pulled up and was forced into an early withdrawal for the second north Belfast derby in succession.
The Reds almost took the lead in strange circumstances on 34 minutes when O’Neill charged down Burns’ attempted backpass and, with goalkeeper Jonny Tuffey surprisingly reluctant to come and sweep up a ball he was favourite for, O’Neill seized upon possession only for Tuffey to have the last laugh with a save to retain parity.
Having found themselves somewhat under the cosh, Crusaders took the lead with their first significant threat and the goal owed much to the persistence of Kennedy who, having seen one attempt blocked by Jonny Addis, picked himself up to dink over a delivery which Declan Caddell looked set to convert, only to cleverly leave it for Heatley to thunder in from close range.
Both Addis and Luke Turner were off target with headers as Cliftonville sought a response early in the second half but, just when they appeared on the cusp of generating some momentum, the visitors doubled their advantage to seal the deal even with half an hour still to play.
Ross Clarke’s fierce blast from the right was too hot for goalkeeper Luke McNicholas to handle and the ball fell perfectly for Kennedy to nod in from close range.
The Reds huffed and puffed thereafter — retaining possession in their own half, where the Crues were quite content for them to have it — and it wasn’t until the final 10 minutes that they tested Tuffey again.
The former Linfield and Glenavon stopper did well to deny Addis and then made a flying save to turn Ronan Doherty’s powerful follow-up behind.
Substitute Adam Lecky’s outstretched leg prevented Daniel Kearns from reducing the arrears deep into injury-time and, from the subsequent Ives corner, Addis saw his header clip the top of the crossbar as Crusaders comfortably held on for what was a merited derby success.
CLIFTONVILLE: McNicholas, Ives, C Curran (Kearns 58), Hale (McDermott 23), R Curran, O’Neill (Gormley 58), McDonagh, Lowe, Addis, Doherty, Turner. Unused subs: Dunne, G Breen, Donnelly, Coates.
CRUSADERS: Tuffey, Burns, Hegarty, Wilson, Weir, Lowry (Lecky 90, Kennedy, Caddell, Heatley, Robinson, Clarke. Unused subs: O’Neill, Frazer, Owens, Larmour, Patterson, Thompson.
Referee: Lee Tavinder (Dungannon)
Man of match: Ben Kennedy
Match rating: 6/10