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Coates hails Crusaders' fighting spirit as race hots up

Crusaders 2-1 Ballymena United

By Alex Mills

Skipper Colin Coates last night led by example to help Crusaders maintain their title surge.

But the Shore Road boys had to rely on all their powers of resistance to fight off a gutsy Ballymena United in a trilling contest at Seaview.

Young Matthew Shevlin threatened to throw a spanner in the Crues title bandwagon by shooting the Sky Blues into a first half lead.

Coates levelled before the break, then Gavin Whyte slotted home his 13th goal of the season to guarantee another three points, keeping the Crues six points adrift of Danske Bank Premiership table toppers Coleraine.

"Sometimes you have to dig out results," said Coates. "Ballymena really put it up to us - they are very attack minded.

"We had to do a bit of defending at the end, but we managed to hang on. It was nice to get on the scoresheet - only my second of the season. It was important we pulled a goal back before the break.

"By our own standards, we haven't kept enough clean sheets this season and we are continually having to dig ourselves out of situations.

"When you go behind in games, your luck will run out at some point. It's something we need to address. At the end of the day, we are delighted to get three points on the board."

The visitors forged in front on 18 minutes - a strike fit to grace any occasion. Johnny McMurray's delicious pass sent Shevlin clear through the middle and he gave it the finish it deserved, lashing an unstoppable shot past a startled Sean O'Neill.

Urged on by an animated Stephen Baxter, the Crues produced the best piece of action on 28 minutes when David Cushley's wonderfully timed pass sent Paul Heatley clear on the right and the striker's shot was pushed to safety by Ross Glendinning.

But the Crues were not to be denied as they were back on terms eight minutes before the interval. Heatley's corner kick landed on the head of Coates and he simply doesn't miss from six yards - however, the goal will give Glendinning nightmares as he totally missed the flight of the cross.

Cahair Friel almost regained the lead for United when he gobbled up a McMurray cross at the near post, but his effort flashed inches past.

Within seconds at the other end, Whyte cut in from the right before his low shot was smothered at the base of the post. The winger then took off on a dazzling solo dash before curling a shot wide.

But the Crues took the lead for the first time right on the hour. Whyte clipped a wonderful pass to Heatley, who was flattened by a clumsy challenge from Kyle Owens and referee Tim Marshall had no hesitation in awarding a penalty kick.

Whyte confidently stepped up to send Glendinning the wrong way from the spot.

Home fans were on their feet claiming a penalty kick 19 minutes from time when Glendinning sent Whyte flying following a cross from Billy Joe Burns, but this time the referee wasn't interested.

The momentum was now with the Crues. Big defender Kyle Owen prevented what looked a certain third goal by flicking the ball off the head of his brother Jordan.

With only two minutes remaining teen Shevlin turned up in the box to pick up a sublime pass from Kevin Braniff, but he held his head in frustration after O'Neill beat away his drive with an outstretched boot.

Belfast Telegraph

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